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Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

Time for another couple of mini reviews from me – in this instance focusing on books by two of my favourite writers, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton. (It’s the turn of the Americans today.)

The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

In many ways, this reads like a companion piece to (or a continuation of) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of Didion’s essays published in 1968. Here we have another volume of non-fiction pieces exploring various events and reflections in the author’s life during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, all expressed in Didion’s effortlessly cool and erudite style. Like the essays in Slouching, most of these pieces had previously appeared in journals/magazines before being collected together in one volume.

As I’ve already written at length about Didion’s non-fiction in my review of Slouching, I’m not planning to go into a lot of detail about the twenty essays in The White Album; instead my aim is to give you a brief flavour of the book, mainly by way of a couple of quotes that I noted while I was reading the collection.

The essays included here cover a fairly diverse range of topics from Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s former home in California to a recording session with The Doors. Running through many of these snapshots is a sense of social fragmentation and disintegration, a deep-rooted feeling of unease that seems to have characterised Didion’s life, reflecting both her own state of mind and her view of the broader cultural environment in California at the time. In the following passage – taken from the opening piece, The White Album – Didion is reflecting on the mood in LA in the summer of 1969, just before the brutal murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.

I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumours. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. (pp. 41-42)

While Didion is always clear-eyes and insightful, in some respects she is at her best and most affecting when her reflections touch on the personal, the events and circumstances which have had a profound impact on her own life and ability to function. She writes openly about her relationship with migraine, a debilitating condition she has learned to accept and cope with in spite of its intensity and frequency. There is also the time when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a moment that pulls into focus her own vulnerability and sense of mortality.

In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist’s office in Beverley Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. “Lead a simple life,” the neurologist advised. “Not that it makes any difference we know about.” In other words it was another story without a narrative. (p. 47)

Through these highly compelling essays, Didion seems to be saying that there is little use in us trying to look for too much reason or narrative in our lives as reality simply doesn’t operate that way – sometimes we just have to accept the randomness of events or developments however unsettling that may be.

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Described by some as a companion piece to Ethan Frome (reviewed here by Max of Pechorin’s Journal), Edith Wharton’s Summer is a powerful novel set in North Dormer, a small, insular village in the New England region of America. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Ethan, I did like it a lot.

The story focuses on Charity Royall, an impulsive and independently-minded young woman who lives with her guardian and widower, the dour and surly Lawyer Royall. As a young child, Charity was rescued from a bleak life with a group of outcasts from the nearby Mountain, a structure whose ominous presence looms large over North Dormer and Charity’s existence there. Charity feels little affection or gratitude towards Lawyer Royall for his earlier actions; if anything, she resents being constantly reminded of the need to be grateful to her guardian for the lifestyle he has provided, away from the feral nature of the Mountain community. Even her name is a reflection of her questionable status in society, a signal of her reliance on the benevolence of other, more ‘rightful’ citizens in the village.

Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she ought to consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer. She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilisation. Everyone in the place had told her so ever since she had been brought there as a child. (p. 5)

Thankfully, Charity has already managed to thwart a sexual advance and proposal of marriage from Lawyer Royall, thereby asserting herself as a strong presence in the red house, the home they share in North Dormer.

Charity longs to escape from the boredom and constraints of her drab life in the watchful village, her only respite being a part-time job in the deathly quiet memorial library where she hopes to earn enough money to strike out on her own. So, when the handsome and kindly architect, Lucius Harney comes to town to make a study of the local buildings, young Charity’s passions and restless nature are promptly aroused.

What follows is a sequence of encounters in which Charity wrestles with her feelings for Lucius, an educated man who belongs to a completely different social class from her own. There is a sense of blossoming and awakening in Charity as her relationship with Lucius develops and deepens with each additional meeting, particularly once it is agreed that she will act as his guide.

In addition to the sense of emotional growth described above, the novel also touches on themes of identity, belonging, society’s expectations of women, and the difficulties of bridging a class divide – especially given the relevant period and setting. While I don’t want to say too much about the plot, there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s narrative arc as the story reaches its poignant conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a few glimmers of hope towards the end, particularly once Lawyer Royall is revealed as being somewhat more sympathetic and compassionate than might appear at first sight.

The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages, fragments that act as reflections of Charity’s fondness for the open landscape and natural world. I’ll finish up with one of these, but there are many more to be found in the book itself.

The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. (p. 40)

The White Album is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Summer by Oxford World’s Classics; my thanks to the publisher for the copy of Summer.

Ali and Simon have also reviewed Summer – just follow the links if you’d like to read their reviews.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Long-standing readers of this blog may recall my admiration for Joan Didion’s work, both her fiction and her non-fiction pieces. I’ve already written about three of this writer’s books: her debut, Run River; her seminal novel, Play It As It Lays; and, probably my favourite so far, her remarkable memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem brings together twenty of Didion’s essays, mostly articles that were originally written for magazines between 1965 and 1968. It’s a perceptive, erudite collection, piercing in its ability to capture a certain time and cultural mood, reflective in its observations on the social context of the day. There are some standout pieces here, many of which would stand up to a second or third reading – I hope to give you a flavour of them in this review. (This is my contribution to Simon and Karen’s 1968 Club which is running throughout the week.)

The book comprises three sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land; Personals; and Seven Places of the Mind. One element that runs through several of the pieces, irrespective of their central theme, is a palpable sense of place – nicely illustrated by this passage from the opening paragraph of the first essay in the collection, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.

The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. (p. 3)

Some Dreamers is an account of love and death in the golden land, the story of a marriage that has broken down, a woman who was tried for murder and judged for perhaps wanting too much from life. It’s a haunting piece, underscored with a sense of the dissolution of the American Dream.

Didion is particularly good on the eerie nature of Las Vegas, a place where the notion of time, at least in the traditional sense, does not seem to exist.

Almost everyone notes that there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future […]; neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-food sign which blinks “STARDUST” or “CAESAR’S PALACE.” Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with “real” life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train. (pp. 80-81)

In Marrying Absurd, she writes about the commercialisation of the marriage business in Vegas, the nineteen wedding chapels that compete with one another, each offering bigger, better, faster, more ‘genuine’ services than the next – the implication being that the addition of candlelight or a free phonograph record of the ceremony will somehow make the wedding feel more authentic, more sincere.

Elsewhere in this collection, Didion reveals her fondness for Hawaii, a place that moves and touches and saddens her like no other, stimulating her senses in the process. In many respects, she finds it a troubling island, one where the legacy of war runs far and deep.

War is in the very fabric of Hawaii’s life, ineradicably fixed in both its emotions and its economy, dominating not only its memory but its vision of the future. (p. 196) 

Other pieces in the collection focus on particular people, various cultural figures from the sixties: iconic individuals such as John Wayne, whom Didion visits on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder; Joan Baez and her ability to engage with a generation (‘She was the right girl at the right time’); and Howard Hughes, a man renowned for his idiosyncratic behaviour. At the time, there were endless stories about Hughes, passed around and traded ‘like baseball cards’.

By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.” (p. 71)

As far as Didion sees it, the fact that we have made a folk hero of this man – someone who actually represents the complete opposite of our traditional heroes – tells us something interesting about ourselves. She argues that the real point of money and power in America is not the obvious one (the things that money can buy and the buzz to be gained from flexing one’s muscles); rather it is the ability to facilitate personal freedom, mobility and privacy that is important. This is the real deal.

A couple of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on the personal, areas that reveal something enlightening about Didion herself. A compulsive notetaker from the age of five, Didion states that it was never her intention to make notes as a way of maintaining a factual record of what she had been doing or thinking at certain periods in her life. Instead, she views the keeping of a notebook more as a way of capturing her feelings, a reminder of how things felt to her at the time. Either way, she views the keepers of private notebooks as somewhat troubled individuals, ‘lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’

Other personal essays in the collection cover Didion’s reflections on morality, self-respect and going home to her family in the Central Valley of California. In Notes from a Native Daughter, she writes vividly about what it is like to come from Sacramento, one of the somewhat insular valley towns in the heart of the state. She describes a town that had grown up on the farming industry only to discover (much to its shock) that the land could be put to more profitable use – certainly as far as the wider world of the 1950s was concerned. In this elegiac piece, Didion mourns the passing of several things: the passage of time; the various changes to the town over the years; the loss of connections with the old Sacramento; the loss of people with the knowledge of how things used to be.

I mentioned earlier the strong sense of place that runs through many of the pieces in this collection. Before I finish, I’d like to highlight another couple of common themes, the first of which revolves around some form of social fragmentation or disintegration. It’s there in several of the essays I’ve discussed so far; and it’s also present in the titular piece, an account of the time Didion spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where she hung out with the street kids, the movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. This was a time when she observed first-hand the atomization of a society.

It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves. (p. 84)

In this piece, Didion offers the view that at some point from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, we had failed to take care of these children, failed in our duty as guardians and protectors.

‘We had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling’. (p. 123)

As a consequence, the children of Haight-Ashbury seemed less in rebellion against the society than uninformed about it.

The final theme I’d like to highlight is a feeling of anxiety or unease, a quality that underscores many of these pieces. Once again, this is apparent in some of the essays I’ve already covered. It’s even there in a brief passage on the Los Angeles weather, the hot, dry Santa Ana wind, a foehn wind with the potential to create both physical and mental turmoil in the city. I’ll leave you with a final quote which is taken from Los Angeles Notebook, one that seems to capture something of this palpable sense of angst.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. (p. 221)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; personal copy.