Tuesday, August 05, 2008


For some unknown reason, although I was vaguely aware of the author,Joan Didion, and must have read some of her magazine articles, I had never read any of her books until last year when I read The Year of Magical Thinking. It is an account of a harrowing year she spent in which her husband, the writer, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack and her only child, a daughter, was unconscious with septic shock for a lengthy period, and then, eventually also died. The book deservedly won the National Book Award and was a finalist for many other awards, including the Pulitzer. The book is very good, not only because it is well written, but Didion pulls off a difficult subject with such passion, humor and insight, without ever resorting to self-pity or finding lessons to preach to others.

I didn't give The Year of Magical Thinking my top rating (five stars are very hard to come by from me,) but I raved enough about it that one of my Christmas books last year was a collection of Didion books called We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live.

I started reading We Tell Ourselves Stories during our Michigan paradise days several weeks ago, and kept irritating the wife by saying "Listen to this!" and then reading passages from the book. If I could write like that, I told The Wife, I would quit everything else and become a writer.

Didion is about 12 years older than I am, and her early writing shows a distinctively conservative slant. She was a Goldwater girl (I won't call myself a "Goldwater boy," but I was a fervent Goldwater supporter in 1964) and over the years, grew wiser and more liberal. But even her early writing shows such sparkle that although I disagree now with some of what she wrote then, it is a delight to read. Her essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem cleverly skewers the hippie culture of San Francisco in 1967. Which gets me, finally, to the point of my posting tonight. She has an essay, written in 1961 when she was only 27 years old, called On Self Respect, which is so good that I have to share some of it with someone. Not daring to interrupt The Wife again, I will make you, dear reader, the object of my generosity. Here is the quote:
"I faced myself that day with the non-plused apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

"Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards -- the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one has been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others -- who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

"To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that details one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There's the glass you broke in anger, there's the hurt on X's face; watch now; this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyound the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carlessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves."


rdl said...


Lydia said...

Oooh! I, too, read The Year of Magical Thinking and loved it. I, too, thought I should read more Didion, having lapped up the little else I've read.

Thank you for the reminder that she really can blow the top off of one's head, and that I should get back to that intention to read more of her works!