I bought Blue Nights in a train station. I said goodbye to a friend and got on the subway and got off and went home. Joan Didion had a signing in Boston the following week and the event sold out before I could buy my ticket. I found this ironic. I started reading.
I read Didion’s previous memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, over the summer. I checked it out from the library, which is something I rarely do, and was reluctant to return it. The book didn’t make me cry, though I expected it to. On the cover of that book, the letters J and O are set in a different color than the rest of the words they are included in. Here, the letters changed are N and O. I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I’ve yet to find a reason.
“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.” (4) Joan Didion ends the first chapter with those sentences, an introduction. She writes about Quintana’s wedding, Quintana being her daughter. She also writes about Quintana’s death, Quintana still being her daughter. She writes of friends who have passed and memories, perception of memories, truth in memories. “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” (13) Told here is a story of age.
She questions herself, her role as a mother, and also as an individual. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion wrote extensively about her relationship with John Dunne, and in Blue Nights she writes extensively about her relationship with Quintana. But these two books are not solely about those two people, or Didion’s relationships with them, and they may not even be considered memoirs. Instead, Didion digs into different aspects of her life and sees what she finds, logic or circumstance or destiny, and shares it. Blue Nights is not a book about being a mother. It is, but it is also about being a daughter, and again a wife, and again a writer, and really just a person. “Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?” (17)
Didion questions all parents, relative to time. Growing up during World War II, Didion writes of her childhood, “There was a war in progress. That war did not resolve around or in any way hinge upon the wishes of children. In return for tolerating these home truths, children were allowed to invent their own lives. The notion that they could be left to their own devices-were in fact best left so-went unquestioned.” (95) Later in that same chapter, Didion writes, “As adults we lose memory of the gravity and terrors of childhood.” (100) She wonders about the depression Quintana struggled with all of her life, the anxiety. She wonders if it was her fault, for not being nurturing enough, or for thinking she could take her around the world, on trips that would give her perspective, yes, but not necessarily confidence. Children no longer had the same devices.
Didion writes candidly about certain experiences, but there is always hesitation, a few holes, enough to keep the mystery. She admits to fearing death, growing older, growing weaker. She writes of a rehearsal for the original production of the stage adaption of The Year of Magical Thinking in which she was afraid to rise from a folding chair. After admitting this, she writes, “When I tell you that I am afraid to get up from a folding chair in a rehearsal room on West Forty-second Street, of what am I really afraid?” (117)
Didion’s writing seems to be an exercise in restraint. Her sentences are meticulously worded, every comma accounted for, each period. The writing flows but also suffers. The reader is forced to read ‘between the lines,’ which may be exactly what Didion is expecting. Occasionally, this is tiring. Other times, the experience is extraordinary because, provided with questions though not always answers, the reader is forced to find the answers alone. What is extraordinary about this is that they are there.
On the final page of the book, Didion seems to reach a sort of conclusion. “I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost…the fear is for what is still to be lost.” (188) She remains a wife, and a mother, years later. Though writing is more difficult than it once was, she remains a writer. She remembers and grieves in every aspect of her life, but does not let it control her. She ages, maybe gracefully, maybe ungracefully, but inevitably nonetheless. She speaks for all people, in a way that is so simple it can be nothing but profound. She is universal.