Updated: Jan 21, 2018
Joan Didion, who is an important figure in the small universe of literary culture became exponentially better known with her two memoirs of grief, one of which, The Year of Magical Thinking, won awards and apparently was a best seller. Having read most of her oeuvre to date, I was not impressed :
I am as near a Joan Didion fanboy as I can get (about anyone)— having read most of her books and had the singular pleasure of a chat with her around the time of the publication of her last novel The Last Thing He Wanted. But for some (I do shy away from stories fact or fiction, about parents losing their children) reasons I have had zero interest in reading her latest offering. I suppose if Ms. Joan were to offer her grocery list for publication, it would be more attractive to me.
Having said that, while it is no surprise to me that The Year of Magical Thinking won a National Book Award (actually, nothing about book awards is surprising), I am puzzled about what about this cultural moment has made this book a best seller. I am not aware that Didion’s acute political –cultural observations in the New York Review of Books (perhaps it’s the venue) have attracted the enthusiastic, near hysterical audience as for her more personal work, Where I was From and the newest book. Is it the fascination with the ineffability of death, grief and suffering that is the focus of Didion’s memoir? Or the harrowing experience of losing both one’s life partner and child? Or would it be a hunger for tramping around the private and personal matters of others? Does the numbing effect of a society working overtime, or in the current argot, 24/7, turning us into efficient consuming units make Didion’s hyper sorrowful meditation the ultimate cathartic antidote?
I suppose I should be able to answer these questions but at the moment I can not. Perhaps I’ll have to get around to reading Joan Didion’s book. But not now.
Reportedly having previously eschewed any interest in a documentary in which she was the main subject, she succumbed to her nephew. Griffin Dunne’s request, the result being Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a title like her first essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), quotes the W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming. Glenn Kenny concludes his take on Dunne’s film noting, “… reminded me of an observation by D.H. Lawrence: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” Ms. Didion’s triumph, as a writer and a human being, has been to take the age for what it is, to pinpoint how she saw it, and to stick it out.”
There are many morsels of delight and wonder in this pastiche of questions and answers and contemporaneous images and clips and of course, the camera on Didion as she speaks and makes inscrutable gesticulations with her hands.One of my favorite clips is New York Review of Books editor Robert Silver being asked if he knew Didion could write a dispatch from El Salvador (which at the time was inflamed by a deadly civil war). To which he replied that he wanted to find out…A small reminder of what a brilliant editor he was …
One more tangential digression, Martin Amis in reviewing Didon’s second collection of essays The White Album (1980) (some of you may remember that is also the title of the Beatles last album) cannot conclude his notice without taking stage center in a piece putatively about someone else) with this pedagogical assertion:*
‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ is, of course, a literary reference itself. As Miss Didion dramatically points out in her Preface: ‘This book is called Slouching towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.’ The whole of ‘The Second Coming’ is indeed printed a few pages back, along with a deflationary extract from the sayings of Miss Peggy Lee (‘I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant’). The title essay duly begins: ‘The centre wasn’t holding.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her with the necessary force that ‘The Second Coming’ was written half a century ago. The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold. Probably all writers are at some point briefly under the impression that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart. The continuity such an impression ignores is a literary continuity. It routinely assimilates and domesticates more pressing burdens than Miss Didion’s particular share of vivid, ephemeral terrors.
Cristina de Stefano’s ( translated by Marina Harss) biography of Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend would not have received Fallaci’s cooperation had she been alive as reviewer James Marcus **points out. When she came to the United States after the Second World War, spending time in Hollywood and as Marcus writes
It exposed her to a wider world and taught her that celebrities were often hollow shells: Potemkin Village personalities. It also seemed to crystallize her peculiar mixture of vulnerability and high-decibel truculence. “She was fragile,” recalled one companion, “but she used aggressiveness as a shield. She attacked first. As a result, Americans were often terrified of her.”
Eventually, she turned her gaze to the wider world, traveling through much of Asia .She ended up in Vietnam, staying until the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, observing presciently,“The Communists are splendid while they fight, and intolerable once they have won.” Marcus points out some delightful career highlights:
While she continued to function as a war correspondent, Fallaci found another way to vent her rage at the abuse of power: the interview. There is a wonderful irony here. Having cut her teeth interrogating the merely famous, she upgraded to the high, the mighty, the Shakespearean movers-and-shakers. They were mostly men, and they were mostly intimidated by this wily, theatrical, fearless woman with a microphone. “To what degree does power fascinate you?” she asked Henry Kissinger. (The answer, predictably and unconvincingly, was not at all.) Talking with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, she responded to a jeering comment about her respectability by ripping off her chador: “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now. There. Done.” (Khomeini fled the room at once.)
But her entire life was a war on the party line, the politically expedient, the prefabricated opinion, and she never stopped fighting, at least not on the page. Blame it on Uncle Bruno, perhaps, who drilled his main journalistic precept into Fallaci’s head as a child: “First of all, don’t bore the reader!” Early and late, she almost never did.
The other great cultural paragon affiliated with the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick, has been brought current with her Collected Essays (ably introduced and assembled by Darryl Pickney ) Even before she became one of the founders of one of the truly respectable and useful literary journals her essay The Decline of Book Reviewing (1959) sparked much-needed self-evaluation by more serious critics. Here is the opening paragraph of that seminal critique,***
The reviewer and critic are still thought of as persons of dangerous acerbity, fickle demons, cruel to youth and blind to new work, bent upon turning the literate public away from freshness and importance out of jealousy, mean conservatism, or whatever. Poor Keats were he living today might suffer a literary death, but it would not be from attack; instead he might choke on what Emerson called a “mush of concession.” In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect — all the great moments of artistic tragedy and misunderstanding — still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a curious state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it “The Communists are splendid while they fight, and intolerable once they have won.”. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have “filled a need,” and is to be “thanked” for something and to be excused for “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.” “A thoroughly mature artist” appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those “messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.”
Hardwick was no-sit-at-home armchair commentator as her piece on the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago exhibited (being a witness to some of the week’s festivities, I found her account to be judicious and insightful) In Dwight Garner’s piece on her craft, he opines:
It’s a mistake to boil a writer down to her best lines. No one is the sum of her entries in Bartlett’s or the Goodreads.com quotation vaults. But a critic who can’t mint an original phrase is rarely worth heeding. To move one’s way through Hardwick’s essays is to bump into brightness on nearly every page. On hypocritical politicians: “Family men, pictured a million times with their first ladies, die in the arms of their second ladies.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley fretting about underground newspapers during the 1968 Democratic convention is “like a dinosaur choking on bubble gum.” The blank and oversexed young women in a Marge Piercy novel are “like a jar of peanut butter waiting for a thumb.”
*Apropos of nothing but amusing of you are enthralled by either Marin Amis or Joan Didion …One wonders if he could write about a woman writer in that tone today?