Blue Nights/Joan Didion: Reflections

Monday, November 14, 2011

I was harder on Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking than many readers were.  I thought it at times too self-consciously clinical, too reported, less felt.  Many of my students at the University of Pennsylvania disagreed with me.  I listened.  Of course I did.  I wanted to be convinced.

I do not feel disinclined about Blue Nights, which I have read this morning and which will break your heart.  The jacket copy describes the book as "a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter."  It is that; in part it is.  But it is also, mostly, as the jacket also promises, Didion's "thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding having children, illness, and growing old."

A cry, in other words, in the almost dark.  A mind doing what a mind does in the aftermath of grief and in the face of the cruelly ticking clock.  Blue Nights is language stripped to its most bare.  It is the seeding and tilling of images grasped, lines said, recurring tropes—not always gently recurring tropes.  It is a mind tracking time.  It is questions:

"How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?"

"What if I can never again locate the words that work?"

"Who do I want to notify in case of emergency?"

Joan Didion, always physically small and intellectually giant, is, as she writes in this book, seventy-five years old.  She is aware of light and how it brightens, then fades.  She writes of blue—a color and a sound that has long obsessed me, and has obsessed writers like Rebecca Solnit.  She writes of the gloaming, a word I will forever associate with the immensely talented Alice Elliott Dark.

Here is how she writes:
You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.  The French called this time of day "l'heure bleue."  To the English it was "the gloaming."  That very word "gloaming" reverberates, echoes—the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour—carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.


Serena said...

what beautiful language

Amy said...

I want to read this.

Karen Harrington said...

I would love to read this. Thanks for showcasing it!

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I love "the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour," which I assume is from Didion. My hesitation is from attributing the pronoun "she" to the closest noun:

...the immensely talented Alice Elliott Dark.
Here is how she writes:

I tried to reserve this book online with my library, but it's "in process" and is the audiobook version. I prefer the book, especially when I want to quote from it.

(BTW, I owe you an email, which I'll send soon. Life keeps getting in the way.)

Lilian Nattel said...

It's a wonderful word--gloaming. TY for posting the excerpt.

Melissa said...

I've always thought I am the only person who didn't like The Year of Magical Thinking - for several of the same reasons you mentioned. I was going to bypass Blue Nights - until this post. Now, you've convinced me to give it a try.

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