I was thrilled when I heard one of my favorite literary journalists, Joan Didion, was speaking about her latest memoir, Blue Nights, in, of all places, New Hampshire.
Didion seemed at once the smartest of all the New Journalists documenting the 1960s and ‘70s scenes and the least concerned with the accolades heaped on that literary movement. She just got on with the work.
If, like me, you’ve followed her career from the early days, perhaps you’re as in awe as I am of her way with sentences. The accretion of facts and details – about California, hippies, El Salvador, Miami, migraines – that leads to stunning revelations and brilliant observations about the world around us. I’m always rereading Didion, and I discover something new every time, about her writing and her subjects.
As a fan, the publication of a new Didion book always was cause for celebration – followed by long, deep stretches of reading. The last two books have been more painful, as Didion dealt with the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in The Year of Magical Thinking, and then with the passing of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.
“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” Didion emphasizes in the second chapter of Blue Nights, where she begins to explore the secret that so many of us harbor – that we and those we love will be exempt from the ravages of time.
When I tell you that I’m not going to be able to review this book for you – only describe it and share what Didion had to say about it and her writing at the June talk – I hope you’ll understand. I’m too daunted to provide critical distance and, frankly, losing a child is such an individual blow that I feel any comparison or critique only diminishes the experience each author endures.
A Strong Voice in the Gloaming
Didion dissects the meaning of her title in the opening chapter, starting with the meteorological – “there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice…when the twilights turn long and blue” – and concluding, a page later, with the metaphorical: “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
It turned out to be a hot, clear blue night, the night she appeared, a few hours before the arrival of the summer solstice. Didion spoke at the beautifully renovated Music Hall in the now-thriving downtown area of New Hampshire’s oceanfront city, Portsmouth.
She was helped onstage by an assistant, and there were many pauses in her reading, but her voice was strong. At first sight – wearing tortoiseshell-frame glasses, a black sweater on this sweltering night, and black tights too baggy for her petite frame – my first impression was “frail.”
“I’d just as soon prefer to not feel as fragile,” she told the packed hall, addressing her current state, which is also a theme in the book. “Life no longer seems as simple and straightforward as it once did.”
With her legs crossed and arms tucked into her torso, she barely took up half the space in her chair. Frequently dropping personal pronouns added to the sense of discomfort in the spotlight.
Nevertheless, like always, she got on with the work, promoting Blue Nights, now out in paperback, autographing 1,000 or more copies, and giving short, but astute answers to her onstage interlocutor, as well as to questions submitted by the audience.
“I decided I was a writer as a very young child,” she said of her chosen career. “My mother gave me a notebook and advised me to write to stop whining about being bored.”
The Writer as Interpreter
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” she’d written in 1968’s landmark appraisal of the people, politics and culture that would be known as “The Sixties” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
What did she mean by that?
“Nobody wants to be interpreted by somebody else. Being written about is not a good experience,” she explained. “It’s always the way someone else sees you. That’s what I meant.”
It was interesting to think about her answer in the context of Blue Nights. Didion is unusually clear-eyed in her journalism. This latest memoir is by no means the standard chronological narrative of the series of medical nightmares that ultimately took Quintana’s life 20 months after they first appeared. Nor does the story flow from Quintana’s birth and adoption by the Dunnes through childhood episodes and onward to the teen years, young adulthood and marriage.
Didion takes her younger self to task for the way she parented Quintana. She shares various scenes from her daughter’s life – childhood fears and examples of precociousness, her wedding – but allows the reader to draw her own conclusions. (Which, to my mind, is incredibly generous given some of the criticism Didion has endured over not revealing all during the writing of these two memoirs. Some writers might not have been able to resist answering those critics in their next book…)
Didion takes great care not to sell her daughter out. She asks questions – “Was that her anxiety or mine?” – rather than make definitive statements. Quintana’s medical problems seem to run their course without doctors making definitive findings or statements, so how could the writing about them be otherwise?
It’s no easy feat to bare your grief and your shortcomings and your fears of the future all in one go.
Asked what her advice to a 33-year-old writer might be, Didion stated: “Appreciate it.”
Reading the book afterward, you understand the full context for such a blunt remark:
“My physical confidence seems to be reaching a new ebb. My cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether. Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.
The tone needs to be direct.
I need to talk to you directly, I need to address the subject as it were, but something stops me.
Is this another kind of neuropathy, a new frailty, am I no longer able to talk directly?
Was I ever?
Did I lose it?
Or is the subject in this case a matter I wish not to address?”
As much as she worries about losing her faculties in Blue Nights, onstage in June, she was clear (and her own harshest critic) in her analysis: “Everything I’ve ever written has been indirect. I think I got closer to it in this book.”
Comparing the two memoirs, her interviewer noted that whereas Magical Thinking was about somebody who’s gone through an experience and come out the other side, Blue Nights is about somebody who hasn’t and doesn’t know if she will.
“I still haven’t,” Didion responded.
“Aging is the experience that [I] may not survive,” she added, leaving out the pronoun again.
But dying isn’t what Didion fears the most after the loss of her husband and daughter.
“The fear is for what is still to be lost,” she writes. “You may see nothing still to be lost.”
I won’t give away how Didion ends Blue Nights; read the final pages of this brave memoir, and you’ll understand what she means.
Writing that inspired me:
“In other words it was another story without a narrative.”
~ Joan Didion, “The White Album, 1968 – 1978,” from The White Album