Joan Didion Reviews Sword of Honour

In an article posted on the website Acculturated, Nic Rowan discusses novelist and essayist Joan Didion’s early career of reviewing books for the National Review in the 1960s. Rowan claims that her later career cannot be fully understood without considering these early and formative writings:

…By writing semi-weekly book reviews of the year’s hot literature for the nation’s only major conservative magazine, Didion made sense of the world in which she lived through its literature and its movies.Unfortunately, none of these essays are collected in a compendium or available online, so you’ll have to hunt through old print editions of the magazine to find them…

In a review of Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honor trilogy, Didion reveals what she means when she calls someone a writer. For although a fictional account of Guy Crouchback, a middle-aged English aristocrat fighting in World War II, Didion calls The Sword of Honor a true story, because it follows a man who “attempts to make a social cause a moral cause in a society bereft of moral meaning.”

In many ways, Crouchback and Didion are attempting the same thing, except Didion is an American. In the same review, Didion wrote that the American story—the one she would go on to tell in her many essays—is a delicate tragedy: “Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it,” she wrote. “The banishment from Eden is our one great tale, lovingly told and retold, adapted, disguised and told again, passed down from Hester Prynne to Temple Drake, from Natty Bumppo to Holden Caulfield; it is the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folklore, in our history, and in the lyrics of of popular songs.”

For Didion, things are always falling apart. The center will never hold.

Didion’s review was entitled “Evelyn Waugh: A Gentleman in Battle” and appeared in the National Review dated 27 March 1962. She was reviewing the final volume of the war trilogy, entitled The End of the Battle in the USA, but was discussing all three volumes. In her review she referred to the trilogy as “Men at War.” That is the title mentioned on the front flap of the US edition’s dust jacket. The publishers were apparently unaware of Waugh’s intended title for the one-volume edition of the war trilogy. That single volume recension entitled Sword of Honour appeared in 1965 (USA, 1966). Didion’s review is, in fact, available in the National Review’s digital archive and may be read in full at this link.

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