Joan Didion’s nephew has made the perfect introduction to her authorship.
It’s really rather strange that no one has made a documentary film about Joan Didion, one of the most respected and treasured writers of her generation. Like Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Dyer – to name two authors who invite comparison – she’s an author who has turned writing not only into a way of life, but as a means to discovering who she is and what she thinks. As far as I can tell, there’s no sharp dividing line between the person Joan Didion and the writer; when going through difficult times, it’s precisely the world of writing she withdraws into. Writing is a kind of homecoming, or, as she says towards the end The Center Will Not Hold, a way “to remember who she really is.”
In Didion’s essayistic exploration of identity politics – an art form which traces its origins back to Michel de Montaigne late 16th century writings – investigating oneself becomes part of investigating the world.
The most striking example of this relationship between life and work is arguably her two latest books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The first deals with the loss of her husband John Gregory Dunne, the second with the loss of their daughter, Quintana Dunne. That it’s through the former most Norwegians know Didion shouldn’t surprise us, one is tempted to say, as this is a book where the nature of sorrow is lived through – written through – in detail.
At the moment, the only book I can think of which comes close to describing the process of losing a loved one with the same intensity and intimacy is Roland Barthes’ book on the death of his mother. But whereas Barthes book, with its haiku-like aphorisms, reads like a diary, Didion’s is closer both to what happened and to how she thinks in the aftermath of the death.
She has trouble getting rid of his shoes, for what will happen if he needs them when he comes back?
Dunne tells Didion’s story chronologically, structuring the film around central texts from her writings, excerpts of which are read as we go along. Archival footage from her life (including several interviews) is also weaved into the story. But the human core is anchored in Didion herself, who comments her own life and texts. That the film is directed by Didion’s nephew, (who also conducts the interviews) imbues it with additional warmth; it’s obvious that they care about each other. It’s a moving sight to behold the now 82-year old Didion looking back at her life’s work.
The film is also enriched by the presence of the many friends and collaborative partners Didion has had through the years, not least the editor at the New York Review of Books – an admirable editor in every way – who encouraged her to go for it in the magazine’s political commentary section. He fully trusted her judgement when she wanted to write about a group of African American men who stood accused of having raped a woman in Central Park.
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