Still in Books and Arts; Joan Didion memoir;Kind of blue;
Blue Nights. By Joan Didion.
Few memoirs are worth reading. When they are not tawdry opportunities to air grievances, settle scores or rationalise errors, they tend to be tales of adversity with a triumphant twist. This is what makes Joan Didion unique. Her non-fiction has always considered grand matters from a personal perspective, without making herself the centre of the story. Even when she writes about the hard drama of her own life, such as the sudden death of her husband followed by the death of her only daughter, her stories manage to be larger than her own grief.
This is how a memoir like “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005) became a bestseller. In writing about the year that followed the fatal heart attack of John Gregory Dunne, her husband of nearly 40 years, Ms Didion used her experience to reflect on the fundamental absurdity of death. She movingly considered the way time makes the ordinary gifts of life extraordinary. The unmentioned horror of the book—an event that took place after she had finished writing but before it was published—was that her daughter Quintana Roo was dead, too, undone by a series of health problems that ended with acute pancreatitis at the age of 39.
With “Blue Nights”, her first book since the earlier memoir, Ms Didion conveys the loneliness of living on without her child or husband, and the indignities of ageing. For decades her life had been charmed, even more so than she had realised. But in a matter of months in 2003 everything turned unspeakably grim. “It is horrible to see oneself die without children,” she quotes Napoleon as saying. This is a difficult book, but not a sentimental one. Ms Didion has a remarkable ability to consider her own feelings without letting her prose turn soggy with emotion.
“Today would be her wedding anniversary,” she writes at the beginning, and then evokes the scene of her daughter's summer wedding in Manhattan in 2003.There were cucumber and watercress sandwiches, and a peach-coloured cake from Payard. Quintana wore stephanotis in her hair. Ms Didion returns to these details in later chapters—the stephanotis, the cake—using this repetition to illustrate the way she is haunted by memories. After a lifetime of travel and dynamism, she now appears anchored in New York by the detritus of life. Her drawers and cupboards are filled with mementoes (her husband's raincoats, her daughter's baby teeth) which serve “only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
The appeal of Ms Didion has long been her insight mixed with something glamorous; she is both of this world and a world apart. Memories here are cluttered with brand names (Chanel, Corvette, the Ritz) and glittering friends (Natasha Richardson, Patti Smith). The effect can be distracting, but Ms Didion sometimes uses these details to worry over the oddity of Quintana's life (her adopted daughter often struggled with depression), and also to marvel at her own naivety. “I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents,” she writes. In regarding herself as a mother, her remorse festers unchecked.
Now 75, Ms Didion's gaze is turned backwards. Her recollections meander and loop back, interrupted only by distressing questions that no one is left to answer (“Did I get this all wrong?”). Often these questions consider the choices she made as a mother (“Was I always the problem?”) and her own increasing frailty (“What if I can never again locate the words that work?”). With “Blue Nights”, named for the intense and portentous beauty of the dying light on a summer day, Ms Didion has translated the sad hum of her thoughts into a profound meditation on mortality. The result aches with a wisdom that feels dreadfully earned.