Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Harper 2005)

In this beautiful book Joan Didion relentlessly explores her grief after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. Her eye is unflinching, and at times you feel almost invasive reading it. The publicity has been huge, the praise deservedly lavish. A quick Google search will find all you need.
What I found very interesting about the book was they way that she researched grief. She was very practical about it, wanted to know what people's experiences have been, and read some very interesting material. For example she makes frequent reference to the great Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Towards Death From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, trans. Patricia Ranum (Johns Hopkins UP, 1974), and comes back to the medieval idea that the dying knew more about their own death than others. She cites the example of Gawain, in the Chanson de Roland, who responds to an incredulous question about the proximity of his death by saying: 'I tell you that I shall not live two days'. She repeats this like a mantra, reflecting on what Ariès says about this passage: 'Only the dying man can tell how much time he has left'. This leads her to look with what I can only describe as a searing set memories of his last hours, looking for any sign that John knew his end was near.

It's a beautiful book, and it's well worth reading. John Leonard, in his review in the NYRB (Vol. 52, No. 16, 20 Oct. 2005) ends aptly: 'I can't imagine dying without this book'. Didion's book is a modern answer to a medieval Ars moriendi, the survivor's guide.

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