Sunday, March 12, 2017

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Hardcover, 160 pages Pub March 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9781524732790

Joan Didion’s notebook of her drive across Louisiana and Mississippi with her husband in the summer of 1970 is filled with glimpses and impressions of the blazing heat, canopies of kudzu, a sense of disintegration and insularity. Didion interviewed friends of friends and folks who knew about important local happenings, but she had a hard time gathering the ambition to follow through with attending events in the muggy heat. She made notes, but the aimless drift through a South she knew was important somehow never fanned into flame...until now. Her instincts were right. The South tethers us still, to a past we cannot escape.

Didion’s experience of the South is that of confederate flag beach towels at the motel pool, debutante dresses, and plans for dinner out with local literati, illegal bottles of liquor smuggled in a large leather handbag carried expressly for that purpose. The childhood of a young white boy in the South may be the best childhood in the world, she imagines.

The house of one family had a slave certificate still hanging on the wall and servants that dated back a generation. Everyone seemed sure of where they stood on the race question, and stated it openly. The order to integrate schools immediately (80% black, 20% white) came in February: why didn’t they wait until September when a little more time might have gotten some folks to go along, a local white man with school-aged kids opined. "I can't sacrifice my kids to idealism," he concludes.

Didion and her husband sought the gravesite of William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi but found only a young black man leaning against a two-tone sedan in the heat, waiting for customers, selling marijuana, perhaps. It was too hot to think too much about it. They never found the grave but the graveyard feel of the South pervaded her writing nonetheless. Death is a feature of the South. It feels close, as does rot, and subsidence. And yet, the South holds a history, slavery, which will not die, no matter how we wish it would.

The University of Mississippi is in Oxford with that elusive gravesite of Faulkner’s. The university library carries only textbooks, a few bestsellers, and Faulkner novels. Didion mentions her visit there:"…I saw a black girl on the campus. She was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey and was quite beautiful with a NY/LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ol’ Miss or what she thought about it." One cannot help think that the piece would have been infinitely improved if she had roused herself enough to ask the girl that question. All through this book she never crossed the color barrier once except to be introduced to the maid or gardener of a white homeowner.

Fireflies, heat lightning, heavy vines and soggy ground, fainting heat, water that smells of fish, vacant expressions, algae-covered ditches, fast-melting ice. The South is present everywhere in her words, in the barely-stirring observations she makes from a sitting position. But the 1970s South is evoked as surely as the 1950s and 1960s South. Things change only incrementally, imperceptibly.

The travel by car was onerous, and Didion tells us she had to avoid cities with airports because she would immediately book a ticket out. It was a struggle, this trip, and one evening they stopped late for dinner:
"The sun was still blazing on the pavement outside. The food seemed to have been deep-fried for the lunch business and kept lukewarm on the steam table. Eating is an ordeal, as in an institution, something to be endured in the interests of survival."
The point of view is distant and unconvinced when a dinner host says something about how the blacks would return to the delta if there were jobs anymore because “this is a place with a strong pull.” Didion’s judgment is as clear as a torch in a muggy dark night.

We return to California and it is here that Didion's intimacy with us becomes the story. She tells us of her upbringing and we see where she gets her sense of confidence and superiority. She’d never had anything blocking her way, in the “peculiar vacuum” of her childhood. She’d come from an affluent family and only saw in hindsight her extraordinary luck in a world that offers most people little certainty. She’d “been rewarded out of proportion to her scholarship,” but she remembers only her failures. Looking back, sometimes she does not “feel up to the landscape.” She tries to place herself, place us, in history.

The sentences in this book are a remarkable evocation of place, even if she “never wrote the piece” and her notes on her upbringing at the end are scattershot, gorgeous, real, thoughtful, meaningful, relatable, full of atmosphere and intimacy.

Kimberly Farr narrated this audio collection of notes, and her quiet sophistication is quite up to the task of looking askance at the deep-rooted and culturally-queer habits of the South, and at the naiveté of Didion's upbringing in California. Didion thinks people make too much and too little, both, of their effect on, say, the South, or the West. She takes the long view now, musing that we all seem so inconsequential except when we are not.

A clip of the Penguin Random House audio production is given below:

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