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.”