La fameuse Diane Johnson
Best-selling author Diane Johnson visited the Ransom Center last November as a participant in the Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium 2000, and I had the opportunity to meet and talk with her. Johnson’s most recent novel is Le Mariage; she is also the author of the 1997 National Book Award finalist Le Divorce, and Persian Nights, Health and Happiness, Lying Low, The Shadow Knows, and Burning. Although primarily a novelist, Johnson’s writing credits include biographies, screenplays, TV scripts, and essays. Most notably, she co-wrote the screenplay for The Shining (1980) with Stanley Kubrick.
Johnson’s archive has been at the Ransom Center since 1997. Her collection is extensive and consists of drafts for her novels, drafts of screenplays, television scripts, book reviews, articles, essays, unpublished manuscripts—including an early novel called Runes—personal papers, interviews, and correspondence with other authors such as Iris Murdock, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, John Updike, and Mary McCarthy. Interesting finds in Johnson’s collection include her early diaries, a first novel written when she was nine years old—which she told me was saved by a doting mother—her Ph.D. dissertation on the poetry of George Meredith, and photographs and articles from her 1953 guest editorship at Mademoiselle where she worked alongside Sylvia Plath.
Johnson’s novels have been described as “modern comedies of manners.” Her last two novels—Le Divorce and Le Mariage—explore the lives and loves of Americans living in France. In writing them, Johnson told me she feels as if she has gone “against the grain of American letters over the last fifty years,” which has been introspective and confessional. As she wrote in a recent article in the New York Times (September 11, 2000), “I feel myself constantly struggling against some imperative of my own nature that dictates that no matter how much I want to write a serious, moving psychological novel, I end up with the sort of comic or tragicomic novel I have seen referred to as ‘of manners,’ reflecting my interest . . . in the way people behave and especially the way people behave when out of their own culture . . . .”
I, for one, am thankful that she does not win that struggle. Le Divorce and Le Mariage were a joy to read, and she is at work on a third novel that will be part of an Americans in Paris trilogy. Another piece of good news is that Merchant-Ivory Films has just bought the rights to the screenplay for Le Divorce.
An Excerpt From Diane Johnson
The champagne was being passed on silver trays by waiters in black jackets. The smells of melted cheese and little sausages en croute competed with the Christmasy pine and the scented candles. Tim stood rooted to his spot near Cray, who continued to chat mildly with other guests, his eyes straying often to Clara, impossibly beautiful in dark red and with the radiance of her happiness in seeing Lars, whom she had not expected for a week. Tim absently answered congratulations and the waggish denigrations of marriage people put to him.
“How you holding up, Tim? You’ll feel a hell of a lot better when all this is over,” his father said, coming up to him again, having had, it was clear from his newly genial tone, more than one glass of champagne.
“I’m wondering if it isn’t all a big mistake,” Tim said, this observation coming out with more conviction than he’d meant to convey, but not more than he was feeling.
Le Mariage, pp. 296-297, Dutton, © Diane Johnson, 2000