Joan Didion, writer, 1934-2021 | Financial Times

Joan Didion, a razor-sharp observer of American life whose essays evaded sentiment and reshaped its journalism, has died, aged 87.

In a writing career that spans more than 50 years, Didion has penned magazines, columns, novels and – sometimes collaborating with her husband, John Gregory Dunne – Hollywood screenplays, including versions 1976 version of A star was born.

But she is best known for her collection of essays that use her own fractured style to document the fracturing of society in the 1960s and 1970s and the shadow that underlies counterculture. .

Like her essaySlouching Towards Bethlehem,” a reportage from the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967, announced with surprise: “The center is out of business. It’s a country of bankruptcy notes and public auction notices and widespread reports of frequent murders and lost children, abandoned homes and vandals. misspelling even the four-letter words they scribble.”

The title was derived from a poem by WB Yeats that Didion later recalled, ringing in her ears all those years and becoming a sort of epitaph for her career: “Spin and spin in you spinning is widening / The falcon can’t be heard; / Everything falls apart; the center failed to hold”.

Although her work is wide-ranging – from Cubans and the crooked CIA agents of South Florida to artist Georgia O’Keeffe and the ravages of old age – California remains a persistent obsession. persistent. Didion is a fifth-generation native whose great-grandmother started with the Donner party, a group of 19th-century American pioneers, but has gone her own way and so has avoided the bad fate of it. For Didion, who viewed sentimentality as dangerous, California was not a paradise of fulfilled dreams but a harsh terrain that nurtured Charles Manson and alienation.

Novelist Martin Amis summon she was “the great poet of California’s emptiness,” writing in 1980 that she possessed “a pair of almost embarrassingly sharp ears and unblinking eyes” because of its impotence.

Her grandson, Griffin Dunne, described a type of border steadfastness in his aunt that prevailed even in the chaos around her. “No matter what happens to her or is happening in the world, even if she can’t understand it, she tries to understand it,” he said in a 2017 interview.

Didion was born in Sacramento but suffered a tortuous childhood and schooling because of her father’s military service. She considered acting in high school but was deemed too young to be and should pursue writing instead. While studying at the University of California at Berkeley, she won an essay contest and got a dream job at Vogue magazine in New York, where she worked for seven years.

As for humans, Didion is short and often hidden behind large sunglasses. But she is undaunted by her observations, and can be criticized to the point of ruthlessness. She famously described US first lady Nancy Reagan’s smile as “a frozen study of dishonesty” and mocked journalist Bob Woodward’s books as “political pornography”. where “measured brain activity is virtually absent”.

As Didion himself observed: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so small, unobtrusive, and neurotic that people tend to forget that My presence goes against their interests. And it is always like that. That’s one last thing to remember: ‘writers are always selling someone out.‘”

Collection Slide towards Bethlehem, published in 1968, cemented her place alongside Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese and other leading practitioners of “New Journalism” – in which writers use literary techniques Studies and narrative tricks to revamp nonfiction are often serious. She is unashamedly the creator of crystal sentences, having retyped the works of Ernest Hemingway in high school to try to decipher their works.

White album, another popular collection, was published in 1979, and sits between the frenzy of the times – Doors, Black Panther’s parties, Manson’s murders – and the psychological torment of Didion himself. “We tell ourselves stories to live,” she wrote.

In the 1980s, she set her sights on the decline of American politics and the birth of a new class of journalism that had been shunned from the public. Her observations seem to be more relevant over time. As she wrote in her 1988 essay “Insider Baseball”:“ American reporters ‘like’ covering a presidential campaign (it takes them out into the street, it has balloons, it has music, it’s seen as a big story, a lead story). to the respect shown by their peers, for lecture fees and often in Washington), which is why those doing it have grown to the point of enthusiastically arresting aside contradictions that are inherently included in the capital reporting just happens to be reported. “

Although Didion never went out of style, she received another standing ovation towards the end of her career with the 2005 publication of Year of Magical Thinking, a National Book Award-winning memoir chronicling the year after her husband’s death.

“Grief knows no distance,” she wrote. “Grief comes in waves, in waves, the fear is so sudden that it weakens the knees, blinds the eyes, and erases the humdrum of life.” Joan Didion, writer, 1934-2021 | Financial Times

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