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• 2• HOW TO BEGIN part 2 It is late April, still the cruellest month, in 1965. And it is London, still “swinging”—but not for everyone. London is certainly not swinging for Patricia Highsmith, the attractive, ﬁercely ambitious, and, in Europe at least, seriously regarded forty-four-year- old American “suspense” writer whose alabaster skin and almond eyes have only just begun to show the signs of her drinking and her disappointments. She has driven down to North London—she has some business with the BBC1— from her rural residence in Suffolk, Bridge Cottage in Earl Soham, having passed the winter holidays of 1964–65 in her usual festive spirits. “The holidays here exhaust one, creeping through closed windows like a poisonous gas,” Pat writes from Suffolk, sounding just like a Highsmith char- acter. Never one to greet the New Year with anything like enthusiasm (“Happy New Year . . . I hate the phrase”),2 she complains steadily of the English weather, the English temperament, and the “dreary” English pubs with their “danger- ous dart-games.”3 She is—this has only darkened her mood—deep in the dy- ing stages of an English love affair. The object of Pat’s affections is a vibrantly attractive, classically cultured, solidly married Londoner—we’ll call her Caroline Besterman*—and she is the most profound attachment of Pat’s adult life. Pat’s ﬁrst meeting with Caro- line in London in the summer of 1962 left her love-struck as never before. The honeymoon the two women managed to steal in France that autumn set the seal on their love affair. Pat ﬂew over to Paris from New York to scoop Caro- line shyly off the boat train from London and spend a delerious long week * Caroline Besterman is a pseudonym. 12 the talented miss highsmith with her in a hotel in the Sixth arrondissement, a week Pat described in scorching terms. “She . . . melts into my arms as if she were smelted by Vul- can expressly for that purpose. I can make love happily to her all night long.” 4 Some of this love affair was conducted in public. Pat, whose late-life neigh- bors in Switzerland saw her shudder away from the touch of other people, even to the extent of refusing formal handshakes, felt free enough on the streets of Paris in late 1962 to embrace Caroline Besterman so passionately that her own earring ﬂew off and rolled out of sight down the Boulevard St- Germain.5 “ ‘Can I kiss you in some doorway?,’ ” Pat asked, deferentially. “ ‘Never mind the doorway,’ ” said Caroline.6 When they could bear to leave their bed, the two women dined and drank à la française, paid a visit to Baudelaire’s tomb and Notre Dame, went to the ceremonies for the Prix Goncourt (Pat was a little surprised to see a woman win),7 and met several times with Pat’s French translator, Jean Rosenthal, who gave her clear advice about French publishing houses. Pat, trying to hide her new relationship from Rosenthal and his wife, travelled with Caroline out to a small studio in St. Cloud where they saw a soundless preview of Le Meurtrier, Claude Autant-Lara’s ﬁlm of Pat’s novel The Blunderer. Caroline found the lead actor, Maurice Ronet, “very attractive” and Pat thought the ﬁ lm “very in- tense, quite faithful to the book.”8 Their long week together was a rare combi- nation of business, culture, and pleasure. On her way back to the States, the enraptured Pat made a quick stop in London, where Caroline booked her a room at Oscar Wilde’s last London ho- tel, the Cadogan. Pat paid a secret visit to Caroline’s marital home, kissed her “in several rooms, though not in every one of them!” and celebrated by play- ing songs from the cast album of Pal Joey before taking a taxi to the airport. Pat was followed as far as the gate by Caroline—and accompanied onto the plane by the bottle of Gordon’s gin she kept in the large woven Mexican bag she always carried with her: her bolsa.9 Back in her house in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in November, Pat ﬁnds that all terms are inadequate to her feelings. And that all feelings are inade- quate to her situation: Beauty, perfection, completion—all achieved and seen. Death is the next territory, one step to the left. I don’t want to see any more, to feel or experience any more. . . . Pleasure has already killed me, trans- formed and translated me. . . . I am the drunken bee wandered into your household. You may with courage eject me through the window; or by accident step on me. Be assured, I’ll feel no pain.10 How to Begin: part 2 13 Love, as usual, makes Pat think of death, of murder. And thoughts of death, also as usual, force her into a decision. “But there is no use in making any further effort to live without her. I can- not. And in all my 41 years, I have never said or written this about anyone else before.”11 So, although Pat was correcting the proofs of her much-rewritten novel The Two Faces of January, and had been hoping “to do a short story & make a beginning on paper of the prison novel [The Prisoner, later The Glass Cell]” she’d been imagining since September of 1962, she “cleared [her] compli- cated decks,”12 left her possessions and her rented house in New Hope, where she’d been living since 1960, and, in early 1963, crossed the wine- dark seas and settled in Earl Soham in Suffolk (after moving from Paris to Positano into the house she’d rented the summer before, and thence to Aldeburgh; despite her reference to Emily Dickinson’s “drunken bee,” the “beeline” was never part of Pat Highsmith’s approach to travel) in what had been two country cottages, now “knocked together” as one dwelling: Bridge Cottage. The double structure of Bridge Cottage suits Pat’s psychology just as much as the ambiguities of this love affair with Caroline Besterman, someone else’s wife, suit her temperament. As her feelings for Caroline sink into familiar acrimony (Pat has a fetching habit of falling for women because they are married, then berating them for being attached to their husbands), Pat spends the Suffolk winter of 1964–65 holed up in her “brick-ﬂoored” study; freezing, brooding, and trying hard to understand her new country.13 “England is brilliant at describing its own short- comings, very slow at doing anything about them.”14 She is also making “Notes on Suspense” for a book she is writing for a Boston publisher. “Suspense writers, present and future: Remember you are in good com- pany. Dostoyevsky, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe . . . there are hacks in every kind of literary ﬁeld. . . . Aim at being a genius.”15 She saws wood to warm herself instead of ﬁ ring up her stoves—“I be- come more Scrooge-like with age,” she confesses16 —and she does not take her mother’s practical advice about the excellent insulating properties of old newspapers.17 “I see little of my friend [Caroline Besterman] . . . ,” Pat writes to her col- lege chum in New York, Kingsley Skattebol, in January of 1965. “It is hard to bear when I sit alone in the country 98% of the time.”18 Kingsley is one of Pat’s oldest friends, but she has never been told that Pat and Caroline Besterman are lovers, and she will not learn this interesting fact until after Pat’s death.19 Pat likes to partition her conﬁdences, imagine herself as emotionally neglected 14 the talented miss highsmith (a satisfying habit since childhood), and calculate the percentages of her un- happiness. Actually, Pat is having a much better time in Earl Soham than she lets on. She has made fast friends with her obliging neighbor, the writer Ronald Blythe, who is working on his soon-to-be-acclaimed book about Suffolk, Akenﬁeld, when he ﬁrst meets her. Ronald Blythe invites Pat into his circle of artistic and literary males. Amongst them is James Hamilton-Paterson, future author of Gerontius and Cooking with Fernet-Branca. Hamilton-Paterson once walked out of a room after Pat had erupted in a “brief burst of tears.”20 “I don’t blame him,” wrote Pat, who would certainly have done the same thing herself; “give him my love.”21 Ronald Blythe and Pat see each other regularly; he, “cycling to Earl Soham to have supper with her, or she, coming to see me in her Volkswagen.” They go on day trips together to scout out old churches and unfamiliar pubs, they cook for each other (Pat always “left stuff on her plate, smoked between courses, and didn’t much like food”), and—dedicated writers both—they communi- cate by letter between visits, even though they live only four miles apart. “She was a great ranter,” Ronald Blythe says. And there is certainly “a great deal” of ranting about Caroline Besterman in Pat’s early letters to him, while her conversation was “full of hatred for her mother and wild goings on.” But Pat never ranted at Blythe or even quarrelled with him—perhaps because he never challenged her. “She had beautiful manners,” he thinks, “lovely manners . . . and I got used to her excessive language.”22 But there are sharp drops into strangeness in their friendship. Cycling home from a visit to Pat, Ronald Blythe—then a warden of his village church, now a canon of the cathedral—was once “overcome by a kind of terrible dark- ness. I felt quite ill, as though I’d been in the presence of something awful. . . . And then the next time we saw each other she said that, well, some things about her, I wasn’t to worry about them. She knew [what I’d been feeling]. . . . It never happened again[,] but I had just felt awful in her presence.”23 And on “one or two occasions,” Pat breached the boundaries of their friend- ship with “a faint, physical exploration . . . Her attitude was a kind of trespass on my body, rather like a man examining me. . . . I couldn’t understand it really, [but] it was of no importance whatsoever.”* They were never, says Dr. Blythe, lovers in any conventional sense; this was something else. Some- thing, quite possibly, to do with Pat’s rather clinical interest in the male anat- omy and in what she once identiﬁed as “the thrill of domination.”24 * Ronald Blythe was “surprised” to see himself featured in a BBC documentary about Pa- tricia Highsmith as one of her “lovers.” The idea, he says, is “ridiculous.” How to Begin: part 2 15 Ordinarily, though, Pat is “very close and affectionate and warm and touching. [Our] relationship was almost entirely about writing. . . . We didn’t have anyone near we could talk to about writing [and so] we talked by the hour about our work. . . . I took all my friends to see her.”25 The Suffolk solitude Pat complains of in her letters (and describes self- pityingly in her notebooks, her cahiers) is far more populous and social than she cares to admit. And so, as she chats for hours on end about her work to her fellow writer Ronald Blythe, she is also inserting into her little handbook-in- progress for suspense writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1965), this resonant antipathy: “I cannot think of anything worse or more dangerous than to discuss my work with another writer. It would give me an uncomfortably naked feeling.” Like most writers, what Pat really likes to set down in her notebooks are the things that disturb her, the daily and historic irritations rasping away at her nerves. Because of this, her meticulous self-archiving—at the end of her life, there will be eight thousand pages of notebooks and diaries—can be deceptive. The areas of Pat’s life which do not bother her often go unrecorded. Taking Patricia Highsmith at her “word” will always be a complicated business. Just now, Pat has come to London to stay for a few days with Barbara Ker-Seymer—the impeccably well- connected, once-bohemian portrait pho- tographer and close friend of most of London’s twenties and thirties Café Society—and Ker-Seymer’s lover, the enterprising Barbara Roett. The Barbaras live together in a charming crescent street in Islington with a house on one side of the crescent’s curve and a studio en face. They prefer to have Pat stay with them because, as Barbara Roett says, “if she were only visiting us, it was hell.” When Pat came to London “it was for a binge, [she liked] to chat and tirade around the house until quite late . . . whereas we wanted to go to bed at a reasonable time.”26 It was much easier to give Pat keys of her own. “Quarrelling with Pat,” says Barbara Roett, “would be like quarrelling with a dog with rabies. You could get bitten. But it wasn’t the fear of being bit- ten, it was the fear of knowing better. . . . When I understood her . . . I felt a compassion for her. I thought she was isolated from love in a simple way: Love your parents.”27 On the other side of London, in a leafy part of Kensington, in a lovely old house with steps that curve like a castle staircase from the walk in its front yard to the top of the house’s ﬁnal ﬂoor, lives another friend of Pat Highsmith.
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