It’s a coincidence that I packed some of Joan Didion’s earliest works – her 1963 debut novel Run, River and his collection of essays from 1979 The white album – during a recent vacation in the Himalayas. Didion was recognized as one of the great modern American stars, celebrated above all for his journalistic writings, and his death at the age of 87 just before Christmas sparked a wave of heartfelt and touching obituaries.
I read this flood of tributes in the mountains, the familiar hills marked and carved by the late fall landslides that took away homes, lives and livelihoods. And I immediately returned to Didion’s own work, in search of something more than a surge of love for this flint writer whose greatest gift was his ability to see through long cherished myths.
Didion is renowned for her hard-hitting reporting – “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her 1968 account of counterculture in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, for example, or Salvador, written in 1982 after his direct experience of the civil war in El Salvador, but some of his most fascinating works were introspective. Her self-examination was rigorous and flawless. In a 1976 essay titled “Why I Write” Didion called writing an “aggressive, even hostile act” where the writer says to others: “Listen to me, see my way, change your mind. ‘opinion “.
Maybe that’s why I find it hard to say that I loved his writing. You don’t like the shock of cold water in your face, you don’t like work that takes you out of your preconceptions about a place, a country, the workings of democracy, or that evaporates legends foggy around the 1960s. In short, you don’t like what changes you so irrevocably, but you respect it.
In 1968, she had offered a typically didioneque glimpse of her inner self as a writer. It reads as a warning against the sometimes sentimental attempts of her admirers to canonize her as Saint Joan. “The keepers of private notebooks,” she writes, “are a whole different breed, lonely and resilient rearrangers, anxious malcontents, grieving children seemingly at birth with some hunch of loss.”
Of course, we fetishize writers we admire. In America, Didion became legendary for his laconic prose style, but also for his presence: the alert eyes behind those oversized sunglasses, the easy chic of his black polo collars and velvet jackets, the reserve and the intensity that she brought to her writing and to her life. . Didion’s encounters with the Black Panthers, or The Doors, or with a female member of the murderous cult of Charles Manson, all added to his aura of icy glamor.
Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved easily between the literary worlds of New York and Hollywood – they wrote over a dozen screenplays, including for the 1976 film. A star is born – and in 2017, she was the subject of a Netflix documentary The center will not hold, directed by his nephew Griffin Dunne. Yet his best work has come from his ability to blend in with the background, a passive and supernaturally sharp observer of everything.
She was the first writer to point out to me that America’s brilliant allure that so many Indian children had absorbed – the idyllic vision of burgers and drive-ins imagined by the Archie comics – was as flawed as any of the founding myths of our own nation. . Between 1963, when she published Run, River – the first of five novels – and 2021, when she published Let me tell you what i mean, the last of his non-fiction works, Didion defined four pivotal decades of American life and politics. And when she captured the slow dismantling of certain American dreams, she held out a mirror to me in which I saw, uncomfortably, my own country.
Some readers come to Didion today only for comfort, seeking refuge in his two memories of consecutive losses: The year of magical thinking (2005), written immediately after the sudden death of her husband, and Blue nights (2011), written six years after the death of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. “Mourning turns out to be a place none of us know about until we reach it,” Didion wrote. But she captured that landscape as well, with an electric honesty that offers more worry than solace – “memories are what you don’t want to remember.”
What I took away from Didion’s life and writing was how she tore your vision from the center to the periphery. She rejects, for example, the syrupy vision of the Californian dream, seeing instead “a threatening country”, a “harsher California, haunted by the Mojave.” . . devastated by the hot, dry wind of Santa Ana. . . In a 1992 interview with Charlie Rose, she spoke warily of the desire she saw in people for strong leadership, realizing long before the Trump era that this was the start of “something less democratic” .
There were places she hesitated; Boca Grande, the fictional Central American country she created for her 1977 novel A book of common prayer, is basically a backdrop, unconvincing and incomplete. But she taught me and many others difficult but necessary lessons: the limits of empathy, the fragility of hope, and the importance of witnessing your time clearly, without be influenced by illusion or feeling.
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