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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 of Dashiell Hammett, and Lesser Lives (1972)—her biography of Mary Ellen Peacock, the daughter of the novelist Thomas Love Peacock and the wife of George Meredith until she eloped with the painter Henry Wallis—has a great deal of interest to say about Victorian attitudes toward women, marriage, and divorce.

But when Simone declares that “it was unusual for Americans to take an interest in history in any form,” we feel that the force of her conviction would hardly be tempered were someone to remind her that one of her listeners had written a novel about the last days of the Shah. By “history” Simone means genealogy: family origins and roots. “Simone asked John and me about our ancestors, and was triumphant when we gave vague answers…. Neither of us had thought much about them beyond a mention of Scotch-Irishness, whatever that was.”

To write a biography, as Diane Johnson has done twice, and to construct fictional characters as proud of their distinguished heritage as some of the French families in her novels, a writer must consider genealogy, a subject that Lesser Lives addresses directly:

It is usual in biographies to take a family as far back as possible, to discern what is inevitable about the subject because of his forebears: the shape of his nose, say. Biographers of Shelley are fond of pointing out that an ancestor of Shelley’s was sent down from Oxford in 1567 for atheism; some fellow two centuries before can always be discovered by our genealogist aunt to have been just like us—same turn for music, or thievery.

But for Simone, an interest in other people’s origins doesn’t count. What she is saying is that most Americans, presumably excepting the genealogist aunt, “had no idea about anything before their own grandfathers, if that.”

The reader of Flyover Lives has reason to feel thankful when Johnson takes her friend’s criticism to heart and feels chagrined by her own ignorance about where she comes from. Her curiosity awakened, she decides to write about her upbringing and to learn about her ancestry.

What gives her memoir its charm and makes it so consistently beguiling is not so much the events it describes—the hardships braved by previous generations, a tranquil midwestern childhood, a career as a novelist and screenwriter, a troubled first marriage and a happy second one, a sojourn in London, a move to France—as the tone in which Johnson relates her recollections, reflections, and discoveries. Fans of her novels will recognize the cheerful, wry bemusement, the rare combination of optimism and clear-sightedness, the humor and the intelligence we have come to expect from her fictional first-person narrators, and from the knowing voice that moves seamlessly from the consciousness of one character to another.

Like her heroines, Johnson appears to have a boundless curiosity about the world and its inhabitants, a quality that prevents her memoir from falling into the traps of that perilous genre: solipsism and self-involvement. Scattered throughout the book are apt, astute observations. On the subject of our Puritan legacy, Johnson writes, “Religious fervor is back today, we might say it comes and goes like seasonal flu, and each time leaves a nation weakened for the next attack.” In a passage about the wishful belief, apparently widespread among Americans, that they have descended from royalty, she notes that this tradition is “the opposite of, say, the Australians, who came to feel it was chic to have a convict ancestor, the lower and more desperate the better: anyone kicked out of England was someone they wanted.” Describing an ancestor’s fear of having sinned and her determination to improve, she comments, “How modern was her mood of intermittent resolution—like people today with their dieting.”

Johnson chronicles her early years in Moline, Illinois, a verdant city on the east bank of the Mississippi:

What did people do in Moline? My parents were teachers, and my father was principal of the high school. Good teachers and schools, the several country clubs and golf courses, and a professional basketball team reflected the true cultural interests of the community—that and high school football, which was the dominant spectator sport and preoccupation.

In addition, children played Parcheesi, Monopoly, croquet, and touch football; women sewed and made quilts. “Until I began to write these recollections, I may not have fully realized what a sheltered nineteenth-century world Moline still was in the 1940s.”

As is often the case, domestic and civic contentment seems not to have precluded an intense desire to escape. Inspired by reading (an early favorite book was Let’s Go ’Round the World with Bob and Betty) and by the ritual viewing of a certain Mrs. Butterworth’s frescoed ceilings, supposedly painted by Tiepolo (“We children lay on our backs in her sumptuous library, lined up like corpses on a tarmac, and gazed reverently up at the frolicking putti”), Johnson dreamed of seeing the ocean, of accompanying the peripatetic Bob and Betty, and of sailing on a pirate ship. “The books in childhood are the ones that can point your life toward something, and though, in the case of a puny midwestern girl, becoming a pirate was not a realistic goal, it took a long time for me to relinquish that hope.”

In fact what young Diane imagined (though she couldn’t have realized it, at the time) was reverse migration, retracing the footsteps of her ancestor René Cossé or Cosset, who left France for America, where he found his name “quickly transmogrified to Connecticut ears as Ranna Cossitt.” Little is known about Ranna or the reasons for his journey.

“Trying to understand what prompted young Frenchmen to go to North America in 1711 has given me a good deal of sympathy for professional historians, who are expected to know things and not encouraged to speculate.” But as she did in Lesser Lives, Johnson uses conjecture to construct the mostly imagined biography of an obscure historical figure who will then “stand for many others”—and help us comprehend what daily existence was like for many people who lived at that time and in that milieu. Like her earlier book, Flyover Lives demonstrates how much can be learned from—and how much sympathy can be generated by—the few available details of a so-called lesser life: “But we know a lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one…. All the days of his life we do not know about but he was doing something, anyway—something happy or bitter or merely dull. And he is our real brother.”

More reliable information exists about the generations that began with Johnson’s great-great-great-grandmother, Anne Cossitt Perkins, who, along with her daughter Catherine, left a rich cache of letters and diaries. Born in 1779, Anne was a pious girl, obsessed with salvation and damnation. Her journal “concentrates, rather unfortunately, on her own spiritual progress, when we might have preferred to hear about what she ate or wore.” Married at eighteen, Anne and her husband John moved to a primitive cabin on the border between Quebec and Vermont, then called Lower Canada, where they struggled with cold, hunger, loneliness, illness, and the fear of Indian attacks.

More worldly and observant than her mother, Catherine wrote, at the age of seventy-six, a memoir from which her great-great-granddaughter has extracted the literary self-portrait of a woman who again sounds remarkably like a character in a Diane Johnson novel. Recalling her grandfather’s death, Catherine writes, “I asked what Grandpa was going to will me, and Uncle Ambrose Jr. said he was going to will me an old cat. Then I went off crying, as I was not very fond of cats, nor am not to this day.” Reading about Catherine’s notion of happiness (“While one seemed solicitous only for the happiness of another, oneself would be happy and beloved”), one may think of L’Affaire’s heroine, Amy Hawkins, a passionate believer in the gospel preached by the anarchist Prince Kropotkin: the human species can only progress not by competition but through mutual aid.

Despite her views on the subject, Catherine was fated to enjoy only a small portion of happiness. After a protracted engagement during which she supported herself by teaching and fended off a shady, unwanted suitor, she married a doctor, with whom she had nine children, only one of whom outlived her. Her terse account of the death, within a brief span, of three small daughters is heartbreaking: “When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.”

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