In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.... You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming ... yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise....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.
Only a "connoisseur of catastrophe," as John Banville describes Joan Didion in his New York Times review of her latest book, would see long, lazy midsummer evenings as a harbinger of doom. Life is good, Didion might have thought in 2003. She loved her work, her marriage was great, she knew lots of famous people, she was a famous person, she traveled the world and stayed in the best hotels, she wore designer labels, she had interesting friends, her daughter was now married to the love of her life ...
So of course a pessimist like Didion would expect it all to crash around her ears, maybe all at once, probably without any warning except the inevitability of loss. "Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?" she asks.
And indeed, as readers of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, will recall, Didion's charmed life screeched to a halt one week late in 2003. The first words of that book are the first words she wrote after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a massive coronary event:
Life changes fast.The evening her husband died, December 30, John and Joan had just returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, had been lying unconscious since Christmas day. The flu had turned into pneumonia, which had brought on septic shock. She would not come out of her coma for two more weeks; she would never regain her health.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Dunne's funeral was delayed until late March so Quintana could attend. Two days afterward, she collapsed from a massive hematoma in her brain and was rushed into surgery. In June of the next year, 2005, she was hospitalized with acute pancreatitis. In late August, shortly before Magical Thinking was published, Quintana died. Didion was now childless and a widow.
Blue Nights is about Quintana as Magical Thinking was about John. Didion wrote the earlier memoir in 88 days, finishing it about a year after her husband's death. Blue Nights comes six years after Quintana's death: Didion needed the time to grieve and to heal. Yet of the two books, Blue Nights feels more immediate, more agonizing, more raw.
Still, as The Economist's reviewer noted, "even when she writes about the hard drama of her own life, such as the sudden death of her husband followed by the death of her only daughter, her stories manage to be larger than her own grief." Blue Nights is not only about Quintana. It is about the losses of old age; the radical contingency of human life; parental guilt; adoption; fear; time; illness. It is about missed occasions for gratitude.
If I owned my copy of Blue Nights, I would underline these words:
We wished them happiness, we wished them, health, we wished them love and luck and beautiful children. On that wedding day, July 26, 2003, we could see no reason to think that such ordinary blessings would not come their way.Blue Nights is a poem about appreciating the moment.
We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as "ordinary blessings."
"Ms Didion has translated the sad hum of her thoughts into a profound meditation on mortality," wrote The Economist's reviewer. "The result aches with a wisdom that feels dreadfully earned."