The Art of Losing: Blue Nights and Oblivion

The art of losing isn’t hard to master, so wrote Elizabeth Bishop in her poem, One Art. It’s almost wistful in its conclusion, reminiscent of Julian Barnes’ morose acquiescence in Levels of Life – “there are no soft landings.”  – yet the gentle parodying of emotion, the repetition of disaster, was softly orchestrated by a woman who was no stranger to having loved and lost. Firstly, as a child, Bishop lost her mother to the most incomprehensible of declines: mental illness, but it was in losing her maternal grandparents that she first found herself in the grip of isolation. The poem comes close to revealing the permanence of the impression of grief on the human form, but is brushed off by Bishop with a firm desire to overcome it: so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. 

The pragmatism of Elizabeth Bishop was later to be found in the echoes of Irish writer Josephine Hart, who spoke of the knowledge that such things (grief and loss) “can be survived.” Hart’s steely blue eyes and defiant features are – or were, her quiet passing, the tumour that was to be her conqueror marked by a garden grave – a physical representation of her unwillingness to succumb to anything as pitiful as a broken heart. She was a child of profound loss; a brother dead at six, a sister paralysed by meningitis, a fatal explosives incident, a mother driven insane by grief. Only in her final novel (almost as though, as a believer of fate, she knew it to be her last) were the wounds of the past permitted to bleed onto the pages, the cynically titled The Truth About Love. In her novels, Hart was cold and realistic in her emotional explorations; in life such impracticalities were masked by her uniform black and white high-necked blouses, thinly arched eyebrows and her only public confession, her reliance on the written word, to which she referred as a “lifeline.” In life, Hart was effervescently charming, a gracious host and a poetry lover. Her ending mirrored her novels, abrupt and sparing nothing.

Oblivion (1995) is unlike its predecessors Damage (1990) and Sin (1992) in that the voice of the narrator, obliquely masked by the masculine epithet ‘Andrew’, is so unequivocally Josephine. In Damage, the story of a sexual obsession and Sin, of an obsessive hatred for an adopted sister, it was easier for Hart to adopt the position of an observer, coolly noting happenings from the periphery. Oblivion is the realisation that all things “can be survived” except the termination of survival itself, and the reluctant reliance on fate shows itself in the fearful narrative. The fear of being not just gone, but forgotten, is not Andrew’s, nor Sarah’s, nor even Laura’s, but Hart’s and Hart’s alone. Josephine Hart had the Irish familiarity with burial and mourning, the acceptance of what she labels “the first journey” – death. In a darkly gothic passage, Hart (with startling, practised accuracy) leads the reader through the process of cremation: “and it will take up to one and a half hours to reduce you, flesh and dear old bone, hair and gristle, to dust, which will be mixed up, I’m afraid, with the rest of the coffin. Nothing’s pure, darling, even in death.” This is Hart at her observational best, a realism only found in glimpses throughout her novels (the anguished kitchen scene of Damage, the drowning of the children in The Stillest Day.) She uses her authorial upper hand in these scenes, almost saying through the pages, I am not afraid. You’re terrified. Yet away from the skeletal realities of the first journey, the shallow graves and horrific, terminal illnesses, when Oblivion ventures into the realms of the ambiguous second journey, the eponymous state of the novel, it is Hart who is more affected than the reader, and her prose shudders with fear.

Oblivion borrowed from Wuthering Heights the creeping guilt of a non-adulterous relationship that comes with the knowledge that it should not be happening and the resurrection of the fretful dead. Josephine Hart does not share Emily Bronte’s disconsolate romanticisms; the dancing on the moors and tapping at the window is transposed into claustrophobic rooms, the relationship that Andrew is attempting to rebuild is shockingly real, the love he knows his new girlfriend, Sarah, feels for him but that he cannot bring himself to reciprocate. (“I love you, I truly love you.” “I know.”) Laura selfishly rises from the dead because she cannot bring herself to be forgotten, not because she is willed back by her grieving family. Paradoxically, although Laura is not visible to her family, they often feel her presence, and Andrew addresses her until the novel’s closing lines: I have a son, Laura. My son’s name is John. Although The Truth About Love was Josephine Hart’s childhood story, it is Oblivion where she is at her most vulnerable; a voice reaches through the prose, saying: Let the world burn. Empty it of everything and I shall not be afraid. Kill me, I don’t fear death. But please, don’t let me be forgotten. 

In London Fields, Martin Amis speaks of blue being the colour of “sadness and sexuality.” In Oblivion, we are instructed to “absorb the colour blue” almost as if it were a distraction from the consummation of a relationship and the blueness is overtly sexual, coloured by death. In Joan Didion’s haunting Blue Nights, the colour blue represents sadness in all its forms: grief, loss, frailty and abandonment. “In some latitudes,” Didion begins, in an italicised foreword which suggests directness, “There comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” Rage, rage, against the dying of the light, pleaded Dylan Thomas in Do Not Go Gentle. Didion, strangely practical in despair and less willing to dispense with emotion, does not share his grievous denial. I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, she notes in her unapologetically autobiographical introduction. If blue in Oblivion is deeply sexual, edged with guilt, found in the orchestrated raindrops and the surrealist scene where Laura is only a body of water away, and Andrew swims to her, Blue Nights contains the blue of emotion, the raw blue of endings, the blue of the regrettable past. Didion and Hart’s novels are bound not just by the colour that runs through them, but by their authors, hardened by loss. Blue Nights was published in 2011, the year of Josephine Hart’s death. Hart would have undoubtedly appreciated the unbroken emotion of the novel, but by the time Didion had the strength to reflect, it was too late.

Hidden within the pages of the novel is its silent secret, all trapped in one little line: does anyone ever think, what if I fail to love this baby? Quintana Roo is dead, and although this is the basis of the novel, her death and the questions it raises – who, what, where, why, how? – are never answered. Minimal research will provide information – acute pancreatitis; thirty nine – but such details are unimportant. This is not a story about a child’s death, but a mother’s guilt. Didion relates adoption to abandonment, and what follows is the inevitable assumption of an adopted child that they are fated to never be loved. Martin Amis wrote in the London Review that Didion has a tendency to explore the same thing from “several different angles.” Within the confinement of Blue Nights, she dissects and reassembles her feelings, tortured by the same memories, the same fragments of speech: brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working; her depths, her shallows, her quicksilver changes; let me just be in the ground and go to sleep; I’m going to lock you in the garage; after I became five I never ever dreamed about him. There’s something scientific in Didion’s analysis of the effect of a death of a child, firstly quoting Napoleon “It is horrible to see oneself die without children,” later Euripides: “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead.” She approaches the subject first as if she were, and had always been, a childless woman, before recognising herself as a victim of loss. Joan Didion cannot be a woman who is unused to losing, having at 80, outlived the deaths of the closest components of her family unit. She has often been criticised for writing to exorcise pain and guilt, but unlike Josephine Hart, Didion does not write as though her pain demands to be felt. She observes carefully, wistfully, citing unknown names from obscure sources; in the passage which describes “the tendency to overreact to what might seem ordinary, even predictable circumstances” as common among suicides, it is only the hyper-sensitive reader that would trace the description back to Didion’s own considerations. In a book presented as being autobiographical, with real names and real loss taking place in real time, the confessions are sparing, and it is not until the closing pages that the author admits to “frailty” that has been caused not by the passage of time directly, but by what it has inflicted on her.

Quintana in the book is never pictured as old (she never lived to be old). She is never pictured as dying. She is found through poems written, cautious observations, the flowers she chose for her wedding, her borderline personality disorder, the “suicidal despair” which haunts Didion throughout the novel. She speaks of “this fear” – the certainties of ageing, illness, death – which she comes to realise is a direct correlation of living without children. When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children, she adds to her list of quotations as an afterthought. I said that. Blue Nights is memories gathered over a lifetime, strung together with the sting of what is now gone and resentment manifested in the loss of a friend – Natasha Redgrave – it was never supposed to happen to her. Joan Didion is not only referring to her friend, but to her daughter, and to everyone that she has lost. It’s almost as though she can’t bring herself to say it.

At the end, the thinly veiled blue night falls like a forgotten curtain, and Didion does bring herself to say what has weighed down every word of hers previously written. Go back into the blue, she laments. I myself placed her ashes in the wall. I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six. I know what frailty is, I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. It is the novel’s powerful conclusion – a realisation that although there may be nothing still to be lost, there is “no day” when Joan Didion does not see her daughter, there is no day when she does not feel as though she has yet to lose her, before reminding herself that she already has.

Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem suggested that losing can be mastered and even perhaps that it must be, in order to survive. Yet the Art of Losing is an art, something which must be worked at, struggled with, perfected and overcome. To read Joan Didion and Josephine Hart is to recognise the pain with which every cold word swells and to realise that these two women are, and were, masters of the art of losing.

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