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Joan Didion obituary | Jeanne Didion


The writing of Joan Didion, who died in 87 years, resembled a mantra, mannered, even “embedded in its own modulations” (it was Martin Amis’s snipe). It was also unique and remarkable. Even the shape of his books was unusual, the sentences spaced across pages as tall and narrow as giant packets of cigarettes.

She had practiced this incantatory style ever since her mother presented her, at the age of five, with a notebook and a suggestion for her to calm her anxious self while writing. His family had long been settled in California, then primarily an agricultural state, a place that mattered to Didion’s story and to his storytelling.

She was born in Sacramento, daughter of Eduene (née Jerrett) and Frank Didion, US Army finance officer, poker player and, after World War II, real estate agent. Joan was an army snot at her father’s stations, and her youthful fantasies exposed in this notebook were catastrophic – death in the wilderness, suicide in the waves.

The only influence imprinted on her work that she ever cited was Ernest Hemingway, as she had typed her prose in order to master the keyboard and its syntax: the exact word placement was the basis of her style as it had been. his. “Grammar is a piano that I play by ear,” she said. Studying English literature at the University of California at Berkeley taught him to audit meaning, dissect language, and triangulate evidence, and altered his original ambition, acting, by writing it as that performance.

Didion won the Prix de Paris de Vogue competition in 1956 and was awarded a job as a copywriter, close to glamor, in New York City, before becoming associate editor for eight years at Condé Nast. She later said that she had been in love with the city’s promise, excited to meet anyone who was in town – models, millionaires, tycoons – but remained a Westerner in exile who was not at home. At New York. With a portable typewriter perched on a chair in her nearly empty apartment, she wrote a novel about the California rivers she missed so much.

Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in 1977. Photography: CG / AP

These rivers are the real trail of his first novel, Run River (1963). John Gregory Dunne, a staff member of Time magazine and also a self-proclaimed foreigner, edited it. They married in 1964 and moved temporarily to Los Angeles, confident that her older brother, producer Dominick Dunne, would be their entry into screenwriting. This scenario did not quite play out and both had to turn to magazine journalism for an income.

Didion categorized some of his essays, with their first-person perspective and fine fictional detail, as “personal,” but in fact they were about the world as viewed by one social and political conservative of the world. latest American generation to identify with adults. . A tiny, edgy and bewildering figure behind large dark glasses, she scoffed at lax language and scorned shapeless thoughts left and right. She didn’t care to negotiate interviews with stars through their press officers.

She believed she could go unnoticed anywhere: among the remnants of Hollywood studios and the creators of the new music industry; in the cities of the arid valleys and the dustiest districts of LA; around the coagulating hippie counterculture in San Francisco. Her descriptions of her crippling social anxiety, her inability to make a phone call to begin a mission, didn’t match other people’s memories of her walking around the room at party nights.

“A tiny, edgy and bewildering figure behind huge dark glasses, Didion mocked lax language and scorned shapeless thoughts left and right.” Photograph: Gary Gershoff / WireImage

Didion’s first journalism book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968, the year she had a crisis, established her reputation as cool and very slowly became a cult: as writer Caitlin Flanagan recalled. , Didion “had fans – not the way writers have fans, but the way musicians and actors have fans – and almost all of them were women.” This coolness was confirmed by his second novel, Play It As It Lays (1970), with his zomboid main wife on the Hollywood perimeter, a fictional so chilling that Didion editor Henry Robbins has it. called to ask if she was okay.

Maybe not, but she was doing. The following year, the couple had their first screenplay, The Panic in Needle Park, and then their 1972 adaptation of Play It As It Lays failed. Didion’s literary identity became clearer than that of her husband, with whom she shared concerns and phrasing, which added an edge to their 1976 joint redesign of A Star Is Born to Barbra Streisand’s specifications.

Didion continued the more personal essays collected in 1979 under the name The White Album, and developed an idea she had had when she was trapped by paratyphoid in a hotel room during a Colombian film festival in A Book of Common Prayer (1977), his first fictional film. engagement with the role and image of the United States in Central and Latin America.

At this point, all the elements were in play that recurred in his facts and his fiction. There was her focus on the Americas – she had visited Europe and Israel, but declined interest in them – and on the influx of Hispanics into the United States, which, as a Californian, she was aware of. very early. Her feature books, El Salvador (1982) – “One morning at the breakfast table I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense,” she wrote of the media coverage American War of Salvador, and immediately went there to inspect the body dumps – and Miami (1987), were descriptions of equal and opposing cultural misunderstandings.

She felt that the American political process had become autonomous, exclusive of the electorate and, from Ronald Reagan’s presidency, of reality itself – as evidenced by the essays collected in After Henry (1992) and Political Fictions (2001) and its occasional pieces from the 21st century. This perception also fueled his best and most successful novel Democracy (1984), which could be read as a romance, or – as was also the case with his 1996 novel The Last Thing He Wanted – as an exploration of private links with public power. . Politics couldn’t have been made more personal.

The biggest constant in Didion’s work, however, was the intersection of public and private mood with location – feverish Hawaii in the tropical rain, choppy Los Angeles as the Santa Ana winds blew. Readers got to know the homes she had passed through – the locals on Malibu Beach on the edge of the fire season burning zone, the “house in a part of Hollywood that was once expensive and was now described as a “senseless murderous neighborhood,” “the Manhattan apartment with the Cy twombly works of art, as well as a travel itinerary of major hotels.

Joan Didion with John Gregory Dunne and their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in Malibu, California, 1976.
Joan Didion with John Gregory Dunne and their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in Malibu, California, 1976. Photograph: John Bryson / Getty Images

They became even more familiar with ancient California than she never ceased to remember until her memoir Where I Was From (2003), in which she finally admitted that her apprehension of her native state had been a misunderstanding, an “enchantment under which I have lived my life.” This was not where she had thought it would, and never had been, since the settler wagons and their encounters with the snakes doorbells.

At that moment, she seemed to feel that reality was dispelling all the enchantments in her life. Didion and Dunne’s lives had been primarily funded by their remunerative screen-paying rewrites, although their joint “implied promise of quality” was delivered in the adaptation of Dunne’s novel True Confessions (1981), and somewhat less in an extended project, Up Close and Personal, shot in 1996 as a vehicle for Robert Redford.

They supported each other in public for their career compromises, but there had been fights and marriage breakdowns. They once vacationed at the Royal Hawaian “instead of filing for divorce,” and Dunne went to live alone in Vegas for a while when it was her turn to fall apart. But he had survived, stronger than a mutual defense pact. Dunne died of a heart attack at their table in Manhattan in 2003, a sudden outing that Didion described in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), his book of grief and disbelief. It was admired by critics for its honesty and clarity, and adapted for the stage.

Didion delayed Dunne’s funeral until their daughter Quintana recovered from the pneumonia and septic shock that had put her in intensive care in hospital. But her recovery was brief, and Quintana passed away just before the book was published. Didion and Dunne adopted the baby on the day she was born in 1966 and named her after a Mexican state. She became a familiar player in their oft-cited plays, described as a reckless user of hotel room service when accompanying her mother on book tours.

In Blue Nights (2011), Didion suggested a whole different story of Quintana as a Hollywood kid who feared abandonment, was suicidal, diagnosed with manic depression and as an adult had difficult encounters with his biological family. . Yet the real subject of Blue Nights was Didion, alone and far from California; there could be no turning back to places so changed. His latest works, South and West (2017) and Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021) brought together his “field notes” and his early writings.

Joan Didion, novelist and essayist, born December 5, 1934; passed away on December 23, 2021