Vanessa Redgrave Reads Joan Didion’s Harrowing ‘Blue Nights’
By Maria Popova
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934) wrote in her remarkable memoir of the year following her husband’s death after forty years of marriage. John Dunne died suddenly of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, as the couple’s only child, their daughter Quintana, lay comatose in a hospital ICU with complications from pneumonia. On October 4, 2004, Didion began writing her memoir and spent 88 days on the manuscript, completing it on New Year’s Eve. Midway through the author’s book tour and shortly before she received the National Book Award, Quintana died. She was thirty-nine.
It takes a rare person to retain the capacity — the desire — to be wise, let alone wry, in the face of such tragedy. And yet that is what Didion did in embarking on a second memoir, the spectacular Blue Nights (public library), rising above the uncommonly cruel cards life had dealt her to write with exceptional candor and grace about grieving her daughter, mourning her mistakes as a parent, and confronting her own mortality.
Few things could elevate Didion’s already exalted art of bearing witness to life and death. But one cold November night not too long ago, as I sat on a heavy wooden chair at St. John the Divine — the iconic New York cathedral where Quintana had spoken her wedding vows eleven years earlier — and awaited Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights to the accompaniment of legendary jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens, I knew something unrepeatable was about to take place, something transformational and transcendent.
Redgrave and Didion have more than their decades-long friendship in common. Four years after Quintana’s death, the great English actor lost her own daughter Natasha, a childhood friend of Quintana’s, to brain injury after a skiing accident. Two years earlier, Redgrave had played Didion in a Broadway adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. But the grimly uncanny parallel of maternal loss brought a far deeper dimension of mutuality to Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights. As her graceful, coolly expressive voice spills from the altar into the nave and echoes, godlike, across the cathedral, one can’t help feeling — at least I couldn’t help feeling — a brush at once chilling and beautiful with the unanswerable questions that line the vaulted ceiling between life and death.
Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.
In the introduction to Blue Nights, Didion explains the book’s title:
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. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming — in fact not at all a warming — yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. 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. 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.
Published December 5, 2014