From JOHN BANVILLE
Somewhere in his published diaries the playwright Alan Bennett observes that when misfortune befalls a writer the effect of it is in a small but significant measure ameliorated by the fact that the experience, no matter how dire, can be turned into material, into something to write about. Thus Joan Didion, after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003, made out of her bereavement a remarkable book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which became an international success, speaking directly as it must have not only to those who themselves had been recently bereaved, but to hundreds of thousands of readers wishing to know what it feels like to lose a loved one, and how they might themselves prepare for the inevitable losses that life sooner or later will cause us all to suffer.
Now Didion has written a companion piece to that book. “Blue Nights” is an account of the death, in 2005, of her and Dunne’s adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, and more specifically, of Didion’s struggle, as a mother and a writer, to cope with this second assault upon her emotional and, indeed, physical resources. The new book, no less than its predecessor, is honest, unflinching, necessarily solipsistic and, in the way of these things, self-lacerating: Did she do her duty by her daughter, did she nurture her, protect her, care for her, as a mother should? Did she, in a word, love her enough? These are the kinds of questions a survivor — the relict, as the old word has it — will put to herself, cannot avoid putting to herself; questions all the more terrible in that there is no possibility of finding an answer to them. As Didion says, “What is lost is already behind the locked doors.”
Throughout her career, in her novels and especially in her journalism, Didion has been a connoisseur of catastrophe. Early on she forged — ambiguous word — a style for dealing with the world’s dreads and disasters, a style that has been much admired and much imitated. Her tone, measured yet distraught, is that of a witness who has journeyed, consciously if not willingly, to the heart of private and, more momentously, public horror in order to bring us back the bad news. Although she is always balanced, she is not a disinterested reporter; she writes with a numbed eloquence, and at its best her writing catches with awful immediacy the acrid flavor of an age that has known the Nazis’ death camps, Hiroshima, cold war terror, as well as the smaller nastinesses, the riots, the assassinations, the massacres — the mayhem that informs the noisy background of all our lives in a time that seems to have lost its collective mind.
But style takes the stylist only so far. In “The Year of Magical Thinking” Didion confessed, if that is the word, that “even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.” With the death of her husband, however, she needed “more than words to find the meaning.”
Now, six years later and in the aftermath of a second devastating personal calamity, her predicament as a writer has sharpened, and writing “no longer comes easily to me. For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. . . . I see it differently now. I see it now as frailty.” And this frailty, she recognizes, or feels she recognizes, is what her daughter feared, and that fear, we are given to understand, is one of the forces the mother thinks may have propelled the daughter to her untimely death.
Quintana Roo was named on a happy whim — “We had seen the name on a map when we were in Mexico a few months before and promised each other that if ever we had a daughter (dreamy speculation, no daughter had been in the offing) Quintana Roo would be her name.” Born in March 1966, the child was formally adopted by Didion and her husband the following September. When the ceremony was over “we took her from the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles to lunch at the Bistro in Beverly Hills.” Thus a pattern was set from the start, though Didion is sharply resistant to the notion that her daughter was “ ‘privileged,’ somehow deprived of a ‘normal’ childhood.”
Didion has always been the perennial insider — even if she has sometimes pretended otherwise, acting the wide-eyed ingénue from lil’ old Sacramento who nevertheless will play it as it lays — first on the West Coast and now on the East, the one who knows whom to know and where to go, who can tell you if not the best then certainly the most fashionable place to eat, to buy designer apparel, to entrust with the task of making up Hawaiian leis for a Manhattan wedding. Her texts are littered with brand names, and “Blue Nights” is no exception: Christian Louboutin shoes, cakes from Payard, suites at the Ritz and the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Dorchester in London. Even the far past is stuck with labels, like an old-fashioned traveling trunk. In 1966, seeking an assignment to Saigon, “I even went so far as to shop for what I imagined we would need: Donald Brooks pastel linen dresses for myself, a flowered Porthault parasol to shade the baby, as if she and I were about to board a Pan Am flight and disembark at Le Cercle Sportif.” No wonder that Didion, back in 1966 in the midst of a hectic life as half of one of the hottest writing partnerships in Hollywood, could not stop herself from wondering, when the adoption became a reality, “What if I fail to love this baby?”
From the evidence of this book, that fear is groundless. Yet the needle of such doubt drives deep. When John Gregory Dunne died, Quintana Roo was in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City, suffering from a viral infection that had turned into pneumonia. She might have died, but instead recovered. Some 20 months later she fell ill with acute pancreatitis; this time she did not recover. Her life, what we can glean of it from the pages of “Blue Nights,” was joyful, intense, troubled. Despite her “depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes” — which, as Didion ruefully observes, were eventually “diagnosed” and given names, like manic depression — Quintana is a fleeting presence in these pages, as if her mother cannot bear to evoke her too vividly, for fear of the pain such conjuring might provoke. “You have your wonderful memories,” people tell her mother, but her mother knows better: “Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
“Blue Nights,” though as elegantly written as one would expect, is rawer than its predecessor, the “impenetrable polish” of former, better days now chipped and scratched. The author as she presents herself here, aging and baffled, is defenseless against the pain of loss, not only the loss of loved ones but the loss that is yet to come: the loss, that is, of selfhood. The book will be another huge success, for reasons not mistaken but insufficient. Certainly as a testament of suffering nobly borne, which is what it will be generally taken for, it is exemplary. However, it is most profound, and most provocative, at another level, the level at which the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.
John Banville is the author, most recently, of “The Infinities,” a novel.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
A review on Nov. 6 about “Blue Nights,” Joan Didion’s account of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, misstated the time that passed between the death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and that of Quintana herself. It was some 20 months, not three years. (John Gregory Dunne died in December 2003 and Quintana in August 2005.)
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