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Diane Johnson Biography

Diane Johnson comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Diane Lain in Moline, Illinois, 1934. Education: Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, 1951-53, A.A. 1953; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, B.A. 1957; University of California, Los Angeles (Woodrow Wilson fellow), M.A. 1966, Ph.D. 1968. Career: Member of the Department of English, University of California, Davis, 1968-87. Awards: American Association of University Women fellowship, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; American Academy Rosenthal award, 1979; Strauss Living award, 1987. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, New York, New York.



Fair Game. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1965.

Loving Hands at Home. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1968; London, Heinemann, 1969.

Burning. New York, Harcourt Brace, and London, Heinemann, 1971.

The Shadow Knows. New York, Knopf, 1974; London, Bodley Head, 1975.

Lying Low. New York, Knopf, 1978; London, Bodley Head, 1979.

Persian Nights. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

Health and Happiness. New York, Knopf, 1990; London, Chatto and Windus, 1991.

Le Divorce. New York, Dutton, 1997.

Le Mariage. New York, Dutton, 2000.

Uncollected Short Stories

"An Apple, An Orange," in Prize Stories 1973, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1973.



The Shining, with Stanley Kubrick, 1980.


The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. New York, Knopf, 1972; London, Heinemann, 1973.

Terrorists and Novelists. New York, Knopf, 1982.

Dashiell Hammett: A Life. New York, Random House, 1983; as The Life of Dashiell Hammett, London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.

Natural Opium. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.


Critical Studies:

Article by Judith S. Baughman, in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1980, edited by Karen L. Rood, Jean W. Ross, and Richard Ziegfeld, Detroit, Gale, 1981; Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, edited by Marilyn Yalom, Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1983.

(1986) I try not to think about my novels in sum too directly; but I guess I think of them as serious comic novels on subjects of contemporary concern. At the moment I'm writing a novel (set in Iran) about being American, and about political meddling, being a woman, relationships and ideas. I think these are pretty much the subjects of my other novels too. This is the first one not set in California.

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In Fair Game, Diane Johnson's first novel, the characters' movement is toward pairing off and finding stability, despite some outward denials that this is what they want. The characters here are "types": the frustrated virgin, the ambitious executive, the frustrated executive, the ambitious writer, and the libidinous eccentric writer (clearly modeled on Henry Miller). Only in some of the matchmaking and in making the woman writer the author of a children's book taken up by intellectuals, does Johnson show much originality in dealing with the clichéd material.

Beginning with Loving Hands at Home the momentum of the characters' lives tends toward the splitting of bonds between people; man-woman love relationships in particular require heroic efforts to sustain them. In Johnson's later novels the women characters stand almost completely alone.

On the first page of Fair Game a man is said to have a knack for finding "moments of truth" in the course of any experience. Most of Johnson's protagonists are sensitized—at times to an obsessive degree—to this search for epiphanies. In The Shadow Knows N. Hexam is haunted by her premonition of evil and probes every occurrence for significance; Ouida in Lying Low believes in "old" magic, and watches for signs. And, as Karen Fry says in Loving Hands at Home, "It is odd how events follow suspicions, as if, by wondering about things, you cause them to happen." This is often the case in Johnson's work, though the characters are never prepared for the form these conjured-up events ultimately take. Despite this hunger for signs (and, in the early novels, a glut of psychiatrists) Johnson's characters are not particularly inward-looking; the outside world has to nudge or shake them. Karen Fry, for example, discovers she is unhappy with her life only after she impulsively accepts a motorcycle ride from a stranger and falls off: "A pratfall in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard is too large a symbol to be overlooked." Karen, married into a tradition-bound Mormon family, longs to be like a shiftless girl she knew when she was younger; a girl who, in Karen's mind, directed her own fate in defiance of convention. Karen finally does free herself, becomes "shiftless," and takes up residence on the sand at the Pacific beach. There she creates her own symbol: a huge baroque sandcastle she contentedly lets the waves destroy because she knows she has done her work on it well.

In Burning the jolt that forces Barney and Bingo Edwards to look at themselves is the removal of a high hedge that kept out the sight of the disturbing, passionate lives of their psychiatrist neighbor and his patients. Bingo is a perfect wife, "infinitely erudite … witty when she wasn't depressed," and the mother of two. But when she stands in for a junkie mother whose children are about to be taken by the state, her truthful answers to a bank of psychological tests classify her as an unfit mother. Here, as in all Johnson's novels except Fair Game, the main female character encounters women who personify hidden aspects of her own makeup: in Bingo's case, the unfit mother and promiscuous women. With their protective hedge gone, Bingo and Barney are infected with the neighbor's passions and the neighborhood burns—literally.

If the problem in these first three novels is how to attain and manage a passion-filled, self-determinate life, the problem in Lying Low and The Shadow Knows is not one of escaping the clichéd life, but how to be protected from slipping out of such a life into something truly horrible. In Lying Low Marybeth lives "underground," in fear of imprisonment for her part in a political bombing that took a life. Her life of passionate commitment has led her to a decade of the most mundane, restricted kind of life. Marybeth's landlady, Theo, is a dancer who chose the unsung life rather than risk failure trying to become a prima ballerina. Marybeth and Ouida, a Brazilian girl who is hiding from officials who want to have her deported, hide and live in fear of discovery, but when tragedy comes it comes not to them but to Theo while she is trying to move out of her mundane life and do something worthwhile for others.

The Shadow Knows is Johnson's most complex novel, partly because its subject is the indeterminate, lurking nature of evil. N. Hexam begins the new year with a prophetic dread she interprets as a premonition that she will be murdered. As in Loving Hands at Home, the root of her fear is "the realization that life can change on you, can darken like a rainy day; wretchedness and dread can overtake the lightest heart." It is this dread that is N. Hexam's worst enemy. For her evil is a closing circle with its center nowhere and its circumference all around her. (Johnson has said that The Shadow Knows was in part intended to show how race relations stood at the time of its writing, 1974, but the blackness of the two women that figure most prominently in N. Hexam's life is not their most important attribute; what is important about these women is that they live out two of N. Hexam's own possible fates: life drives one mad, while the other is killed by a violent man.)

All through The Shadow Knows N. Hexam tries to solve the puzzle of how and from where the anticipated evil will strike. The method she uses is to conceive an ideal Famous Inspector, someone part lover and part Sherlock Holmes, to whom she compares her own efforts at finding the answers she seeks. (Still, she knows such a Famous Inspector would be unable to understand her fears, because he would be male. Here, more clearly than in her other novels, Johnson insists there is a basic irreconcilable difference between women and men based in their different fears.) When a real life counterpart of this Famous Inspector appears, his name is Dyce, "suggesting the tincture of chance." He tells her many mysteries are insoluble, and so is the voice not of reason but of reality. As in Lying Low the anticipated evil does manifest itself, though in a form N. Hexam never anticipates. Her reaction is one of relief: now that she truly knows evil ("I … have taken on the thinness and the lightness of a shadow …") she can live with it.

One might expect Le Mariage to precede Le Divorce, but exactly the opposite is the case. In the latter book, Isabel Walker, a high-spirited but disorganized drop-out from Berkeley film school, goes to Paris to rally round her stepsister Roxy. Roxy has one child and is pregnant with another; meanwhile, her French husband has left her for another woman. In the aftermath, much of which centers around a valuable painting disputed in the divorce settlement, Isabel gets an education in the conflicts of men and women, French and American. Le Mariage is not a sequel, though it is set in Paris and one of the characters from the earlier book, the faithless husband Antoine de Persand, joins the ensemble cast in a rollicking tale of misunderstanding, misadventure, and romance.

—William C. Bamberger

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