Remembering Joan Didion: “Her ability to function outside of herself was unprecedented” | Books

There is this famous photo of Joan Didion, taken in Malibu in 1976, in which she leans on a terrace overlooking the beach, cigarette in hand, glass of scotch on her elbow, and looks at her family – John Dunne, her husband, and their 10-year-old daughter, Quintana – through lowered and sideways eyes. Like other iconic Didion photos from the time, she’s out of the group, to the side and in this case, not looking at the camera but her family as they gaze at the camera. This is the pose Didion perfected, in life and in art, and when news of his death at the age of 87 broke on Thursday, it was a shock to see another frame from that footage do. line surface. In it, Didion, staring forward, smiles broadly at the camera in the conventional style – a rare glimpse behind the character.

Didion’s paradox was not uncommon among writers, whose confidence often grew out of a million anguish. But her ability to operate outside of herself – to measure the gap between inside and outside and slyly mocking any effort to hide it – was unprecedented. She was, notoriously and by her own testimony, shy, brittle, puny, migraine-prone, scared of the phone, and as she writes in the preface to her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “bad at interviewing people. people, ”apparent deficits which, in Didion’s hands, were of course precisely what allowed him to enter places his rivals – especially the tough men of journalism of the 1960s – couldn’t reach.

She was also generous and kind to young writers. I interviewed her twice in her sleek, sprawling apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the doormen gallantly called her “Mrs. Dunne.” She wasn’t difficult to interview, but she came out of silences that could irritate. The second time we met, I brought her some cookies and, handing them to the door, she looked at the package as if I had passed her a rattlesnake. It is an effect of the chain reading of Didion that the little moments become overloaded with fallacious meaning and remembering this scene, it seems to me that when she looked up at me, it was with an expression that indicated, simultaneously, that she was touched by the gesture and that if we were honest, we could also recognize it as awkwardness amounting to insanity.

Interpretations of what her elegiac voice meant to the country that made her are best left to Americans. I just liked his sentences. She’s one of the few prose writers that I remember whole sections by heart and they play like old songs. His line on Joan Baez, written in 1966, remains unfounded as a description of what fame does to people. (Baez, she wrote, after weeks of observing him, “was a personality before she was fully a person, and, like anyone to whom this happens, she is in a sense the unfortunate victim of what others saw in her. “) I remember the” artificial blue rain “in John Wayne’s opening paragraph: a love affair as if I myself had been to the Officers’ Club in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1943. The line “the center did not hold” strikes one as squarely in the chest as at the first reading.

And then there’s the Year of Magical Thinking, a writing about the double blow of her husband’s death in 2003, followed 16 months later by the death of their daughter. She shouldn’t have been able to write about it. The fact that she could, and so soon, still strikes me as scandalous, and the lesson of this book and its writing in general seems clear; that there was nothing that Didion and by extension us, his readers, could not absorb, fix, stake out the most distant limits. The sense of security through horror that comes with this skill is a definition of what writing is for. He provided comfort amounting to love.

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