By Joan Didion. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 208 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-307-26767-2.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote the sybilline cultural critic Joan Didion in her opening to The White Album, her chronicle of the revolutionary politics of the 1960s and ’70s. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
Yet grief renders our mythologies and fears a fractured reality. “Disparate images” and “phantasmagoria” are immiscible, defying contours or frames. How do we give form to the bare ruin’d choirs of memory? This spectral question forms a refrain in Blue Nights, a threnody for Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, Didion’s daughter, whose passing from complications from pneumonia and a cerebral hematoma followed the precipitate death of John Dunne, Didion’s husband of four decades, by a mere two years.
The untidy vestiges of sorrow—memories of the white stephanotis flowers in Quintana’s hair, of her feet as she kneels at the altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on her wedding day, months before her death; of the hospital calling when newborn Quintana was ready for adoption; of Quintana’s loving scrawl on the back of a photograph she took, gracing Didion’s desk; Quintana’s words, phrases, poems—unmask the greatest resilience and stoicism, in the face of frailty and neurasthenia, that we’ve seen from Didion yet.
It’s precisely the geomancy of these non-Cartesian landscapes, first charted in The Year of Magical Thinking, that makes Blue Nights so hauntingly memorable, evocative of our foremost chroniclers of grief, the French moderns. The pacing and cadences recall Marguerite Duras’s requiem for her family, and for the fragility of a fly, in Écrire; Simone de Beauvoir’s mourning her mother in Une mort très douce, and Roland Barthes, touched and seared by pictorial representations of death in Camera Lucida.
What we know and revere in Didion, though—the sage skeptic, whose trenchant, spare prose, stripped clean of its cortices by her able editorial hand, leaving what John Leonard aphorized as “gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves”—remains her own, resonating through Blue Nights, written in the interstitial twilight of the summer solstice that the French call “l’heure bleue,” the English, “the gloaming,” when the dying of the light is a memento mori, prefiguring “the end of promise.”
A short version of this piece was published in Ploughshares here.