Reviewing other people’s grief

Alone in my sublet apartment, no library books whatsoever and no library cards also, and my sublessor having very few books unrelated to law and class anxieties, I picked up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and read it.  It’s a very unfortunate book!  When Joan Didion’s only daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious brain problem, she and her husband went home for dinner, and her husband died.  Being a writer, she wrote about it.  Attempting to research death, she finds herself without a road map for grieving.  She finds herself subconsciously taking measures to bring back John or deny the reality of his death: hence, the year of magical thinking.

I am not wild about Joan Didion’s style of writing, I have to say.  She keeps circling back around to the same references, the same snippets of quotation, which I can’t say I uniformly hate as a device, but I do not like it here.  I didn’t dislike the book – quite the contrary! – but the reason I liked it was Didion’s honesty about the experience of grieving her husband.  I liked that she didn’t gloss over difficulties she had had in her marriage.  But I might not read the other four Didion books my sublessor owns.  In fact I will definitely not.

Thereafter, I thought it would be interesting to read the classic thing, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a copy of which my lovely sister gave me upon my arrival in this Impressive Academic Town.  Along with a Josephine Tey mystery, some Life cereal, and The King Must Die.  That’s how lovely she is.  Oh, and some water when I was all shaky and dehydrated from drinking four cups of coffee on the plane and no water and then there were no food vendors or even vending machines between the plane and the train so I had no water for ten hours.  And also chicken with lemon sauce and goat cheese that she made herself, and, on a different day, sushi from a sushi place.

I know that I am supposed to be reading all of CS Lewis’s books in order so as to follow the progression of his thought.  However, I thought it would be interesting to read A Grief Observed right after The Year of Magical Thinking, and anyway, I have already read a bunch of his books like the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy, so if reading a book out of order spoils the project, then the project has been spoiled since I was three years old.

A Grief Observed is exactly everything I love best about C.S. Lewis: the fluidity of expression, the nice clear prose, and the sincerity of emotion.  He pays attention to what he is thinking, and how his grief takes many different forms, and every now and then there is a truly wrenching cri de coeur.  I was particularly interested in Lewis’s fears that his imperfect, self-oriented memory of his wife would replace, eventually, the complex, contradictory, fundamentally other reality of her.  Although he says little about her (he castigates himself for writing so much about himself when he should be writing only of her), the little he says speaks volumes about her ability to not put up with his shit:

What was [Joy] not to me?  She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier.  My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.  Perhaps more.  If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created a scandal.  That’s what I meant when I once praised her for her “masculine virtues”.  But she soon put a stop to that by asking how I’d like to be praised for my feminine ones.

Good for her.