Night Letters, by Robert Dessaix


For twenty nights in a hotel room in Venice, a traveller, who is also the author, recently diagnosed with an incurable illness, writes a letter home to a friend. On the 3rd April, the traveller recounts his meeting with novelist Patricia Highsmith, in the Swiss town of Tegna.

‘The clock in the stumpy campanile above me chimed one. Nobody. The square was dead. Then after a few minutes I noticed a woman’s head sticking out around the corner of a wall at one end of the square, staring at me. It vanished for a second and then the woman it belonged to reappeared and ducked into the post office a few metres away. I hoped I hadn’t proved a disappointment. I decided to waylay her at the post-office door.

I must have passed whatever test it was Patricia Highsmith was applying to me because I was quickly bundled into a small Volkswagen Beetle and we lurched off in the direction of her house just outside the village. As we got up speed she began to drive more and more erratically, careering around corners on the wrong side of the road and bouncing across a level crossing without looking for trains. In fact, most of the time she seemed to have her quizzical eye on me. “The locals drive like maniacs, of course, ‘ she said to me, glaring at a small red van puttering up the hill towards us. ‘It’ll be a miracle if I’m not wiped off the road one day before I get home.’ And she chuckled.

Pat high
Patricia Highsmith

It was an oddly suburban sort of house in concrete brick, not at all the sort of house I’d thought Patricia Highsmith would choose to live in. It had nothing of the tasteful charm, for instance, of Tom Ripley’s Belle Ombre about it, although she must have been much wealthier than she’d made Ripley out to be. The again, her novels are often very suburban (in a sense), cluttered with the details of ordinary lives in ordinary settings. And she herself – what was my mother’s phrase? – ‘did not take much trouble with herself’. Long, grey brown hair, a brownish cardigan – the boutiques and salons of Locarno were clearly not her stamping ground. Owlish is the word that comes to mind, perhaps because of the slightly hooded eyes. You never know what an owl has in mind until the very last moment.’

NIGHT LETTERS, by Robert Dessaix

Night Letters

For twenty nights in a hotel room in Venice, a traveller, recently diagnosed with an incurable illness, writes a letter home to a friend. He describes the kaleidoscopic journey he has just made across northern Italy from Switzerland, while reflecting on questions of mortality, seduction, and the search for paradise. Blending fiction with autobiography,  NIGHT LETTERS, by Australian writer Robert Dessiax is a compelling and ultimately uplifting account of a life enriched by a heightened sense of mortality.  More…

Image: Cate Blanchett in CAROL (2015, Todd Haynes), based on the novel THE PRICE OF SALT, by Patricia Highsmith.

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