What can you say about an 87-year-old girl who died? That she was articulate and brilliant? And wrote all those words you read in one gulp? American essayist and memoirist Joan Didion is, dramatically enough, no more. Her abrupt departure only marking the end of a year that went by in a blur like the previous year, where living is a simultaneous chronicling of loss. Like she wrote in a book after her husband’s death, ‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’
She wrote about grief and bereavement, a book each on her late husband and late daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Both best-selling autobiographical accounts maintaining her quintessential unemotional tone. The first about losing her husband John Dunne, with whom she also had a successful professional partnership; the second riddled with the unflinching honesties of maternal doubt after her adopted daughter Quintana Roo passed away.
Writing as therapy, as memory, as past, as present, as ‘electric anxiety’, she brought to non-fiction narratives the dignity and urgency of a necessary telling. Circumventing the subjective nature of her writings by focusing on a painstaking recounting that spares sometimes her subjects but not herself, detailing her own thoughts and feelings in a writing style instantly recognisable by now. Her name itself a quotable quote evocative of a trademark voice that is at once detached and brutally honest, lines from her books, essays and interviews inevitably find their way into our reading – and indeed our own writing – for their aptness and accuracy. Self-aware, she was never seen preening over the self-help repute of her books, going so far as to say: ‘I actively do not want to be a mentor.’ This apparent reluctance to engage even though writing about intimate ties perhaps best defines her writer persona. ‘Writers are always selling somebody out,’ she says in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
When critiqued as a reactionary and a snob at some point in her career, she upped her writing game to include the political. The personal still thrummed in her prose, though – in her own way, on her own terms – taking down the fourth wall in the audio-visual dimension of the written word. The reader, one imagines, coming always as a pleasant surprise at the end. ‘I write,’ she has said, as if to emphasise her own motives, ‘entirely to find out what is on my mind, what I'm thinking.’
The literary equivalent of taking down the ever-present framed photograph of family happiness mandatory in all drawing rooms, her prose cuts through hyped up versions of domestic bliss. She lived all her life perhaps as a prelude to her own death, when her meticulous memory would at last fail her: ‘I was no longer, if I had ever been, afraid to die: I was now afraid not to die,’ she said in the aftermath of her loss. Now gone, she must no doubt be wincing at any obits coming her way that are, God forbid, openly sentimental.
Also read: She told stories in order to live: The legacy of Joan Didion