There is that famous photo of Joan Didion, taken in Malibu in 1976, in which she leans on a deck overlooking the beach, cigarette in hand, scotch glass at her elbow, and regards her family – John Dunne, her husband, and their then 10-year-old daughter, Quintana – through lowered, side-long eyes. Like other iconic photos of Didion from the period, she is at one remove from the group, off to the side and in this case, looking not at the camera but at her family as they look at the camera. It’s the pose Didion perfected, in life as in art, and when news of her death at the age of 87 broke on Thursday, it was a shock to see another frame from that sequence surface online. In it, Didion, eyes fixed forward, smiles broadly at the camera in the conventional style – a rare glimpse behind the persona.
The paradox of Didion was not unusual among writers, whose confidence is often born of a million anxieties. But her ability to operate outside herself – to measure the gap between inside and out and slyly mock any effort to conceal it – was unparalleled. She was, famously and by her own account, diffident, brittle, runtish, prone to migraines, afraid of the telephone, and as she wrote in the preface to her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “bad at interviewing people”, apparent deficits that, in Didion’s hands, were of course precisely what permitted her entry to places her rivals – particularly the blow-hard men of 1960s journalism – couldn’t reach.
She was also generous and kind to younger writers. I interviewed her twice at her elegant, sprawling apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the doormen referred to her gallantly as “Mrs Dunne”. She wasn’t difficult to interview, but she was a leaver of silences that could unnerve. The second time we met, I brought her biscuits and, handing them over at the door, she looked down at the package as if I’d passed her a rattlesnake. It’s an effect of chain-reading Didion that small moments become overburdened with spurious meaning and, recalling that scene, it seems to me that when she looked back up at me, it was with an expression that indicated, simultaneously, she was touched by the gesture and that, if we were honest, we might also acknowledge it as gaucheness amounting to lunacy.
Interpretations of what her elegiac voice meant to the country that made her are best left to the Americans. I just liked her sentences. She is one of the few prose writers I remember whole sections of by heart and they play like old songs. Her line on Joan Baez, written in 1966, remains unseated as a description of what celebrity does to people. (Baez, she wrote, after weeks of observing her, “was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her”.) I remember the “artificial blue rain” in the opening paragraph of John Wayne: a Love Story as if I myself had been at the Officers’ Club in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1943. The line “the centre was not holding” thumps one as squarely in the chest as it did on first reading.
And then there is the Year of Magical Thinking, a piece of writing about the double blow of her husband’s death in 2003, followed 16 months’ later by the death of their daughter. She should not have been able to write about it. The fact that she could, and so soon, still seems outrageous to me and the lesson of that book and her writing in general seems clear; that there was nothing that Didion and by extension we, her readers, could not absorb, fix, stake out the furthest boundaries to. The sense of safety through the horror that came from this skill is a definition of what writing is for. It delivered a comfort amounting to love.