Writing grief: Joan Didion, Blue Nights
21st December 2011
Joan Didion surely did not expect to write two meditations on death. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) explores grief’s strange processes and how she learned to recognise them when her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly in 2003. When Dunne died their only child Quintana Roo Dunne Michael lay gravely ill in an intensive care unit; she died in August 2005. Blue Nights is a sequel in a way, but also a dazed departure into how much more there is to learn about personal suffering. Critics have noted that Didion’s writing is more spasmodic and less assured than in the earlier book.
The Year of Magical Thinking captured the thoughts and sympathy of many; Didion and David Hare adapted the book into a play, to international acclaim; the phrase seems to have entered the language. But it also attracted negative criticism. Frances Stonor Saunders placed the book in the expanding category of ‘grief memoir’, where at its upper level, famous authors can count on the ‘professional support group’ of other writers and reviewers: ‘the bereaved writer [thus] projects his or her mask of mourning into the public domain and can expect to be treated with a kind of 19th-century douceur’. While her critical essay seems more directed at Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story than at Didion’s book, Saunders regards these memoirs as indulgent and disingenuous:
Grief does not defeat language. It can be expressed, quietly or rowdily. JCO, [Meghan]O’Rourke, [Francisco] Goldman et al angle their memoirs as demonstrations of feelings. They protest, using slogans and placards. They complain that the good old ways of mourning are dead. All the ritual has gone, the religious props, the collective gathering in, and grief is now banished to some remote and frosty interior Scapa Flow where we just have to tough it out alone. “My pervasive loneliness was a result … of the privatisation of grief,” O’Rourke discovers (as opposed to the result of pervasive loneliness?). This nostalgic reworking of the past is toxic for being unexamined and ahistorical. The ancients surrounded grief with vehement passions and rites (think of Achilles), but they didn’t suffer less for it, as the stoics recognised.
In fact, Didion does think about how mourning rites change, in both TYOMT and her California memoir Where I Was From. Noting that Emily Post’s best-selling etiquette guide was written in the aftermath of the 1918 influenza epidemic, Didion recalls how Mrs Post’s advice accorded with her family’s understanding of public mourning:
When someone dies, I was taught growing up in California, you bake a ham. You drop it by the house. You go to the funeral. If the family is Catholic you also go to the rosary but you do not wail or keen or in any other way demand the attention of the family. In the end Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read.
Have you read Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking? Do you agree that they fit a contemporary pattern of writing and thinking about grief? Please post a comment with your thoughts.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005); Blue Nights (2011) both published by Fourth Estate, London.
Photo: Joan Didion., colourised by H. Weeks. Reproduced for educational purposes only. No copyright claim intended.