Notebooks & Pencils

I am not equating Joan Didion to the magnitude of Virginia Woolf (although I enjoy the works of both authors immeasurably). The writing styles are by no means identical; however, they share some similarities that I do not believe are a result of mere coincidence. While reading Woolf's, "Street Haunting: A London Adventure," a few select passages in Didion's well-known nonfiction essay, "On Writing A Notebook" unexpectedly came to mind. It occurred to me, that the same woman who would create buying a pencil after World War I into an occasion, would likely keep a notebook during the Vietnam War.

The narrator in "Street Haunting" meditates, "One is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman called Kate that they are talking, how "I said to her quite straight last night . . . if you don't think I'm worth a penny stamp, I said . . ." But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know; for Kate sinks under the warmth of their volubility; and here, at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the lamp-post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the stop press news. Do they thin, then, that fortune will ever convert their rags into fur and broadcloth, sling them with watch-chains, and plant diamond pins where there is now a ragged open shirt? But the main stream of walkers at this hour sweeps too fast to let us ask such questions" (Woolf).

This interrupted thought-manner of writing is mirrored in much of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s collective work. In "On Writing A Notebook," Didion recalls various single moments throughout her life that she captured in her journal. Those moments are not explained with the help of length anecdotes, but random phrases, years and names. Woolf’s "If you don’t think I’m worth a penny stamp," is Didion’s, "So what’s new in the whiskey business." Didion writes:

"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in silence for a little while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years - the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who always got off with me at Grand Central - looked older than they once had."

One hotel, one scene, one passerby Didion overhears, creates the very "fabricated lifetime" Woolf’s narrator is speaking of. In both passages there’s the men in conversation; there’s Kate and there’s the blonde. There’s capitalist and feminist undertones. There is the judgment. But more than that, there is the answer to Woolf. In "Street Haunting" there is too much visual stimulation to stop and ask questions with regard to what one is witnessing. Perhaps we can only ask the questions later on. Didion is writing her rereading of the notebook. She's had many of these "walks" and is now in a position to ask questions, to reflect on why she noticed the things she did or continues to. Both the narrator and Didion are affected by the same sights and remake the same sights. In a small way, Didion’s sad spinster is the narrator’s dwarf; her mink coat, the narrator’s diamond pins; her whiskey business, the narrator’s wire from Newmarket. And the reader is left to form their own opinions about the two women judging them.

More importantly, both authors are living in the mind frame of war. As a progressive woman and writer, Woolf is a form of counterculture in her own right, and in effect, the narrator of "Street Haunting" owns a small part of that. Didion happens to be a woman who embodies those qualities as well. She lived during the era that defined counterculture, the time to ask questions and demand answers. Whether it is the unique conditions these women worked under that is responsible for the minor resemblances, is something to think about. Whether Didion was influenced by Woolf, I do not know. Still, in essence, buying a pencil and writing a notebook can be one in the same.