Tag Archives: Joan Didion

Reading on time

My mind has been on the passing of time as the lockdown continued. At some point I decided to stop viewing the confinement as some kind of hiatus and accept that it was just how we are living at this time. It helped. But I think a lot about how many days, what we did this time last year, when will we be able to do some things again. It is a theme in fiction as well.

Here’s a celebration to enjoy of days, weeks, months and even years in fiction and memoir.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
  • The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1931)
  • A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
  • The Years by Virginia Woolf (1937)
  • The Years by Annie Ernaux (2008, in English translation 2019)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This is a kind of riff on Mrs Dalloway. The title was Virginia Woolf’s own first idea for her novel. Set in three different times and locations The Hours examines society and its difficulties. As someone who has loved reading and rereading Virginia Woolf, I find it adds a new perspective to the original without detracting from it. We have a version featuring Virginia Woolf herself, another with an American suburban housewife from the 1950s and the third set in recent decades in New York, when HIV/AIDS was rampant. 

It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film (2002), largely successful. 

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

When I reviewed this thriller six years ago, I noted that rereading it had allowed me to appreciate more its admirable features. You can find that review here.  

It is set in London during the Second World War, and follows a couple of lovers, Stella and Robert, and a creepy man who appears to be a stalker. But the dilemma this man Harrison, presents to Stella is at the heart of the tension. Sometimes Elizabeth Bowen’s writing forces the reader to slow down and pay attention. Overall it is an excellent and highly recommended novel.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is another book that is worth rereading. I find it hard to get Anthony Hopkins out of mind as the butler, Stevens, who narrates the novel. He remembers his experiences in the years leading up to the Second World War. We see that he was in love with the housekeeper, but let the opportunity to be with her slip away. He also places loyalty to his employer over everything and fails to see what he is up to. What remains of his day for Stevens is being in service to a new American employer.

The Fortnight in September

I reviewed this in a recent post, enjoying the lack of exciting plot events or twists and noting that the annual family holiday gave pleasure to the Stevens family because everything was so familiar and a repetition of previous years.

Set between the wars as the family go on holiday to Bognor, it becomes clear that it will be their last fortnight. Everything is changing, as it does.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr 

This short novel is much loved by book bloggers and reading groups. My own extended comments can be found here

Set in the 1920s, in the north of England, a young man comes to recover from his failed marriage and his wartime experiences. He works as a restorer of church murals and finds much to help him recover in the village: the mural, the vicar’s wife, his friends the archaeologist and the teenage nonconformist Kathy, the villagers and the countryside. It’s a very beautiful novel about acceptance of damage and variation among people.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I am tempted to use the word forensic about Joan Dideron’s analysis of the year following the sudden death of her husband and the seriously illness of their daughter. 

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

She writes compellingly with sparseness and great precision. She provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

You can read my expanded thought on her account here

The Years by Virginia Woolf

As we near the end of this collection, we return to Virginia Woolf and her last published novel, The Years, which looks at the Pargiter family from 1880s to the 1930s in eleven episodes. This is the only novel of hers that I have not yet read. It gave her great pain in the writing, according to her diary. 

I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown, and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I am rid of it. [Tuesday 10th November 1936]

She began it in 1933 and only finished it three years later. It was well received when it published. I look forward to tackling it myself.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This book is a kind of collective memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

The main character of this collective memoir is time itself. She notes that ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Virginia Woolf

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In December 2003 Joan Didion’s husband died of a heart attack. She had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years and had worked closely with him during that time. They had a daughter who was critically ill in hospital in New York. They had just been to visit her.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.(3)

And so began Joan Didion’s year of magical thinking.

The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 2000s. The project featured non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury until 2009. The Year of Magical Thinking  was published in 2005.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Joan Didion is a novelist and journalist. As a writer she finds her way to her subject through the experiences of the individual, in this book her reactions to her husband’s death was the focus.

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

Except, of course, none of it makes any sense; it is ‘the very opposite of meaning’ as she says later and hence this is her year of magical thinking.

Some examples of magical thinking: she cleared out his clothes as she knows one should but she could not give away his shoes. He would need them when he returned, even though she knows he is dead.

She believes that John’s death was her fault, and that it was his fault, and that she should have prevented her daughter’s illness, that she can fix all of this if she knew what to do.

She researches online, as a good journalist, seeks for what she should have done differently for her husband and instructs medical staff as a result of her knowledge.

She had worked very closely with John Gregory Dunne in their 40 years of marriage, and must find a way to write without him by her side. It is more difficult that she can imagine.

Time, especially anniversaries, takes on special significance, as do familiar places, and these carry her down into what she calls a vortex. Even the title of the book, the book’s subject matter, is shaped by a time limit, an anniversary.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none. …

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. (224-6)

Death, grief and mourning

This was my second reading of her book. I had the same experience as ten years ago, that is I couldn’t stop reading it. But on re-reading I could see how she made this account so compelling. She writes with a kind of sparseness and with great precision. And she provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

Her insights are stronger for this. For example she differentiates between grief and mourning; grief being passive, what happens. Mourning is the process of dealing with grief, and requires attention. It takes her some time to get to the mourning. And this book is part of that attention.

And here is her observation on grief and its effects:

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (189)

It is for such insights and for the strength of her writing that Robert McCrum placed this book second on his Guardian list of best 100 nonfiction books. Joan Didion adapted the book for the stage and the piece was directed by David Hare with Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

The Year of Magical Thinkingby Joan Didion (2005). UK edition by Harper Perennial 227pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 for the Decades Project I featured non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I selected one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc) and will review the Project in December.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler (1998)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project