Mar 252011

Here’s a Julian Barnes essay on memoirs by Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion, both widows mourning the loss of a partner. They are a study in contrasts, and the contrasts illuminate the art of the memoir and personal tragedy.


“Yet Oates’s A Widow’s Story and Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking could not be more different. Though Didion’s opening lines (the fourth of which is “The question of self-pity”) were jotted down a day or two after Dunne’s death, she waited eight months before beginning to write. Oates’s book is largely based on diary entries, most from the earliest part of her year: so in a 415-page book, we find that by page 125 we have covered just a week of her widowhood, and by page 325 are still only at week eight. While both books are autobiographies, Didion is essayistic and concise, seeking external points of comparison, trying to set her case in some wider context. Oates is novelistic and expansive, switching between first and third persons, seeking (not with unfailing success) to objectify herself as “the widow”; and though she occasionally reaches for the handholds of Pascal, Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Richard Crashaw, and William Carlos Williams, she is mainly focused on the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief. Each writer, in other words, is playing to her strengths.”

via ‘For Sorrow There Is No Remedy’ by Julian Barnes | The New York Review of Books.

  3 Responses to “Julian Barnes on Oates, Didion and the Memoir from The New York Review of Books”

  1. Kids, be true to your school — and the hard truths of grieving — and pick up a copy of Chris Noel’s sublime, valiant unblinking “In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing” — it belongs on the same shelf as Didion’s cooler study and C.S. Lewis’ classic “A Grief Observed”.

  2. Thanks for posting the excerpt from Barnes’ excellent review.I read the whole thing and found it fascinating. Actually I read Chris’ book about grief before I went to VCFA, 1999. The only other ones I really liked were Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” and later, Didion’s (though I sensed a near hysteria under the cool). Chris was my first reader of my memoir, also about grief.

  3. Towards the end of his interesting review Barnes raises the issue that readers of the Oates memoir might feel a “breach of narrative promise” with her ending. I think it is worse than that. She ends: “Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think I kept myself alive.” We learn from Barnes that at the time of writing she was already deeply involved with her new husband-to-be. I could care less how quickly she found a new man, but what disturbs me is this: I would value a memoir of grief by a skilled writer for their ability to convey the experience. NOT for their intellectualized and contrived image of the experience. I appreciate that sometimes (perhaps even often) there is more truth in fiction than non-fiction. So I am a little confused by my own response. It strikes me as a truism that integrity is essential to good writing whatever form it takes. How does that work in CNF? I haven’t read the book (and won’t) so I am talking through my hat here, but it seems to me that introducing the complexity of a new love into a story of grief would have enhanced not detracted. Does integrity come in more than one flavour?

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