Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)

I read this book in December and I was deeply moved and impressed. All the more as I remembered that I hadn’t felt the same about The Year of Magical Thinking.

At first view, it is about the same. After suddenly losing her husband Gregory Dunne in 2003, Didion did lose her daughter Quintana twenty months after, aged 39. Talk about rotten luck! In fact, she had been admitted into hospital even before Dunne’s death due to a pneumonia that had turned into something nasty and eventually fatal. Didion was stunned by her husband’s death, but her daughter’s progressive fading is quite another level of tragedy.

In Blue Nights, we get the clarity, the detachment, the rambling of the other book, but somehow softened. She says it herself: writing no longer gets naturally to her, she’s often at a loss for words. I haven’t read any other Didion but those two, but I kind of like this one better.

She doesn’t concentrate as much on the medical details this time, she dwells on her own age, her grief and on to fleeting memories of her daughter’s life. It’s a desperate attempt to cling to the past, while she’s well aware that it’s useless. She writes as a mother who wants to know her daughter and who knows she might never had understood her enough, or shown her enough love.

The issue is particularly sensitive as Quintana is an adopted daughter and Didion herself doesn’t seem, from what we get to read, very motherly (at least in traditional terms, but she has never led a traditional life either). It was mere luck that Quintana was given to them (I’d say “bestowed”), and it must have felt double bad luck that she was taken away from her again.

What I enjoyed most is that she knows how to counter our own objections before they appear. She knows that we will be judgemental about her privileged life, about Quintana’s sheltered childhood. She doesn’t shy away from naming celebrities (from the 1970s), luxury brands and classy hotels because they certainly were part of her life. But the tone of her writing is really heart-breaking. She knows we will find her self-centered, but she still does what she knows best, trying to make her see things through her eyes.

There were other moments when the magic got somehow interrupted and more ticklish questions appeared: how can she not speak of Quintana’s husband at all? Why does she come out so cold with her own daughter, why does she not (dare to) go deeper into her daughter’s analysis instead of into her own? It might be because it was too painful, too private or too difficult. But because of this we get the feeling that her daughter only existed in relation to herself, which is of course very flawed.

What I’m so clumsily trying to express here is that I liked her writing very, very much, even if I’m not sure I would like her in person. I feel as if I’m just at the tip of the iceberg here, and perhaps the tip is not representative of the rest, so I sure want to read more of Didion. It is quite strange that she’s not known in France but for the Year of magical thinking. Any advice where I should turn next?

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4 thoughts on “Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)

  1. I did read The Year of Magical Thinking and found it interesting as a description of the tricks (techniques?) the mind employs at times of great distress. Some years ago I tried a Didion novel and quir halfway through — unusual for me — because I found it so improbable.

  2. You remind me that I have this book somewhere and need to find it and read it. I actually was very moved by The Year of Magical Thinking, so would like to read something that might be even more moving. I love Joan Didion, though. I highly recommend you try Salvadore next. It hit me in the gut (as her experience in El Salvador did her).

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