Joan Didion finds herself counting syllables.
If this is part of her brilliance, and it is, it’s largely because of who she is as an observer; meticulous but detached, intimate yet removed. These paradoxes are how she draws you in.
The penchant for counting reveals what may seem like another paradox, but is actually the lifting of a veil: Didion shows that her language is musical but also mathematical, that she engineers her writing to sing.
In her most recent book, Blue Nights, she describes the song of her prose as inextricable from its mechanics:
In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying. Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than ‘xxx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ symbols that meant ‘copy tk,’ or ‘copy to come,’ but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.
But long before Blue Nights, Didion was counting syllables in a New Yorker piece about how much control a writer has over his or her life’s work. The November 1998 essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t,” is vintage Didion; penetrating, deliberate down to the last comma, streaked with cynicism and flashes of earnestness — all qualities that echo Hemingway himself. The piece is so meta that it tugs the reader to the edge of the uncanny.
Didion writes about Hemingway but she is also writing about writing, and in turn writing about herself. In essence, this is three stories in one.
She sashays between the technical and lyrical. (The piece begins with her counting the syllables in Hemingway’s poetic first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. This pragmatism gives way to her own fluid and descriptive style.) At first she appears to seesaw from writing to writing about writing. But by the end of the piece it’s clear that she’s been doing both, concurrently, throughout.
The structural latticework of the essay both lays out Hemingway’s style and adopts aspects of it to drive the piece forward. For example, she writes about Hemingway’s omissions as narrative choices, and then uses omissions just as he did.
First she’s examining “four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words,” obsessing over Hemingway’s repetition of “the” and of “and” and about the rhythm he established by leaving out another “the” in his fourth sentence. (The power of such an absence, she says, is in the chill it casts. It’s a warning, a premonition, a “foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.”)
Then she’s describing the snapshots in our “national memory stream” of Hemingway’s life — “the celebrated author fencing with the bulls at Pamplona, fishing for Marlin off Havana, boxing at Bimini, crossing the Ebro with Spanish loyalists, kneeling beside ‘his’ lion or ‘his’ buffalo or ‘his’ oryx on the Serengeti Plain.”
Implicit in this string of collective memories is the question of omission — what have we left out?
The close reader will notice that this question is itself the device she’s described, a foreshadowing of the story to come. Didion next goes on to describe in arresting detail Hemingway’s 1961 suicide: the double-barreled Boss shotgun he emptied into the center of his forehead, how he became a “crumpled heap of bathrobe and blood, the shotgun lying in the disintegrated flesh.”
For the rest of the piece, Didion brings Hemingway back to life, lacing her descriptions of him with hints of who she is.
Consider how she casts his way of “moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism,” his writing as dictating “a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching.”
Didion also writes of Hemingway as “a man to whom words mattered,” that “he got inside them.”
Hemingway, too, had a tendency to count. Didion presents this excerpt from a letter Hemingway wrote to his publisher in early 1961:
Have material arranged as chapters—they come to 18—and am working on the last one—No 19—also working on title. This is very difficult. (Have my usual long list—something wrong with all of them but am working toward it—Paris has been used so often it blights anything.) In pages typed they run 7, 14, 5, 6, 9 1/2, 6, 11, 9, 8, 9, 4 1/2, 3, 1/2, 8, 10 1/2, 14 1/2, 38 1/2, 10, 3, 3: 177 pages + 5 1/2 pages + 1 1/4 pages.”
Didion says she finds the excerpt alarming, though she never explicitly says why. Is she disquieted because his counting is impossible to understand? Or is it because Hemingway died before he finished the project he’s describing?
The project would be published posthumously as A Moveable Feast. But, as Didion points out, Hemingway never called it that. To him, it was just “the Paris stuff.” He never settled on a title. This paradox — what the writer called his work and what someone else called it for him — is ultimately an exploration of the writer’s solitude. The idea is that a writer’s intentions exist in one universe and everyone else’s expectations about the writer’s work exist in another. The only overlap is in the writing itself, an endeavor that Didion presents as potentially deadly in and of itself.
“The peculiarity of being a writer,” Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” (Just by making this statement Didion clearly inserts herself, the writer, into the story.)
Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.
The manuscript that became True at First Light, was some 850 pages long when Hemingway died. That this sprawling “African novel,” as Hemingway called it, would be “reduced by half by someone other than their author” meant that the story “could go nowhere the author intended them to go,” Didion says.
She sees this publication as a fundamental “denial of the idea that the role of the writer in his or her work is to make it.” A writer’s notes, she declares, are “words set down but not yet written.” But by referencing a writer’s unfinished notes in her final published piece, Didion raises the question of her own process. This suggests yet another omission: The process behind her story that the reader will never see.
Didion, not surprisingly, comes across as empathetic to the writer’s need to have authority over his words, and his need to sort things out on his own. Hemingway once wrote to his attorney that he had “a diamond mine if people will let me alone and let me dig the stones out of the blue mud and then cut and polish them.” Hemingway’s mine was deep, heavy and full. Yet for all of that darkness and weight, his writing — and Didion’s, and Didion’s writing about Hemingway’s writing — rings with clarity. (Hemingway’s reference to his “diamond mine” calls to mind something Boris Kachka, the New York magazine writer, once wrote about Didion. Kachka said reading her work is “like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold.”)
At the crescendo of Didion’s piece, as she describes what we know as True at First Light, there are moments that read as though she is talking about Hemingway and herself at the same time, about her relationship with him as a writer from the time when she was a little girl clacking out his words on her typewriter just to see how it would feel to write like he did. She’s writing about Hemingway, writing about writing, writing about herself:
There are arresting glimpses here and there, fragments shored against what the writer must have seen as his ruin, and a sympathetic reader might well believe it possible that had the writer lived (which is to say had the writer found the will and energy and memory and concentration) he might have shaped the material, written it into being, made it work as the story the glimpses suggest, that a man returning to a place he loved and finding himself at three in the morning confronting the knowledge that he is no longer the person who loved it and will never now be the person he had meant to be.
And then, another layer emerges, as Didion acknowledges that Hemingway had written this very idea into being, through the writer character in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Didion quotes Hemingway: “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” She goes on: “And then, this afterthought, the saddest story: ‘Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.'” Such fear of failure must feel even more visceral for a writer like Didion, who has said that novels are “about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with.”
The afterthought from Hemingway’s “Snows” character becomes the bookend that mirrors the beginning of Didion’s piece, the counting of syllables in the first 126 words of A Farewell to Arms.
“Only one of the words has three syllables,” she had written. “Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one.”
Though Didion leaves it to the reader to find that solitary three-syllable word or not, it’s no mistake she both singles it out and never identifies it at the same time. The omission is a clue, a chilling premonition:
Three syllables: Afterward.
Adrienne LaFrance (@AdrienneLaF) is a national reporter for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, where she specializes in investigative reporting and breaking news. She was previously a staff reporter at Nieman Journalism Lab. Before that she opened the Washington bureau of Honolulu Civil Beat, where she covered Congress, federal elections and the intersection of money and politics. She has also reported and written for the Washington Post, worked as a news producer at WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate, and as a local news anchor for Hawaii’s NPR affiliate.