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I was reading the literary review supplement of the newspaper that we buy at home, last weekend, trying to find whether there was any mention of new and interesting books in it. There was a review of Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ in the supplement. The name of the author and the title rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember where I had heard of them. I read the review and liked the topic of the book – it seemed to be a book which was emotional and touching. A couple of days later, I was passing by the bookshop. I dropped in and got the book. I finished reading the book today. Here is the review.

Summary of the book

I am giving below a brief summary of the book as given in the book’s back cover.

From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience : a portrait of a marriage – and a life, in good times and bad – that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

What I think

The summary of the book given in the back cover, is as vague as it could be. So, here is more about the book.

This book is a part memoir of Joan Didion and a part-meditation on grief. The book starts with these lines :

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.

Those were the first words I wrote after it happened.

After this sudden start, Didion describes what led her to write this : how her daughter was admitted to the ICU in the local hospital, how she and her husband were sitting down to dinner after visiting their daughter, how her husband suddenly died while having dinner with her, and the events that ensued after that. The book covers the next one year period in her life, when Didion had to handle a succession of crises, come to terms with the loss of her husband, try to fend away the seeping loneliness but not being able to, and finally accept the inevitability of her loss. While describing this difficult period of her life, Didion also describes how other people who were bereaved, had handled such situations, quoting medical studies which had been conducted and also doctors’ and psychiatrists’ views on accepting and handling the loss of a near and dear one.

Joan Didion’s troubles don’t end that fateful day, when her husband collapses on the dining table. One of my college professors, used to quote one of Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet, which went like this : “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the story of Didion’s life, after that fateful day. The condition of her daughter, who is in the ICU, deteriorates from bad to worse and she ends up having neurosurgery. She recovers towards the end of the book, but in the next year, after the events described in the book, her condition worsens and she dies too. It is heart-breaking. Why does one person have to suffer so much pain in such a short period of time?

During her account, Didion also touches on her life with her family, on the good times and the bad times, the difficult moments and the loving moments, the touching gestures as well as the quarrels. The book starts as a narration of events, and then goes back and forth between different time periods of her life, and how they might have had a bearing on the present.

I liked Joan Didion’s writing style very much. It is simple, sparse and is easy to read. But it has depth too. It reminded me very much of Ernest Hemingway. I read later that Hemingway’s style influenced Didion’s writing considerably. I think her prose should be used as a model in creative writing courses – not as a benchmark, but as an example of how powerful prose can be written with a simple style and how one doesn’t need a sophisticated style to create a powerful and insightful literary work.

I also spotted interesting and familiar names while reading the book – Julia Child (described giving a present to John Dunne, Didion’s husband – in this season, it is difficult to keep Julia Child away, isn’t it :)), Chrisopher Lehmann-Haupt (have read some of his articles in NYT), Dennis Overbye (read his review of ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ in NYT recently). It is interesting how we spot names in a book, take them out their contexts and identify interesting connections.

The book also quotes one of my favourite poems – ‘Funeral Blues by W.H.Auden – a poem which is sad and bleak, but also powerful and beautiful.

One of the complaints I had about the book is the number medical terms Didion uses – there are too many of them. I think that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Also, sometimes Didion moves dizzyingly through different exotic locales – LA, New York, Paris, Bogota, Hawaii, Saigon – it seems a bit too much for a book on such a topic. I found the the first half of the book quite gripping, then the events in the book going in different directions, and then coming back and holding my attention till the end. As Didion wrote this book during a difficult period of her life, it is not fair to complain about this.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages – which touched me and which made me think – from the book.

I said I would build a fire, we could eat in. I built the fire, I started dinner…I finished getting dinner, I set the table in the living room where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the fire. I find myself stressing the fire because fires were important to us. I grew up in California, John and I lived there together for twenty-four years, in California we heated our houses by building fires. We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night.

Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. It was not what I felt when my parents died….My father was dead, my mother was dead, I would need for a while to watch for mines, but I would still get up in the morning and send out the laundry. I would still plan a menu for Easter lunch. I would still remember to renew my passport.
Grief was different. Grief had not distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves”.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only by those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole. I understood for the first time the meaning in the practice of suttee. Widows did not throw themselves on the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief had taken them.

One thing I noticed during the course of those weeks at UCLA was that many people I knew, whether in New York or in California or in other places, shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice. The management skills of these people were in fact prodigious. The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to bring her English-language newspapers and get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris. If Quintana was suddenly stranded in the Nice airport I could arrange with someone at British Airways to get her onto a BA flight to meet her cousin in London. Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

That I was only now beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me. Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.

On the flight to LaGuardia I remember thinking that the most beautiful things I had seen had all been seen from airplanes. The way the American west opens up. The way in which, on a polar flight across the Arctic, the islands in the sea give way imperceptibly to lakes on the land. The sea between Greece and Cyprus in the morning. The Alps on the way to Milan. I saw all those things with John. How could I go back to Paris without him, how could I go back to Milan, Honolulu, Bogota? I couldn’t even go to Boston.

Further Reading

You can find the original review which inspired me to read this book (from the ‘Literary Review’ of ‘The Hindu’), here.

You can find the NYT review of the book, here.

This book was made into a Broadway play with Vanessa Redgrave playing the role of Joan Didion. You can find a review of the play here.

Final Comments

I liked ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ very much. Even though the topic of the book was grief, I liked Joan Didion’s style and I feel that it is equally a meditation on grief as it is a celebration of life and a call for accepting change. I wish the play version with Vanessa Redgrave in it, comes out in DVD. I would like to watch it.

This book may not be for everyone, but if you like tackling a difficult and interesting topic, you will like it.

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