I’ve been reading Joan Didion, or to be more accurate, rereading Joan Didion these last few nights, the book being her collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem which is one of my all-time favorite collections of essays by an American writer, and I thought I might post an excerpt from one of her pieces but I’ll be damned if I could pick one excerpt because I just keep wanting to post the whole book. It is better than I remember and I remember it quite fondly, having read it now for the fourth time over these long decades since I first stumbled upon Play It As It Lays back in the early 1970s. One of the profs in the MFA program had it in a course he called First Novels but the books were not first novels (Ismael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Tom McGuane’s 92 In The Shade as other examples of novels on the reading list that were not first novels), since she wrote Run, River before that, but I didn’t care because I loved that novel and enjoyed reading it again with the anticipation of discussing it in class with the other fiction writers in the program. Run, River, though, was suspected of being out-of-print then. A few years later I discovered it was still in hardcover when I had my bookstore and ordered 5 copies, one of which I kept, the others sold for list price, stupid me, for the two people that bought them immediately resold them for three times that. But I was young, and had some non-capitalist sense of ethics that would not allow me to mark up a book beyond the list price.
Anyway, to get back to the essays, I remember giving my friend Maureen a copy of the book, as I gave other people copies of that book, as recommended must reading along with Lillian Hellman’s autobiographical writing, Montaigne’s Essays and early Don DeLillo among others. I mean books and music (which deserves its own rambling post) were so much a part of our lives back then. Still are, of course, to some of us, but it seems I don’t have the same sort of people around me, and I mean in my physical environment not as fellow bloggers, anymore. How I miss those days of passing books on to people who would actually read them and discuss them with me over coffee or wine or in some bar drinking bourbon back then and listening to Sinatra singing My Way on the jukebox. And Joan Didion, later Annie Dilliard, and even my obsession with the Punic Wars or the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms that occupied my mind. And having friends pass books on to me which is how I discovered Leonard Michaels and Paul Blackburn among others or having Jimmy Powell insist I couldn’t call myself literate until I read E.M. Forster, which I did, of course, and afterwards had to agree with him. That old give and take of literature and music. How I miss that joy of placing a book in someone’s appreciative hands or playing an album for someone or having it reciprocated to me.
But back to Joan Didion. As I read her again, I just want to read whole sections out loud to someone, to delight in her beautifully crafted prose and to watch someone else’s eyes light up as they hear it. But where to begin? It is all so wonderful.
From Los Angeles Notebook:
“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.
I was told when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called “earthquake weather.” My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake.”
Or from John Wayne: A Love Song:
“In the summer of 1943 I was eight, and my father and mother and small brother and I were at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs. A hot wind blew through the summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the dust in Kansas would be in Colorado, would have drifted over the tar-paper barracks and the temporary strip and stopped only when it hit Pikes Peak. There was not much to do, a summer like that: there was the day they brought in the first B-29, an event to remember but scarely a vacation program. There was an Officers’ Club, but no swimming pool; all the Officers’ Club had of interest was artificial blue rain behind the bar. The rain interested me a good deal, but I could not spend the summer watching it, and so we went, my brother and I, to the movies.
“We went three or four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.” As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.”
And from On Keeping A Notebook:
“So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?
“In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry; instead I tell what some would call lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”
With all writing that we cherish, it isn’t always because it speaks to us about things we know or feel because sometimes it just astonishes us with its vitality, like reading Celine for the first time or Gogol. You just aren’t the same person afterwards. And having those books around, being able to pick them up in the evening or a Sunday afternoon, and fondle them like an old friend, a lover, a member of the family, the joy one feels rereading sections, it can almost make one swoon, if swooning were still possible, So when I read once again someone like Joan Didion, I remember why I wanted to write in the first place because reading gave me so much pleasure that I couldn’t resist wanting to be a part of that ocean of emotion, too. And sharing it with those who feel the same way. Like I have always done. Like I am doing now. Like I will always continue to do.