Tenn At The Intersection of Duras and Didion
Notes from Follies Journal
Tenn wanted to write again--in any form--but he had little confidence that he could succeed, and even less that his efforts would be received with any patience or respect. "I would like to try--and fail--at something," he told me, "and I don't feel that I'll be given even the tiniest space to roll around and see what sticks and stains or what falls away."
Obsessed with styles and forms and the voices of writers he felt communicated with him, he took to imitating them--on pads of paper, menus, shirt boards, pages torn from hotel-room Bibles. When I was allowed to pore over the many drafts that littered his bed at the Royal Orleans, I detected a particular style that kept repeating itself.
There was a visiting spirit in the town. Deep in the nights, there were noises, movements, changes in the temperature. Tempers flared. Every quick glance on the street held portents, threats.
It is now the second evening. The man remains unconscious, seemingly dead to his family.
It is vital that you realize that you have been bred by people who do not understand the natures of other people or other means of doing things. It is required that you understand that we have always gotten precisely what we've needed, in any manner possible.
What we are is selfish.
Before the words stopped entirely, he prayed that they would, at the very least, come forth in a clean, clear line--bold letters on a stark white background.
Friz Quadrata was not, Tenn stressed, the aberrant stage name of a local actor, but a typeface that had been shown to him and that he liked: Tenn often fell asleep at night imagining lines of text flowing across the ceiling in those bold letters. On other nights he would imagine the names of actresses he had loved, or those who had received the Academy Award as Best Actress.
On a piece of Royal Orleans stationery I found the following list:
Luise Rainer (sticky macaroon)
Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland
Joanne Woodward (daughter!)
Susan Hayward (sugar/Satan)
This was one of Tenn's lists to jog his memory as to those actresses who had, in fact, received the Academy Award as Best Actress, and I noted that he had forgotten Ginger Rogers, Greer Garson, Jennifer Jones, Loretta Young, and Grace Kelly. After expressing amazement that I could fill in these blanks in his memory, he then confessed that those were eminently forgettable women, risible performances.
"I have a gift, you see," he told me, "for forgetting those things that might poison what must, for me, remain flawless." A long pause. "I think."
Two writers were racing across Tenn's mind, as frantically as passengers in a crowded railway station, and they frequently bumped into each other, argued, reconciled, parted.
They were Marguerite Duras and Joan Didion.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Within the samples on Tenn's bed were pages torn from Duras' novels, including Moderato Cantabile and 10:30 on a Summer Night, some of which no longer bore their titles, so only years later and after much reading would I know what he was studying and imitating. On other pages were snippets of dialogue from her film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, whose images Tenn could recall with the clarity of numerous viewings. "I saw that film three times in one day," he told me, "on that first day. And I went back many times, and I can still lose a day if I see it revived. I find it incantatory. I find her incantatory."
His statements on Duras:
I think often of the term lapidary. Mystics have stones, worry dolls, rosary beads: smooth things they can hold, squeeze, invest with power or their own pain, and I've come to see that my words were often passed from me like an infected stone or a night fever: Things arose and had to come to a head, a conclusion, a point. And then I wrote. I expressed as a teacher once said. Some of my writing was rustic in its expression: wild and irregular and passionate and not always safely on its way to consummation with a reader or an audience. I want to concentrate now on being utterly clear, crisp--black letters on a white page: the white page being the consciences of this writer and whatever reader cares to join me. Lapidary prose--words I've picked up, cleaned, caressed, smoothed over, worried over, and then presented--a gift--to a recipient.
I find this quality in the words of Marguerite Duras--bullets propelled from the gun that is her mighty and unforgiving intellect, or the pistol that is her premonitory eye. I trust and fear her work: I am positive that it springs from something authentic and perhaps awful, but utterly human. I understand everything she writes. I am familiar with all of her characters--eventually: No matter how awful they may behave, she ultimately explains their motives, their destination, their relationship to you.
I would be honored if someone told me that my work frightened them. Her work frightens me.
Marguerite Duras, 1993
We met only a few times, only one visit affording us any time or concentration. I asked her to name the most important quality a writer should have, and without hesitation, she replied "Power, of course." She was not concerned with control, because power trumped everything for her. Power was earned through the control one had of one's intellect, the diet of work that one placed in one's mind and before one's eyes, the use of words, the dance one placed them in to make a world and a point. "It may be that you dance too much," she told me. I told you that thoughts raced through my mind like leaves in a wind storm, and they have also flailed about a stage like dancers in the charge of an errant choreographer. I am not at all happy that she was right about me, but I was amazed and flattered that she knew my work well enough to tell me where it might have lost some of its power.
Film sets, she told me, were marvelous things: Power accrues to the director, and all eyes turn toward that person. She was, of course, often that person, and nothing, she told me, teaches one more about power than having it, using it well, missing it horribly once it recedes. "I've lost everything," she told me, "but that power--creative and personal--was the hardest to see fall from my grasp."
I follow her a lot now--with the leaves in my head and dancers in tow. One tries.
Joan Didion, 1970
Joan Didion has a great deal of this power, and far more style. I love her work, but I am aware that she is shrewd about her effects, her twists, her fillips, and her dry perceptions. While I feel that Duras has actually walked through a few fires, and now writes from the perspective of a singed victim, Didion has, perhaps, witnessed a few burn victims and shudders at the vision, wonders how it might have affected her, how the clothes scented with Lanvin smelled when the petrol met the match.
Duras has seen the carnage; Didion resides on a hill, in a beautiful home with a good soup on the stove and keens about the arrival of carnage: Cassandra with a good haircut and the phone number of people at Paramount.
Duras is a cripple; Didion checks her body daily for incipient failures, betrayals, infections.
Duras understands, has lived with, and reports on people; Didion understands and cares only about herself and her needs, and sees everyone through her prejudices, experiences, fears.
Duras avoids people and situations for what they've done to her in the past; Didion fears what they might reveal or predict.
Duras wishes to make a mark in the world through her work; Didion wishes to get to Santa Monica by the spring and wants to float the right flowers in the right bowls of crystal and silver: If she makes a mark, it will only comfort her if her surroundings can cosset her. If the house isn't right, the Spode mismatched, she will retire to bed and reconsider her life.
Duras has considered her life, defined it, moved past it, and now records it.
Didion crouches in fear: the next calamity, which is to say the next deadline, approaches.
And yet I respect and am fascinated by her work. I do not want to be seen as dismissing her: This is simply how I see and feel her. She acquits herself brilliantly by admitting so much of what she believes, falls prey to, cannot overcome. She takes her weaknesses and buffs them into glorious strengths. Her manuscript pages are works of art--evidence of a hard and acute eye surveying the scene and absorbing everything. I have been to some of the places--and some of the specific scenes--of which she writes, and I feel that she is often wrong, frequently prejudiced, and I don't know where her gaze was focused, but I am transfixed by what she writes.
Everything a writer writes becomes fiction--everything--and never so much as when a profile or some reportage is being pulled together. We cannot deny our perceptions--how we see, how we smell, how we react. I begrudge no writer this construction, but I also do not go to someone like Didion for anything with the hoped-for precision and detail of a police report or an autopsy, but I leave her words knowing more than I would from a straightforward, reigned-in dispatch from a reporter.
Facts are odd things: They so often don't work within a narrative, and things need to work, to move. A fact before the eyes of a writer begin to look better, a bit more agile if they are viewed as if they were a friend to whom one is beginning to become attracted. Heights and widths and intentions and colors change. A love develops. So does a style.
Didion has a longer road awaiting her, and I want to hide within the trees surrounding this road and see where she goes, how her stride will be--balanced or lost. Didion will always look in the absolute worst places for her directions; this trait we share. What is fascinating is what she will make of her botched cues, wrong turns, markers lost in fog or rain or the migraines of the morning. When she makes her way back to the comfortable home, with the right china and silver, the fragrant and flawless flowers, the potpourri in tidy bowls, candles on the table, what does she remember? Like an attenuated princess in a Grimm fairy tale, she must gather her woolens about her and sigh in amazement that she narrowly escaped death, injury, the third revision of the script at Fox, the snub at the restaurant, the receipt that blew out the window of the cab as it drove down Park, an act that caused her to miss the newly planted tulips.
These acts of outrage and inconvenience will lead her to her own pale judgment, and her anger will produce those flawless, toxic sentences: fortunes from cookies dipped in arsenic and placed on the perfect Spode plate. Didion knows the price and the cost of everything: one dies in a dress that was on lay-a-way, with $3.85 owing; one flies from New York to Los Angeles not only first class but having left behind a sick child and a husband who may or not be having an affair heading to a room at the Wilshire with a credit card bearing a limit of two hundred dollars.
There is so much waiting for us, and so little to bring to its fruition--in terms of money, physical and psychic strength, courtesy, simple energy.
You wear the right clothes, smile at the right people, dab on some Fracas, and step boldly into the party at which you need to be seen, but always there is a snake in the garden, a wind in the mountains that may bring fire or corrosive dust, an incipient migraine or an affair or a joke gone bad that erases that thirteen-episode commitment that would have paid for the apartment, the school, the summer home, the sports car that might have satisfied the randy husband.
We are all doomed, but we smile and we move and we greet the pale judgment--or whatever surface on which we imprint our lives. We do what we can.
Didion is the genius who writes brilliantly about situations that she is--irony of ironies--too dumb or slow or masochistic to avoid. She is the comedian whose pratfalls and slips on the pavement bring forth laughter until we see the blood on the dress and the resignation with which she accepts her defeat, and then we are again awed by her artistic, self-abusive sacrifice.
She walks toward us in a hair shirt by Chanel or Norell--or cadged from a studio sale--her eyes misty and her sentences solid.
I love her.