Knopf; First Edition edition
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, Didion famously wrote. Here you could imagine a wag in her publisher’s office suggesting “We sell stories in order to make a living” – for this slim volume, this set of notes “from a notebook” arrives at a time when Didion perhaps doesn’t need to work, or maybe does need to but isn’t able – it’s a clearing of the files, for whatever reason. And yet it’s exquisite enough to stand as worthy; working as both introduction to her literary canon (she’s been quoted and is quotable and her more recent books battle grief so have no doubt been recommended down the line to an audience that hadn’t read her earlier works) and as a coda (one of several no doubt), a type of reminder/reintroduction.
I’ve read Didion and I’m a fan – and I loved South and West but it left me with more questions than answers. That’s quite all right by the way; that’s a healthy reason to read – and to want to read.
For a start, I might want to believe that Didion’s notebooks are this clean, this smooth – her perfect sentences rolled out as merely off-the-cuff observations. But how believable is that, really?
Isn’t this a concocted slim volume, a small, digestible set of polished up leftovers? It doesn’t matter for a second if it is – but it’s more likely that 45-year-old notebooks were dusted off and typed up, edited, made concise and cleared of any nagging leftover-titbit feel.
So, South – the majority of the work here – is a set of observations on colourful characters and heat-drenched settings that Didion experienced on a set of road-trips with her husband John Gregory Dunne. It’s 1970 and Didion has had success with her brilliant, early essays. She’s got pulp screenplays in the works and a novel or two done, and/or on the backburner. She’s at her first real point of literary fame – with expectation around the corner. Her aim was to roadtrip it out and write it down. She never got a story together, just these notes.
The less satisfying, and even more lingering nag of a failed story is the West component – from the mid-70s, where Didion thought the Patty Hearst trial might interest her, because she was from the region. In the end (and rather swiftly in the context of this book) she didn’t find it interesting, couldn’t make a story from it.
South and West isn’t quite a set of essays, but it’s more than just a bunch of notes. Though it’s probably only more than a bunch of notes because of who they belong to – or rather who they’re bound to (and by). Expectation is still around the corner. Forever it seems.
I loved reading South and West – and found some of its passages beautiful and demanding and full of everything I’ve already experienced from Didion; then a bit more fascinating given they were hiding in a draw for over 40 years. And then there were bits of the book that simple joined the other bits; bits and pieces of – essentially – failure. For these are the remnants of stories that never quite made it over the line into anything other than the ephemeral waft of a near-story.
That’s interesting because it’s attached to Didion. Read anything else by her – particularly the essay/non-fiction pieces and you’ve barely find anything even remotely close to failure. They’re all well realised – the subjects vary, the writing is consistently great and economical but the stories always succeed, at least in terms of being able to be seen. Here they’re felt, and only just. Lingering morsels. That’s intriguing – and worthwhile, I should think that it would be enough to hook a few first-timers at the least. And it’s enough to have and hold anything published by Didion for the existing fans of course.
Strange though to think of why Didion’s works from the seventies can exist in 2017 and how it is that they come to circle the nagging inertia of this time. That was what I couldn’t stop thinking about while reading this slim volume. I think about it still. And there’s no answer. And I guess there doesn’t need to be.