American novelist, essayist and journalist Joan Didion (1934-2021) died earlier this week in New York City at the age of 87. A memorial column in the National Review remembers her as an early contributor to their pages in what was the early stage of her own career. One of her contributions was a review of Waugh’s war trilogy which she wrote on the occasion of the issuance of the final volume (The End of the Battle) that was published in 1962. The title was Unconditional Surrender in the UK. Part of that review was quoted in one of the memorials posted by the National Review (linked above). Here is a longer version of that excerpt where Didion tries to explain why many Americans do not fully appreciate Waugh’s writing–treating him as a humorist rather than a novelist:
…Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it: 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 our popular songs. Because hardness of mind is antithetical to innocence, it is not only alien to us but generally misapprehended. What we take it for, warily, is something we sometimes call cynicism, sometimes call wit, sometimes (if we are given to this kind of analysis) disapprove as “a cheap effect,” and almost invariably hold at arm’s length, the way Eve should have held that snake.
It is precisely this hardness of mind which creates a gulf between Evelyn Waugh and most American readers. There is a fine edge on, and a perfect balance to, his every perception, and although he is scarcely what you could call unread in the United States, neither is he what you could call understood. When he is not being passed off as “anachronistic” or “reactionary” (an adjective employed by Gore Vidal and others to indicate their suspicion that Waugh harbors certain lingering sympathies with the central tenets of Western civilization), he is being feted as a kind of trans-Atlantic Peter DeVries, a devastating spoofer who will probably turn out really to be another pseudonym for Patrick Dennis.
The review entitled “Gentleman in Battle” appeared in the 27 March 1962 issue of the National Review and reportedly has not been included in previous collections. It can be viewed at this link. De Vries and Dennis had careers as comic novelists in the mid 20th century. Dennis’s best know works were Auntie Mame and Little Me, the only of his 16 comic novels written between 1953-1972 that are still in print. De Vries published 37 comic novels between 1940-1986, four of which, including the best known– Tunnel of Love and The Blood of the Lamb–remain in print.
The obituary notice in the National Review lists what are probably Didion’s best known works:
Didion, an acclaimed essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, was known for works including Play It As It Lays [novel and film], The White Album [essay collection], and her best-selling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, for which she won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
She reportedly stopped writing in 2011, but a new collection of her essays (Let Me Tell You What I Mean) was published earlier this year and will soon be issued in paperback. This included essays not previously collected that were written between the late 1960s and the year 2000. A more detailed obituary appears in the New York Times. An earlier discussion about Didion’s career at the National Review appeared in a previous posting.