Hunting Diane

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Dominique Nabokov
Diane Johnson, San Francisco, 1987; photograph by Dominique Nabokov. More than fifty of Nabokov’s photographs of writers, editors, and others are collected in Dominique Nabokov: The World of The New York Review of Books, the catalog of a recent exhibition at NYU’s Maison Française. It includes an introduction by Ian Buruma.

Early in Diane Johnson’s new memoir, Flyover Lives, she reports on a house party in Provence, a gathering so fraught with social discomfort and mannerly hostility that it could be a scene in one of her witty, sharply observed novels. En route from Paris to Italy, Johnson and her husband John stop at the rented holiday home of a French friend, Simone, who is married to a former US Army colonel; the couple is sharing the house with a group of retired American generals and their decorative, geisha-like wives. There is considerable fuss about the food (the military wives are accomplished, fiercely competitive cooks) and some amicable small talk. While the men play tennis, the wives alternately interrogate and patronize the newly arrived writer:

“I could never write a book. How marvelous for you,” Lynne was saying. “I’m absolutely too damn stupid and that’s a fact,” which seemed to mean: stupidity is exactly what’s needed for book writing, bitch, and fortunately I’m too smart for that.

After the “Provençale triumph” of dinner, amid a spirited discussion of historical memory, the overburdened Simone—presumably exhausted by the strain of coping with her contentious housemates and perhaps alarmed by the possibility that her husband may be ill—fractures the brittle façade of politesse to hold forth on the Americans’ “indifference to history…. That’s why Americans seem so naive and always invade the wrong countries.’”

Johnson, who lives in Paris, has written about the ways in which being abroad can make one acutely conscious of being American and consequently vulnerable when Europeans criticize our country, even (or especially) when we fear that their complaints are valid. In this case, Johnson’s readers may feel an urge to intercede in her defense. No one could characterize her eleven novels as being indifferent to history. Each takes place at a specific historical moment, and her protagonists display the anxieties of that era, along with the more enduring behaviors we choose to call human nature. Iran in the tense lead-up to the Khomeini revolution provides the background for Persian Nights (1987); Lulu in Marrakech (2008) follows a CIA operative to Morocco during the “war on terror”; the heroine of Lying Low (1978) is on the run from the authorities after having been involved in a laboratory bombing staged to protest the war in Vietnam.

In Johnson’s trilogy of novels set in France—Le Divorce (1997), Le Mariage (2000), and L’Affaire (2003)—the French, perhaps alerted by the success of EuroDisney, seem newly and rather ferociously determined to protect their ancient civilization from the encroachments of Mickey Mouse. Johnson has written a life …

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