Edith’s Dairy by Patricia Highsmith, re-issued by Virago

May 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

 

One of the novelist’s great difficulties is to tell a story that is worth telling. Such a story contains interesting characters in interesting situations. A great advantage of writing a “genre” novel is that the novelist, if she fulfils certain expectations, may write a satisfactory novel. In a romance novel it might be enough to write about a single woman in the market for romance and have some sort of romance or apparent romance happen.  In a crime novel, a crime, often a murder, should take place, and the police should discover the who, the when, and the why. Writing a genre novel is not easy but the agreement between the writer and reader is clear enough.

Perhaps, given Miss Highsmith’s association with crime novels, we expect a murder or something criminal to happen in Edith’s Diary. But even if we were poised for a straight novel, most of us, I think, would come away somewhat disappointed.

Edith’s Diary does not contain a satisfying story. There are three main characters Edith, her husband Brett and their son Cliffie. Their son is a difficult child. We never get to grips with what ails Cliffie. Neither do we get to know Brett very well. And even Edith is not clear to us.  At the start of the novel, the family moves to a countryish place in Pennsylvania. Before long the family is joined by Brett’s bachelor (semi-sick) uncle.  From the start it is abundantly clear that the uncle will make a nuisance of himself. No one seems to like him. And he is not a likeable man.  We, readers, however guess that he will enrich the plot.

We anticipate that the uncle will prove intolerable and Edith will react with disastrous consequences . . . We feel the same about Cliffie who does one silly/misconceived thing after another.  And Brett too, in a quieter way, is very provocative. There are many storms gathering on the horizon.

Long before the book opens, Edith has had the diary but has made few entries in it. There are few enough diary entries in the first half of the novel. The diary entries are usually, to some degree, fictional, particularly references to Cliffie. She gives a flattering account of him.  Are the diary entries a plot device that has not been properly, or even regularly, incorporated into the narrative?

Edith’s very nice Aunt Melanie is a regular visitor over the period of the novel. She disapproves of Cliffie and Brett. We expect her to do something to rouse Edith to battle. For all that Edith is supposed to have liberal, provocative opinions, she is a very passive character (unbelievably so) when it comes to dealing with problems in her own life. (The modern reader has lost patience with passive characters.) Brett loses interest in Cliffie and exits the would-be battleground. And the reader is wondering if the storm clouds on the horizon are ever going to produce any rain.

The diary entries in the second half of the novel become more disconnected from reality. Edith fabricates a life for Cliffie: he is successful and is married with children. All the things he is not.

The playing out of this novel reminds me of carousal in a fairground. We watch the carousal go round. We see the golden horse, then the black horse, then the white horse and again the golden horse. The characters in these books come round like horses on carousal. There‘s the nice aunt Melanie, there’s uncle George being a pest, there’s Cliffie getting into trouble, and there’s Edith writing something in her diary. But does any of it really matter? The characters do not fuse together to create dramatic incidents that would give this novel a plot. Yet from the start dramatic events are foreshadowed, or we think they are, but ultimately everything peters out.

Towards the end of the book, Edith succumbs to madness. Her “madness” seems to be brought on very quickly, almost as if Miss Highsmith wants to wrap things up quickly.The end of the novel is dramatic. Miss Highsmith brings the novel to an end in one of the most time-honoured, if unsatisfactory, ways.

Virago chose to re-issue this novel, and has gone to the trouble of providing a foreword, promoting the novel. And, no doubt, many of us reading the foreword feel intellectually unequal to it. To think that we, in our ignorance, should have dismissed the novel!  Later when we regain confidence, feel less intellectually inferior, we listen again to that internal hum of dissatisfaction that no forewords could silence

Surely there are novels that deserve to be re-issued more than Edith’s Diary does, or new novels that deserve a first publication?  Is the decision to re-issue Edith’s Diary simply a commercial one, a hope that money can be made from old rope?

 

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