I blame my flickering attention, but I have always gone as gaga for isolated sentences as for whole books. One favorite begins an essay that I’ve read 20-odd times over 30-plus years, and it’s this: “Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.”
It plants a provocative idea — that abasement is the gateway to adulthood. But what really gets me is the order of the words, the clustering of all those prepositional phrases near the start. I was in college when I first read it, and I thought to myself that a dour composition instructor would take out a red pen and flag the meandering path from “wrote” to “that.”
I also thought that the sentence was perfect. Its detour was its music. And that music had a deliberately overwrought quality, signaling the author’s self-consciousness. “Large letters.” “Two pages.” This was someone taking herself very seriously — and wholly, endearingly aware of that.
Syntax and sensibility: Nobody wed them quite like Joan Didion, the author of that essay, “On Self-Respect,” and many others. She’s the subject of a new documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” which reveals that in the 1960s, when she worked at Vogue, the magazine’s editors committed to a reflection on self-respect before bothering to figure out who would fashion it. Only later did they settle on Didion, then in her 20s. She cooked it to order, and nonetheless came up with what is rightly considered one of her masterpieces.
“The Center Will Not Hold” is no masterpiece. But it’s fascinating, in part because of scattered tidbits like that. Directed by Griffin Dunne, her nephew, who includes footage from his recent interviews with her, it shows that despite her cultivated image as a nervous waif at the mercy of moods and the Santa Ana wind, she could be ruthlessly practical and utterly unsentimental.
Read more at The New York Times.