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Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by

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Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »

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Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

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Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Twain, Gilbert, Visconti

December 13, 2013 | by

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Late at night for the last few weeks I’ve been rereading The Innocents Abroad. I think Mark Twain will always be my favorite writer, or at least the one I enjoy most easily, even when he’s not being great. The Innocents Abroad—his magazine account of a tour through Europe and the Holy Land—is not great Twain. He knows nothing about art. (Mainly he hates it.) He’s bigoted toward Muslims and Catholics, in his grumpy unserious way. He spends most of the trip tired, skeptical, and bored, at times you can almost see him counting the words in a sunset, but for me this is all part of his charm. Twain wears his shtick so easily; a book like The Innocents Abroad reminds you that he was not only our first great allegorist of race, or our first great master of dialect, or the one who first understood American prose as such, or the perpetrator of several extremely weird book-length satires—he also happened to be the David Sedaris of his time. Which is to say, a humorist, an easy writer, who speaks to what is ordinary and irredeemably podunk in us all. —Lorin Stein

I was lucky enough to catch the new print of Sandra at New York’s Film Forum last week, but it is well worth seeking out on your own: Luchino Visconti’s lush 1965 retelling of the Electra myth is gorgeous, campy, and lurid beyond measure. Claudia Cardinale and Jean Sorel are undressed for absolutely no reason far more often than they need to be; there’s Italian palazzos, stunning scenery, and just a pinch of “Blood of the Walsungs”-style incest. Need I say more? —Sadie O. Stein

Following the sage advice of my Paris Review Facebook feed, I read Jack Gilbert’s Art of Poetry interview from issue 175. Two things, in particular, felt essential to his work: his romantic distain for “clever” poetry—i.e., poems that are “extraordinarily deft” when it comes to technique, but hollow at their core; and his unabashed admission that of course his poems are taken directly from experience—“why would I invent them?” One need only pick up his collection The Great Fires. In “Finding Something,” we see Gilbert caring for his wife Michiko as she is dying of cancer. He describes a scene both unbearably sad and totally mundane: she has become so weak that she cannot go to the bathroom without leaning against her husband’s legs. There’s nothing even remotely clever about the final lines:

How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

—Fritz Huber

Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is only 214 quick pages, yet in these eighty-four brief chapters she to leave us with a nightmare that we can neither explain nor get enough of. It’s a relatively sparse novel, but still a hypnotizing, morbid story of a wounded woman incarcerated by the misfortunes of her own making. Every word is laden with Maria’s torment, heavy with cafard; yet there’s a peculiar pleasure derived from Didion’s control over language. “All day she was faint with vertigo, sunk in a world where great power grids converged, throbbing lines plunged finally into the shallow canyon below the dam’s face, elevators like coffins dropped into the bowels of the earth itself.” —Caitlin Youngquist

This morning, Lorin, Edan Lepucki of the Millions, and Square Books’ Richard Howarth discussed their favorite titles of 2013. Check out the audio here. —S.O.S.

 

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Dream Weaver

December 5, 2013 | by

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INTERVIEWER

You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why.

JOAN DIDION

It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

—Joan Didion, the Art of Fiction No. 71

 

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Airbrushed Austen, and Other News

November 5, 2013 | by

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  • Jane Austen scholar Paula Byrne calls the author’s likeness on the new banknote “a nineteenth-century airbrushed makeover.” The image is based on the famous portrait by Austen’s sister Cassandra. Says Byrne, “It makes me quite angry as it’s been prettied up for the Victorian era when Jane Austen was very much a woman of Georgian character. The costume is wrong and the image creates a myth Austen was a demure spinster and not a deep-thinking author.”
  • Zola Books is offering several previously unavailable Joan Didion works in digital form.
  • Speaking of new paradigms, Douglas Coupland will be serializing a new work, Temp, in the giveaway paper Metro.
  • A new book showcases the art of the pizza box, and it’s kind of wonderful.
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    Girls Moping in Hotels

    September 23, 2013 | by

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    Film still courtesy of Focus Features.

    In Lost in Translation, sad-eyed Charlotte spends much of the film curled up on the windowsill high above Tokyo in a sleek Japanese hotel, gazing balefully over the city, acknowledging her loneliness. Played with winsome melancholy by Scarlett Johansson, Charlotte doesn’t verbalize her isolation, but director Sofia Coppola’s gently circumnavigating camera makes it evident. Charlotte plods the halls like baleful Eloise. She quietly considers her loneliness while curled up in hotel sheets, or judging the patrons at the hotel bar, or diving into the beautifully designed hotel pool.

    An unlikely literary analog can be found in a passage from D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. When the protagonist is left by her sister in a hotel room, Gudrun

    immediately felt her own existence had become stark and elemental. She went and crouched alone in her bedroom, looking out of the window at the big, flashing stars. In front was the faint shadow of the mountain-knot. That was the pivot. She felt strange and inevitable, as if she were centered upon the pivot of all existence, there was no further reality.

    Gudrun, like Charlotte, is hoisted in isolation, in a sort of heavenly limbo.

    Lost in Translation, which celebrated its tenth birthday this summer, is the consummate contemporary example of a young woman who finds herself in beautiful accommodations, in a fascinating foreign city, unable to do much but sulk and consider ordering room service. The hotel is, of course, an ideal place for cerebral brooding; hotels are, by their nature, in between. It is where you sleep, but it is not your home. You are a guest without a host, surrounded by scores of strangers hanging up their clothes in the room next door, as close as family.

    Is it a certain kind of woman who broods in hotels, who peers out over the vista and ponders her existence? Read More »

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