Joan Didion! Magical Moments and Blue Nights
Updated: May 1
"Htjela sam više od tek noći uzdaha i sjećanja. Htjela sam vrištati. Htjela sam da se vrati." / "I wanted more than a night of memories and sighs. I wanted to scream. I wanted him back."
After the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion spent a year of her life immersed in “magical thinking”. Unable to come to terms with the loss and accept John's death, Joan lived in a limbo of anticipation, constantly contemplating about the possibility of changing the outcome of that devastating event. Born out of this agonizing period was her outstanding book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion described her painful grieving process and how she eventually came to accept her loss. In this week's ZiNger we will take a closer look at Didion's life and analyse her work, more precisely her acclaimed book The Year of Magical Thinking.
Joan Didion (December 5, 1934) is an American writer known for her novels and essays in which the main theme is individual and social fragmentation. Didion won the National Book Award in 2005, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography for The Year of Magical Thinking. In 2007 she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to the American Letters from the National Book Foundation.
"Cijeli svoj život pišem. Kao spisateljica, čak i kao dijete, davno prije nego što su počeli objavljivati što pišem, razvila sam neki osjećaj da samo značenje nastanjuje ritam riječi, i rečenica, i odlomaka..." [I've been writing my whole life. As a writer, even as a child, long before they started publishing what I was writing, I developed a sense that meaning itself inhabits the rhythm of words, and sentences, and paragraphs...] (Godina magičnog razmišljanja, transl. A. Savković)
She was born in Sacramento, California. From an early age Didion showed a penchant for writing and was an avid reader. Joan’s family moved frequently and this affected her education which was not consistent in her early childhood. The family ultimately settled in California where Joan graduated from the University of California, and during her senior year won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. The prize was a research assistant job and Didion ended up working for the magazine for seven years, eventually becoming the associate feature editor. Didion wrote essays and reviews on American politics, popular culture and the media, as well as columns on her private life. She also wrote for other magazines such as Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times Magazine...
In 1963, she published her first novel, Run River, and a year later she married John Gregory Dunne, fellow writer and friend who helped her edit the book. They met in New York while Joan was working for Vogue and John for Time magazine. The couple then moved to California and in 1966 they adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. In 1968, Joan published a collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which established her reputation as an essayist. Joan and John wrote personal articles together and joined the generation of writers who created the so-called New journalism associated with writers such as Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. New journalism is a style of news writing and journalism, developed in the 1960s and 1970s, that combined journalistic research with fiction writing techniques in reporting stories of real events. Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she subjectively approached essay writing and included her personal feelings and memories, is a classic example of such a style.
“I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
Two years after Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion published the novel Play It As It Lays which became a bestseller and was nominated for a National Book Award, followed by the novel Common Prayer published in 1977. Two years later she published her second collection of essays White Album in which she documented the history and politics of California in the late 1960s and early 70s, as well as her mental difficulties, and this collection established Didion as a prominent writer of California culture and is considered to be "znamenitim književnim mozaikom" [a famous literary mosaic] (transl. A. Savković). Salvador (1983) is a chronicle of personal observations written by Didion after John and she visited El Salvador, which was torn apart by the civil war. The following year she published the novel Democracy which became a bestseller and in 1987 a book of social and political analysis of Miami in which she referred to the Cuban emigrant community in that city. After Henry (also published as Sentimental Journeys) is a collection of essays published in 1992, dedicated to her late friend, editor and mentor Henry Robbins, followed by the romantic thriller The Last Thing He Wanted (1966).
"Život se mijenja u trenu. Sjedneš za večeru i dosadašnji život je gotov."' / "Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
On December 30, 2003, Joanna's life changed forever in the instant. John died of a heart attack at the table in their living room where Joan and he had just sat down to dinner after returning from a visit to their daughter Quintana, who was lying in the hospital unconscious due to septic shock as a result of pneumonia. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan described the process of mourning and going through a painful period after her husband's death, but she also described their loving marriage and relationship. Two years after John’s death, Didion experienced another tragedy, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis, during Joanna’s promotion of The Year of Magical Thinking in New York City. Didion stated that the book’s promotions helped her cope with a difficult period, and she later wrote about Quintan’s death in the book Blue Nights (2011).
“This book is called "Blue Nights" because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
Didion and Dunne have worked closely together for most of their careers, consulting each other, traveling together on assignments, collaborating on screenplays for movies... Their harmonious relationship and strong bond is visible through Joanna's reminiscences in The Year of Magical Thinking:
"John i ja bili smo u braku četrdeset godina. Tijekom svih njih, osim prvih pet mjeseci našeg braka, kad je John još radio u Timeu, oboje smo radili kod kuće. Bili smo zajedno dvadeset četiri sata dnevno... Ne bih mogla izbrojiti trenutke tijekom prosječnog dana kad bi se pojavilo nešto što sam mu morala reći." [John and I have been married for forty years. During all of them, except the first five months of our marriage, when John was still working at Time, we both worked at home. We were together twenty-four hours a day... I couldn't count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him.] (Godina magičnog razmišljanja, transl. A. Savković)
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion described the stages she went through in her mourning process, beginning with the first night, when her so-called magical thinking, i.e. the belief that John would return, started. She held on to that belief trough the following year, unable to accept her colossal loss.
"Naravno da sam znala da je John mrtav... Ipak, samo nisam bila nimalo spremna prihvatiti tu vijest kao finalnu; postojala je neka razina na kojoj sam vjerovala kako se to što se dogodilo može obrnuti. Zato sam morala biti sama... te prve noći morala sam biti sama. Morala sam biti sama, tako da se on može vratiti. To je bio početak moje godine magičnog razmišljanja." [Of course I knew John was dead... Still, I just wasn't at all ready to accept the news as final; there was a level where I believed that what had happened could be reversed. So I needed to be alone... that first night I needed to be alone. I needed to be alone so he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.] (Godina magičnog razmišljanja, transl. A. Savković)
She sought solace in literature ("U crne dane, tako su me učili od djetinjstva, čitaj, uči, razradi, potraži u literaturi..." / "In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.") and what sometimes helped her cope with the pain and the feeling which Philippe Ariès perfectly summarized in the following sentence: "A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”, were certain passages from books like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which he wrote after his wife’s death (read more about the famous writer in ZiNger: https://www.zvonainari.hr/single-post/2018/11/30/Weekly-ZiNgers-Hodo%C4%8Dasnik-u-drugom-svijetu-The-Inklings-were-here). Other times it was poetry that provided comfort for Didion, and in those moments she would rely on verses from English poet Matthew Arnold's The Forsaken Merman or W.H. Auden's Funeral Blues, and for weeks after John's death she kept repeating verses from Rose Aylmer, by English writer Walter Savage Landora.
Ah, what avails the sceptred race! Ah, what the form divine! What every virtue, every grace! Rose Aylmer, all were thine. Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes May weep, but never see, A night of memories and sighs I consecrate to thee.
"Nights of memories and sighs" were all Didion had left after John was gone. She had to learn how to deal with the loss she refused to fully accept, as well as the fact that certain things and events in life could not be controlled and were beyond her power. The grieving process helped her recognize fear as the source of that desire for control.
"Ipak sam uvijek na nekoj razini strepjela, jer rođena sam strašljiva, da će neki događaji u životu ostati s onu stranu moje sposobnosti da ih kontroliram ili njima upravljam. Neki događaji jednostavno će se zbiti. Ovo je bio jedan od tih događaja. Sjedneš za večeru i dosadašnji život je gotov." [Yet I have always feared on some level, because I was born scared, that some events in life would stay beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down for dinner and life as you know it ends.] (Godina magičnog razmišljanja, transl. A. Savković)
The epiphany came after reading an article in the New York Times about physicist Stephen Hawking, which states that Dr. Hawking said he was wrong when he claimed thirty years ago that information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved from her. The Times argued that the statement was "of great consequence to science", because if Dr. Hawking were right, "it would have violated a basic tenet of modern physics: that it is always possible to reverse time, run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole." Something in that story seemed important to Didion, but it wasn't until a month later that she realized what and how it related to her life and the state she was in after her husband's death.
"Shvatila sam da od posljednjeg jutra 2003. godine, jutra nakon što je umro, pokušavala vratiti vrijeme, odvrtjeti film unazad. Sada je bilo prošlo osam mjeseci, 30. kolovoza 2004., i još sam pokušavala. Razlika je bila u tome što sam u tih proteklih osam mjeseci pokušavala umjesto ovog filma staviti zamjensku rolu. Sada sam pokušavala rekonstruirati sudar, urušavanje mrtve zvijezde." [I realized that since the last morning of 2003, the morning after he died, I was trying to turn back time, to rewind the film. It was now eight months later, August 30, 2004, and I was still trying. The difference was that for the past eight months I had been trying to put a replacement role instead of this film. Now I was trying to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.] (Godina magičnog razmišljanja, transl. A. Savković)
Joan Didion lost the other half of her being in the instant, in one moment that occupied all her thoughts long after it happened. She spent countless hours pondering how she could have prevented that moment, turned back time, acted differently, and perhaps stopped the tragedy that changed her life forever. Didion found relief only when she accepted the fact that some things in life were beyond her power and that she could not control them. Peace came with the realization that life consists of a series of moments that inevitably pass yet they do not vanish, but become eternal memories. And that life itself is a magical moment that at its core encompasses all the horror of loss and the beauty of love.
"Quintana sjedi na suncu u dnevnoj sobi... John me pita koja mi je od dvije kravate draža. Otvaranje kutija s cvijećem na travi pred katedralom i otresanje vode s leija. John nazdravlja prije nego što Quintana reže tortu.." [Quintana sitting in the sunlight in the living room... John asking me which of the two ties I preferred. Opening the boxes of flowers on the grass in front of the cathedral and shaking the water off the leis. John giving a toast before Quintana cut the cake.] (Godina magičnog razmišljanja, transl. A. Savković)
1. Godina magičnog razmišljanja (Godina magičnog razmišljanja (Didion, J. (2009.) Godina magičnog razmišljanja, prev. L. Hölbling Matković, Zaprešić : Fraktura)
2. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Didion
3. New York Times, About Those Fearsome Black Holes? Never Mind, by Dennis Overbye : https://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/22/world/about-those-fearsome-black-holes-never-mind.html