Why I Won’t Read Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights”

I was late to the party when it came to reading Joan Didion. For years I had the vague sensation that Didion wasn’t for me. It was one of those unapologetic prejudices people have for certain writers, a prejudice that ended when I picked up a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking. It was evident from the start why Didion was held in such high regard—she was good. And yet, because I’d read Magical Thinking and its meditation on her husband’s death, I decided to pass on Blue Nights, her new memoir about the death of her 39-year-old daughter.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

If it’s a truism that a critic should always review the book in hand, and not the book they wish had been written, then I’ve eagerly crossed the line. My own “magical thinking” involved—not denying the death of writer John Gregory Dunne, as Didion initially did—but wishing that his death and her subsequent grief wasn’t the focus of the book. I found myself skimming over passages about the Beth Isreal ICU or long meditations on grief to find those where Didion recalls her marriage and life in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s.

she took us to venice
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I wanted to hear about two writers living a blessed life of work and play in a California that no longer existed. I wanted it to be LA in 1971 when Didion wore oversized Rachael Zoe-like sunglasses and chain-smoked cigarettes as if they were elixirs. I wanted to go back before all the dying:

 “One summer when we were living in Brentwood Park we fell into a pattern of stopping work at four in the afternoon, and going out to the pool. (John) would stand in the water reading  (he reread Sophie’s Choice several times that summer, trying to see how it worked) while I worked in the garden….Just before five on those summer afternoons we would swim and then go into the library wrapped in towels to watch Tenko, a BBC series, then in syndication, about a number of satisfyingly predictable English women…..At seven or seven thirty we would go out to dinner, many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer. There were always shrimp quesadilla, chicken with black beans.”

You get the idea. There are similar passages capturing life in Malibu and stays in Hawaii. It’s the writer’s life as well as the life of a marriage, rendered simply by a great writer.
“…many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer.”  What a beautiful line. It’s worth reading an entire book just to hit upon such a line.

Yet the book is not a memoir of marriage, but a book about death and loss. And in her confrontation with grief, Didion soldiers under a strict scorched-earth policy, burning down any hint of solace or false comfort in her way.

“Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone,” Didion writes, “The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently (until they are broken) insignificant connections—have all vanished.”

After reading Magical Thinking I can only assume Blue Nights will be even more punishing. A recent review by writer Rachel Cusk in The Guardian confirms this suspicion:

“Didion’s strategy, or rather her instinct – the instinctive response to chaos – is to repeat herself. She struggles to revive the form and style of her earlier book, to make it live again; she repeats anecdotes, and often sentences, word for word; she creates repeating prose patterns whose effect, in the end, is to confer the author’s own numbness on the reader.”

 

The Five Most Neglected Novels of the 20th Century

The first half of the 20th century is littered with so many classic works of fiction that one would need two lifetimes to both read and re-read all the major works of those first five decades, let alone explore the minor and underappreciated novels of the period.

All of the novels in my list were published after the Second World War; it is not a list of unknown or unread books, but of books that haven’t received either the critical praise and/or the lasting readership they deserve.

1. The LeopardGiuseppe Di Lampedusa (1958)

Mount Etna
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Arguably the greatest Italian novel of the post-war period and the only book Di Lampedusa ever wrote. The novel ushers readers into the richly detailed world of a decadent aristocratic family in steep decline in 1860s Sicily. It’s an absolute travesty that more people don’t know this novel. Critic Rachel Donadio writes “it reads more like the last 19th-century novel, a perfect evocation of a lost world.”

2. The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles (1949)

Bowles was one of the lesser-known Beat writers, partly because he was an expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco his entire adult life, but mostly because he was a classical composer by training, as well as an iconoclast by nature. The Sheltering Sky is the one of the most horrifying accounts of American innocence abroad. The book follows the North African travels of three Americans—a husband and wife and their male friend—as they move past the comfortable margins of their experiences. Like The Leopard this is also a perfect book: not a word or sentence is out of place.

3. Vanity of Duluoz, Jack Kerouac (1968)

I’ll admit this book is a bit of a wildcard, but it is a charming little novel by a writer whose career was uneven at best. This straight forward, semi-autobiographical telling of his youth in small-town Massachusetts, football at Columbia University and his service in the Merchant Marines is told with a joyful nostalgia for a lost 1930s and ‘40s America. The book confirms that Kerouac, far from being the bohemian of lore, always considered himself a French-Catholic boy from a Massachusetts mill town.

4. Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis (1991)

The novel works on a conceit: the narrator is a Nazi doctor and we follow his life in reverse chronological order, beginning with his death and ending with birth (think the recent movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Amis so artfully portrays this alternative universe that you’ll find yourself marveling that cars in your city drive forward, instead of bombing along in reverse, and food goes in your mouth instead of quickly leaving it.

5. The Easter Parade, Richard Yates (1976)

The-Easter-Parade-Yates

Until the recent film version of Richard Yates’ masterpiece Revolutionary Road came out, Yates was the most underappreciated great writer in American letters, dying in complete obscurity in 1992. Now that Revolutionary Road had gotten its fair due, it may unfairly over-shadow The Easter Parade, Yates’ sad, masterful tale of two sisters—the Grimes sisters—as they live out their lives under the canopy of life’s disappointments.

Honorable Mention: A Far Cry From Kensington, Muriel Spark (1988)

The narrative voice in this novel is intoxicating. Sparks is such a talented writer that it is a crime her name doesn’t come up in more “great writer” discussions. This novel, written toward the end of Spark’s stellar career, chronicles the rooming house existence of war widow and editor Mrs. Hawkins in 1950s London.

Can Literature Save Us?

As a writer, former editor and lover of books it pains me to admit that literacy (or literature for that matter) doesn’t—and never will—make one a “better person.” Cambridge professor Liz Disley in her Guardian review of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature is equally skeptical that The Enlightenment opened up new vistas of empathy and understanding in the souls of men with a resultant decline in violence since 1700 (Was the wreckage of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao not taken into consideration I wonder?).

New York Public Library
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Disley’s approach to Pinker’s thesis is to label it an “elitist” one. She lays out her charge by citing a familiar analysis: literature in the last 300 years consists primarily of works penned by middle-class European and North American men. These elite individuals, the argument goes, generally ignore worldviews, cultures and classes they are unfamiliar with—therefore, the opportunity for literate Europeans to learn more about the mores of Egyptian women, for example, has been stifled.

When it comes to viewing literature in this light, I cop to being a Vladimir Nabokov disciple. In his lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov notes:

“Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeois. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world…”

Instead of Disley’s approach, I might simply point out that sociopaths like Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were proud “literary men.”

Nazi propagandist Goebbels studied philosophy, history, literature and art and earned a PhD. As a young man he dreamed of being a writer, and he completed an autobiographical novel and two plays. Then there was Hitler, of course, who was the author of an infamous screed that is still in print to this day.

Most recently we have the example of the bard/dictator Saddam Hussein. In a 2003 Atlantic Monthly article Mark Bowden wrote:

“Saddam has literary aspirations himself. He employs ghostwriters to keep up a ceaseless flow of speeches, articles, and books of history and philosophy; his oeuvre includes fiction as well. In recent years he appears to have written and published two romantic fables, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle; a third, as-yet-untitled work of fiction is due out soon.”

To quote Nabokov again: “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction.”

Muriel Spark’s “A Far Cry From Kensington”

  A New Directions edition.

Had the good fortune of finding the novel A Far Cry From Kensington by the British novelist Muriel Spark this past weekend. I have had Memento Mori on my shelf for some time, but have not gotten around to reading it.

This New Directions edition was just $1 at Book-Off, which is a Japanese-based used book store with all sorts of English-language gems inside.

I have begun reading A Far Cry and see why Spark has such a stellar reputation–she is a masterful writer.

New Documentary on Walker Percy

It’s excellent news to learn that novelist Walker Percy may be getting more attention with the upcoming documentary Walker Percy: A Documentary Film. A man of the South and a Roman Catholic, his books tackle the big moral and spiritual questions that modern novelists, regrettably, have long since abandoned.

It’s interesting how often his novel The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1962, is mentioned as a beloved book by writer of all stripes. I recently heard an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz who cited the book as a special influence on him  as a teenager. “I think it was the first time I read something that provoked in me a level of emotion that painting did,” He said. “I loved Percy’s passion for philosophical insight and his lyrical, ever-spiraling ideas.”

Of his own work, Percy said he was looking for:

A theory of man, man as more than organism, more than consumer––man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.

The film will appear on PBS next month. Watch a preview: