Ten days ago, I was leading a writing workshop for faculty at the college where I teach. I was preaching the importance of devising writing prompts that take you out into the world. The discoveries you make become material for writing.
A day later, a friend who had participated in my workshop sent me a link to the Joan Didion estate sale that was coming up for auction. My friend texted: Who will walk away with Joan Didion’s sunglasses?
When Didion died in December last year, one of her essays that made the rounds on social media was her 1998 piece on Ernest Hemingway. That essay is, in reality, a brilliant testimony to the importance that words, their arrangement, and even punctuation possess for any writer, particularly for writers like Hemingway—and Didion. As a girl of 12 or 13, Didion had decided that if she studied Hemingway’s words carefully enough, and practiced hard enough, she, too, would be able to arrange words as brilliantly as he did. (Lot 137: Ernest Hemingway from the Library of Joan Didion, starting bid $200.)
Didion’s Hemingway essay has this single unforgettable line: “The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s words in print.” The line speaks of high standards, an exacting fastidiousness, even a sense of privacy.
Driving up to a gallery in Hudson, New York, where I was headed to see the furniture, books, art, and other objects from Didion’s Upper East Side apartment displayed for sale, I wondered what she would have made of this exposure. She was a writer who hid behind her signature sunglasses, who exuded a certain cool, a sense of remoteness, and had even confessed to a basic indifference to people. And yet now, there in the exhibition, is the table (Lot 26: Late Regency Ebony Inlaid Mahogany Pembroke Table, starting bid $500) where Didion’s husband, John Dunne, “suffered the fatal heart attack that took his life.” In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion had written: “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” I remember asking myself, not without a measure of self-guilt, what the famously reserved writer would think of visitors seating themselves on her writing chair (Lot 71: Fruitwood and Metal Swivel Desk Chair, starting bid $150) and, as the gallery owner was soon to tell me, breaking into uncontrollable tears.
I was interested in the dictionary. Lot 77: Random House Unabridged Dictionary and a Laminate Veneered Faux Wood Stand, starting bid $250.
It’s a 1970 edition whose gallerist’s note read: “This dictionary and stand sat on the credenza in John Dunne’s office in their apartment. Didion referenced it in A Year of Magical Thinking, writing, ‘I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk.’”
I looked up that passage in my copy of A Year of Magical Thinking. Didion had been on the phone when she distractedly turned the pages. She had written that when she realized what she had done, she was stricken. What was the last word that her husband had looked up? What was he thinking when he had searched for that word? Was there a message for her, and was it now lost? Had she refused to hear the message?
When I arrived in Hudson, I went first to the dictionary. Which word would I first see? On the left-hand page, there was a map. It said “India.” We were among the i’s. India! My country of birth. I regarded this as a good omen and almost bid on the dictionary.
Grief makes you irrational, but that wasn’t Didion’s message to us. She was simply reporting, as accurately as she could, all that she was feeling. I teach A Year of Magical Thinking in my nonfiction writing class, in part because I love how, in its opening pages, Didion describes her response to her husband’s death as a series of writing acts. She records the first words she wrote: Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.
She then tells us the date on which, months later, she resumes writing. There is a near-detached, observational quality to her words. Devoid of sentimentalism but not lacking in sentiment, Didion conducts an excavation of the vaults where her pain lies buried. The effect on the reader is quietly shattering.
As a writer, I find myself drawn both to her tone and her unflinching curiosity. I insist that my students note that eight months after Dunne’s death, Didion asks the manager of their apartment building for the log kept by the doormen on the night her husband died. She presents us their notations for that night: the fact that her husband was carried out by the paramedics and that there was a malfunctioning light bulb in one of the elevators.
She writes that she actively wanted an autopsy performed on her husband’s body. She had witnessed autopsies in the past, in the course of doing research, and knew exactly what occurred (“the chest open like a chicken in a butcher’s case, the face peeled down, the scale in which organs are weighed”). Nevertheless, she wanted one. “I needed to know how and why and when it had happened.”
On the night of Dunne’s death, December 30, 2003, a hospital social worker and a doctor approached Didion in the waiting room. Didion addresses the doctor: “He’s dead, isn’t he?” The doctor looks at the social worker, who says, “It’s okay. She’s a pretty cool customer.”
I have always liked that social worker. He is of a piece with the rest of Didion’s writing. He possesses a quality of seeing or seeing through, and his words do not obfuscate, and though his words disturb us for their seeming callousness, they disturb us also because we know he's right.
In Didion’s essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook,” she writes: “See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there…”
I was reminded of this passage when the gallerist in Hudson told me that there was “ferocious bidding” over Didion’s blank notebooks (Lot 14, Lot 122, and Lot 123). She said that the posts about the notebooks had “gone viral” and there was a great deal of interest in them by would-be bidders.
Of course, I’d like to find out who picked up the notebooks and why. Yes, proceeds from the auction are going to charity, including patient care and research of Parkinson’s. But I really want to know what drew the buyer to the blank notebooks over any other item in the sale. And what is the first line they will enter in the notebooks should they acquire them?
Over the past few days, I have made several entries in my own notebook about Didion. Rewatching the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold after visiting the estate sale in Hudson, I was newly conscious of the way the camera moves around Didion in her apartment, catching sight of many of the objects that are now being auctioned off, now gone from her home—sunglasses, notebooks, works of art, furniture—all beautifully arranged and ready to be purchased by someone else.
On one recent late night, in a rush, I bid on an item in the Didion sale I certainly cannot afford. After I placed the bid, I felt a thrill of terror. What if I don’t get outbid?
Watch the livestream of the auction and note down one line spoken during the auction that Didion would have liked.
Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction. His novel Immigrant, Montana was on the best of the year lists at The New Yorker and The New York Times, and on President Obama’s list of favorite books of 2018. Kumar’s new novel, A Time Outside This Time, was described by The New Yorker as “a shimmering assault on the Zeitgeist.” He teaches writing at Vassar College.
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