Strangers on a Train

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Nine Modern Literary Letter Collections for the Curious Reader

The emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer will soon be forgotten, while other correspondence is here to stay. Let’s go back to the days where writing letters was more about cultivating confidants and friendships, and less obviously a media stunt. Reading someone’s letters give us a glimpse into their private life — that’s why we love them. If you ever wondered what some of your favorite modern writers were composing when they weren’t polishing drafts of books that would go on to change the world, check out this list.

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
Truman Capote was notoriously meticulous in his professional work, but his letters were quite the opposite. Sometimes scribbled in a mad five minutes, or written without a second thought to the whiplash of emotion within their lines, Capote wrote as though he were always leaning to whisper in your ear. His correspondence could rarely be classified as “cold,” even when making a professional request, such as writing to Elizabeth Ames — then in charge at Yaddo — on behalf of a young writer named Patricia Highsmith, whose work Capote thought held real talent (Highsmith was later accepted to Yaddo, where she wrote part of her first novel, Strangers on a Train).

In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire and the youngest of the six Mitford sisters, invites British author and OBE recipient Patrick Leigh Fermor to her royal home, a visit that sparks a half-century of friendship and scintillating correspondence. When they began to write each other in the early 1950s, Fermor had secured his reputation as a respected author, but Mitford admittedly could never bring herself to read his books, claiming to not be much of a reader. But Mitford undersells herself: their exchange is sophisticated, witty, and often full of energy and a lyrical beauty while indirectly documenting cultural and societal milestones. This collection features an impressive list of cameo “appearances,” including Evelyn Waugh, Fred Astaire, and John F. Kennedy.

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
Zora Neale Hurston became a prominent literary figure after the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Hurston wrote much more than she published during her lifetime, and at her passing, her estate contained numerous story manuscripts, essays, plays, and more. This collection of approximately 600 letters, written to various individuals including fellow writers Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, is a beautiful reflection upon Hurston’s life, the challenges she faced, and the doors she opened for others.

Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor
For anyone who is even a minor fan of Flannery O’Connor, this collection is a great glimpse into the author’s very human side. Humorous, angry, arrogant, curious: the many different facets of Flannery O’Connor are revealed here. What readers may find most intriguing are some of the (300) letters exchanged between “Betty” Hester and O’Connor, whose intellectual exchanges provided the foundations of a powerful epistolary friendship for the recluse Hester, and whose letters were sealed for 20 years before they could be released in part here.

Thinking of Home: William Faulkner’s Letters to his Mother and Father
William Faulkner’s infamous complexity shifts to a softer side in his correspondence with his parents. These letters show a different personality that only a few people rarely observed. In the letters compiled during the short window of 1918 to 1925, we are given a glimpse of Faulkner’s life until he returned home to study at the University of Mississippi, including details from his travels to New Haven, New York, Paris, and New Orleans. During his stint with the Canadian flyers of the Royal Air Force, Faulkner mused about his training and war itself. His sense of longing for his home and family in Oxford, Miss., gives us the biggest glimpses into the heart of who Faulkner was as a young man forming the writer he would become.

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
For lovers of music and literature, this collection belongs on the shelf. When American literary and jazz critic Albert Murray and author Ralph Ellison began their correspondence in 1950, Ellis was in New York City and Murray was in Alabama. Their letters are surprisingly funny, full of anecdotes and opinions on pretty much everything: from their families to contemporary writers to musical greats to the advancements of African Americans over the decades. Their admiration for each other is made clear, as Ellison writes: “You’re the only one I really write to and, other than a wild, Russian chick of a girl whose now in the states and who wouldn’t write home for eating change, my only friend.” The writers’ friendship lasted until Ellison’s death in 1994, but this curated set of letters are pulled from 1950 to 60.

Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975
In this collection, we climb into two of the 20th century’s greatest minds — minds that were in proximity to some of the most important people and events of the times. Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher and political scientist shared an enviable friendship that spanned continents with Mary McCarthy, an American novelist and literary critic. Both women were members of the Partisan Review and spent much time discussing Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. The collection is notably unbalanced, with twice as many letters written by Arendt. Their letters contained not only gossip and relationship details (many concerning McCarthy’s four marriages) but also lively discussions of literature, the reach of fascism, and individual morality and common sense. Their friendship wasn’t without its snags, such as when McCarthy admitted her sympathy for Adolf Hitler — he seemed, she argued, to want the people of occupied France to like him –which offended Arendt, a German-born Jew, who had barely escaped Nazi clutches.

Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963
One of the most notable names in all of literature not only for her work but her death, these letters give a glimpse into a troubled, brilliant mind. What is striking about this collection is that the letters span 13 years of correspondence between Sylvia Plath and her mother. In these pages, readers will learn more about Plath’s college years; her relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the waxing and waning of her marriage to a man she considered her male counterpart; and the births of her children. There is an element of falsehood to the letters, a front Plath put forth to shield her mother from the depth of her personal struggles. The letters, released by her mother, could be seen as an attempt to rewrite the framework of Plath’s life as her mother would have us see it.

Letters From Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond
I recommend reading The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, but for those who want to dig deeper and immerse themselves in the mid-century Black radical experience, this collection is a gem. Hughes, a talented poet and one of the most important modern contributors to American literature, rose through his writing to become one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. This collection spans 35 years, ending just before Hughes’s death in 1967, and weighs in at a whopping 440 pages. The correspondence between Hughes and his four best friends — Matt and Evelyn Crawford, and William and Louise Patterson — encapsulates what it’s like to grow up Black, leftist, resilient, and focused. It’s a blend of politics and art which may inspire others in our current political climate.

The Filmable Miss Highsmith

1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!”
After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 — publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash — and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later:


One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty — should she buy a doll or something else? — and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light…It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt.

The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest — in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.”

Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.”

This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!”

2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible
Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices — the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy.

With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago — all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country.

Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional — and tepid — ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.”

Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other — Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting…when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.”

What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley.

3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce
Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.”

For all her documented flaws — there have been two scrupulous biographies — Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt:
Little Crimes for Little Tots.
Things around the house — which small children can do, such as:
1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible.
4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge.
5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.
This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise — the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of “Little Crimes for Little Tots” attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.

To Be Eaten in Case of Emergency: Inspiration and Comfort for Writers

When fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen asked if I had any visuals that helped me to better understand my novel-in-progress — a timeline, for example, or an Excel spreadsheet — I didn’t have much to offer.  Her request made me think, though, about the other visuals we writers surround ourselves with, however silly or inessential: for inspiration or company, as talismans or reminders. I currently have two favorites. The first is a note from my husband that reads, “To Be Eaten In Case of Emergency!”, which last spring he attached to a chocolate bar and stowed away in the luggage I took to a writers’ retreat. The chocolate bar is long gone (alas), but the note by itself makes me laugh, offering comfort in my lonely little office. Someday, when things get really dire around here, I might just rip the note off the wall and stick it into my mouth.

The second is a photograph by Klaus Pichler, called “Middle Class Utopia 21.” I find the image ominous and strange and beautiful, as I hope my novel-in-progress, Woman No. 17, is — or will be.  There’s also a lot of photography in my book, and I find it useful to stare at this picture and think about staging, perspective, color, and artistic intention.

I asked a few writers to share what visuals they kept near them while working. Perhaps what they keep near them as they make sentences will inspire you to get writing, too.

1. Christian Kiefer, author of The Infinite Tides and, forthcoming, The Animals:

As a novelist, I tend toward strict realism. Nonetheless, for five years I’ve been working on a long novel in the spirit of [Jorge Luis] Borges and [Italo] Calvino, a book detached from strict realism. I’ve taped Kayama Matazo’s “Winter” to the wall in my workspace to remind myself of the world I’m trying to create: weird, malicious, strangely beautiful, and filled with flapping animal life. That book is at 650 pages in manuscript so far but I’m beginning to see the end.

2. Catie Disabato, author of the forthcoming novel The Ghost Network:

This is a picture of my mom when she was a teen; she’s the second girl from the left, the one looking at the camera. I love it because she looks beautiful but also like she’s the vicious enforcer in a ’60s girl gang. My mom is an artist and has supported my writing since I was a tiny little girl, so looking at this picture reminds me both of the foundation she built and the creative home I grew up in. When I need writing energy, looking at this picture charges my batteries. I have a copy of this image on every single device I own.

3. Susan Straight, author, most recently, of Between Heaven and Here, and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement:

Three things always on my desk are a photo of my three girls when they were little, a piece of fluff with a black seed inside that floated down from the tree my brother planted in the yard, a shell I found near a Sea Island in South Carolina to remind me of my first novel, I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen And Licked Out All the Pots.  Two things for the novel I’m working on now are sea glass I found on a small beach on Prince Edward Island, and a wallet covered with PEI lupines given to me by my best friend, writer Holly Robinson.

4. Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the novel Picking Bones from Ash and the nonfiction book Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye:

A wise friend once said to me that sometimes you simply have to do things scared. I was scared the entire time I wrote Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. No one really likes to hear about a writer’s insecurities, but I had and have had them in spades and they plagued me throughout this project. There’s really only one way out of fear for a writer, and that is to work. And so, I put a note on my computer that simply reads: “Work.” I’d switch on Facebook, from which I had previously taken a long hiatus, and get distracted, and then look down and see my note to myself, and then I’d exit Facebook and then I’d work. And wouldn’t you know — I finished writing the manuscript. And it became a book.

5. Paula Tang, a current MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, at work on her first book, a novel in stories presently titled Little China House:

When you asked if I look at anything interesting on my desk when I write, I didn’t even know how to begin to describe this print that I have by artist Kimiaki Yaegashi. The illustration is beyond strange, and reminds me to push past the familiar in my writing, to always weird my images somehow and aim to surprise and electrify the reader.

6. Rebecca Makkai, author of two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the forthcoming story collection, Music For Wartime:

Okay, this is temporary, obviously, but: I’m at Yaddo now, writing from a little studio on the third floor of West House. Sylvia Plath wrote The Colossus in this room, and Patricia Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train. You start to go a little crazy working 16-hour days alone (making friends with insects, etc.). I drew a face on this orange, a la Wilson from Castaway. And then I decided it looked like Patricia Highsmith. It helps to get work done…You can’t spend too much time playing computer solitaire if Patricia Highsmith is staring at you. Of course, I’ll eventually have to eat her…

7. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You:

This is a painting I made, which hangs over my desk. It’s actually a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Each color represents a different letter of the alphabet, so the colored blotches can be decoded to read as follows:
Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.
I love this quote, and it’s especially fitting as my office is on the second floor, accessed by French doors, and with maple trees right outside the window. But I wanted it to look visually beautiful too, and this is what I came up with. Whenever I look up from my computer, I see the painting and remember what it says, without getting distracted by words when I’m wordsmithing myself.

What do you keep by your desk?  I’d love to hear.

A Year in Reading: Tana French

I’ve been a fan of Patricia Highsmith for a long time, but somehow I’d managed to skip Strangers on a Train. This year I finally got around to it, and unsurprisingly, it’s wonderful. When up-and-coming young architect Guy happens to meet directionless rich boy Charles Bruno on a train, the encounter sets in motion a series of events that will take over both their lives. The terrible pressure Bruno puts on Guy, and the way Guy’s mind twists and disintegrates under that pressure, make the book an incredible study of psychological torture and how fine the membrane is between normality and the underlying darkness.

I love Shakespeare, I’m fascinated by Elizabethan England, and I love small everyday objects from the past, so Shakespeare’s Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor has it all; he does a lovely job of using quirky, often mundane objects as windows into that world. A brass-handled iron fork found in the Rose Theatre leads into an exploration of what a day at the theatre was like in Shakespeare’s time; a rapier and dagger illuminate the urban violence that was widespread; an apprentice’s cap becomes a springboard for insights into social hierarchy and unrest. Anyone who’s interested in Elizabethan England should have this book.

I also loved Lauren Owen’s The Quick, which is a great debut novel set in a darkly tangled version of Victorian London. A lot of the reviews spoiled the surprise twist that comes about 100 pages in, but I got a sneak early read, so I had no idea, and I practically dropped the book when I got to that moment. You think you’re reading an atmospheric coming-of-age story — until, all of a sudden, the ground falls out from under you and you land in a much more intricate and more sinister world. Owen manages to explore familiar territory and give it whole new levels of emotional depth and poignancy.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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