Review: Blue Nights by Joan Didion
American essayist Joan Didion's meditation on grief and the death of a child gives Frieda Klotz the blues
Fourth Estate, hardback €19.80, paperback €13.99
Published 09/01/2012 | 06:00
IN Central Park there is a wooden bench bearing the words, "In summertime and wintertime".
Above it is the unlikely name of Joan Didion's daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael 1966-2005. In this memoir Didion says that the friend who made the donation for that bench had gone with her to the hospital where Quintana was being treated at UCLA Berkeley. At that time they still thought she would recover. She writes: "It did not occur to either of us on the day we had the cafeteria lunch in the hospital patio at UCLA that Quintana's recovery would end at this bench."
Blue Nights is Didion's second book-length scrutiny of death. (Her first, The Year of Magical Thinking explored her feelings following her husband's heart attack.) It ends up revealing as much about Didion as it does about her daughter. Didion lays bare her fears of death and of ageing, which she never thought would happen to her, and that worry which may be the biggest parents face: the fear of failing to care for her child.
Didion is one of America's most admired essayists, but she and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, made real money by writing Hollywood screenplays.
This book is a strange blend of glamour and grief, Hollywood stars and tragedy. Quintana had spent a teenage summer in France with Natasha Richardson, who arranged romantic encounters with local boys.
When Quintana died after a 20-month illness of pneumonia, septic shock and brain bleeds, even her funeral would be star studded: Patti Smith sang a lullaby, and the New Yorker journalist Calvin Trillin spoke about her. When Didion talks about the environment in which Quintana grew up it is with a self-conscious awareness of this privilege.
"I look at those photographs now and am struck by how many of the women present were wearing Chanel suits and David Webb bracelets, and smoking cigarettes." It was an era of American confidence and prosperity, when TWA and Pan Am flourished. For women, "it was a way of looking, it was a way of being".
Still, none of these luxuries could shield Quintana from the emotional upheavals of life. As a child she had recurring nightmares of a figure that she called The Broken Man. As an adult she suffered from borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, manic depression and self-medicating alcoholism -- troubles that did not cause her death but which Didion feels responsible for.
Fifty pages into the memoir Didion discloses that Quintana was adopted. She met her biological family when she was in her 30s, but those encounters would only destabilise her further.
Didion approaches this stark material with a characteristically elegant style. The book is structured around recurring themes and images, beginning with flowers in summer bloom. When Quintana got married, which happened to be a few months before she fell ill, she wove white star-shaped stephanotis flowers into her hair.
"She dropped a tulle veil over her head and the stephanotis loosened and fell. The plumeria blossom tattooed just below her shoulder showed through the tulle." Didion later recalls that stephanotis and pink magnolia flowers covered their family home in suburban California. When they moved to New York the new occupant insisted that they pump toxic chemicals into the walls to eliminate termites, killing all of the flowers in the process.
Then there are the blue nights, symbols of transience, which are typical of a New York summer. Didion's extraordinary talents shimmer in her description of these evenings. "During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone ... Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."
The colour blue is not forgotten as the memoir proceeds. At Quintana's adoption Didion had been handed a perfect baby, "out of the blue". After her husband's death Didion drew consolation from W H Auden's poem, Funeral Blues, but Quintana hated it.
What is perhaps most odd about this work is how little we ultimately learn about Quintana, who remains in the background and sometimes fades entirely from view. Didion gives glimpses of what she was like as a little girl, and includes worrying anecdotes -- the time Quintana announced she had cancer, or called up the local psychiatric institution to ask what she should do if she was going crazy (she was five years old). About the adult Quintana, we learn that she was a talented woman who worked as a photographer for Elle Decor and married a man called Gerry, wearing a beautiful dress.
Didion and Dunne worked fastidiously to implant in their daughter's mind the notion that they had picked her out -- a "choice narrative" recommended by childcare practitioners at that time although it is no longer so much in favour. Yet Quintana had continuous anxieties about what would have happened if Didion had not chosen her: "What if you hadn't been home when Dr Watson called?"
As a teenager the refrain became depressive: "Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep." Didion questions repeatedly whether she did the right thing in bringing her up: "Only later did I see that I had been raising her as a doll."
The 75-year-old Didion is a canny figure who watches old videos of actress friends on YouTube and is familiar with Skype. Yet all the technology in the world cannot help her when, in her lavish apartment with 13 telephones, she collapses and is unable to reach any of them. At the hospital she is unsure who she should tell the doctors to notify in case of emergency.
A meditation on grief and age and the death of a child could hardly be uplifting, but Didion's graceful style redeems her memories. Blue Nights is about realising that happiness, health and love are much more than "ordinary blessings".
While they were there Didion says she thought the blue nights would last forever, but in the end she finds that "I had allowed this year's most deeply blue nights to come and go without my notice".
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