"I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting; you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically seperated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor."

– Joan Didion, The White Album

A glowing article in the New York Review of Books about Joan Didion set me off on a spree of reading her early work – which has turned out to be the high point of my reading for the month. In the article, John Leonard writes: "I've been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours…something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves." I couldn't agree more. Didion is one of those rare writers whose style feels so balanced, so clean, that you enjoy reading them even when they write about virtually nothing (remember Hemingway in A Moveable Feast?). There's something about her writing that escapes definition but is undeniable – her lines have a gravity all their own.

The White Album is a brilliant example of this. The title piece, with its flawless evocation of the paranoia and restlessness of the 60's (complete with college protests, Black Panthers and a dream-like evening with the Doors), is exciting enough, but the really stand-out piece for me was an essay on the feminist movement. Didion starts by celebrating the feminist movement as the ultimate class struggle, but soon falls to critiquing it on grounds that I've always strongly agreed with [1]. The problem with the way the feminist movement has evolved, Didion suggests, is that it has placed the Everywoman over every woman, so that rather than allowing women to be who they are, it has created this vision of who they need to be. This is not real freedom, it is merely a submission to a self-created icon – an exercise more in tribal religion that in socio-political ideology. Didion writes: "All one's actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one's deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death – could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all."(italics in the original). Or elsewhere: "The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real generative possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words….These are converts who want not a revolution but 'romance', who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life exactly in the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did, and they also tell us, I suspect, that the movement is no longer a cause but a symptom." Simply brilliant.

There are many other interesting essays here, and the writing is uniformly excellent, so that reading The White Album is a real treat. Don't miss it.

To close, one last quote that I can't resist posting:

"I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a "house blessing' which hung in a hallway of her house in West Hartford, Connecticut.

God bless the corners of this house,
And be the lintel blest –
And bless the hearth and bless the board
And bless each place of rest –
And bless the crystal windowpane that lets the starlight in
And bless each door that opens wide, to stranger as to kin.

This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of 'ironic' detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found."


[1] In the interest of fending off indignant comments, let me say that I freely admit to not being an expert on the movement, and am aware that there are many ways in which Didion's critique is invalid in the 21st century. I still think, however, that for all the wealth of opportunities the movement has created for women, it has not managed to rid itself (and them) of the pressure to utilise and conform to these opportunities. The need to match up to some predefined ideal hasn't gone away; it's just that that image has changed and become harder to live up to.