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Book of the Week: Marion McLeod on Jenny Diski

Marion McLeod reviews In Gratitude by Jenny Diski, which she began writing when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Her given name was Jennifer Simmonds, which always makes me laugh. A name from Tunbridge Wells or Teddington. That’s what her mother wanted – a nice, well-behaved, middle-class daughter. The daughter didn’t oblige, though she did stay Jennifer Simmonds until 1976, when she and her first husband invented the name Diski. And it was just right.

Name-changing was in the DNA. Her parents were Jewish immigrants – London, East End, lower middle-class. James Simmonds (born Israel Zimmerman) made a living on the black market. When he deserted the family, his wife Rene (born Rachel Rayner) had a breakdown, and Jennifer, aged six, found herself in foster care.

Jenny Diski

Jenny Diski

Both her parents had tried to kill themselves, she later discovered. “I came from a family of suicidal hysterics.” Her own first attempt came at 14.

She tells it all – and there’s a lot to tell – with a tough ruefulness, and it’s often darkly funny.  But not always. At one point in her teens, because she had a high IQ, the authorities sent her to St Christopher’s, a progressive boarding school. She was expelled, and went to her father in Banbury. Then she ran away from him and went to live with her mother in a very small bedsitting room in Hove.

As Diski recalls: “That had lasted only a few days before the wisest move seemed to be to take what remained of my mother’s Nembutal, lie down neatly on the bed and wait to die. ‘How can you do this to me? Why can’t you be decent like other people’s children?’ she screamed when she found me. The night before in the bed we shared, she had reached round my back, which was turned to her, and begun to caress my vulva. When I protested, she said: ‘What’s the matter? There’s nothing wrong. I’m your mother. You’re still my little girl.’”

The little girl was 15. What to do with her now? She was popped into (Diski’s words) a small psychiatric unit in Hove. “I became the official baby-of-the-bin, and both staff and patients looked after me and tried to shield me from the worst of the outbreaks of other people’s madness. I, of course, was fascinated and felt quite at home and well cared for at last.”

Jenny Diski ‘s lung cancer was diagnosed in August 2014.   She died on April 28 2016, aged 68, having lived long enough to hold her final book with its perfect title and superb cover photo: a younger Diski in flowing shirt, backgrounded by bookshelves, and holding an elegantly defiant cigarette. (On March 27 she had tweeted: “Hi guys. Just to say my cancer is not caused by smoking. Nor is my fibrosis. It’s just cancer. Best wishes, Jenny.”)

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In the week of publication (April 20) the London Review of Books bookshop gave over their window to In Gratitude: in over 25 years Diski had contributed more than two hundred articles to the London Review of Books. She’d also published 10 novels, one book of short stories, four of travel and memoir, and two of essays.   But her best writing appeared in the LRB. It was there Diski found, as they say, her natural home. She wasn’t really into plot or character. In the LRB she could range from personal to philosophical, from past to present, from knitting to knickers, leaping from branch to branch without ever dropping a stitch.

Writing had kept her going, from when she was a girl. So she wasn’t going to stop now. She had two to three years, the oncologist thought. What else for it but to write a cancer diary? “Another fucking cancer diary.“ It was the right decision, she wrote later: “These monthly essays. . . give me some thinking and writing to do.”

She is not writing autobiography. Definitely not. Autobiography is boring. This is memoir – a form, she says, “that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth.” However we categorise it, In Gratitude richly recreates a life, and is certainly anything but boring. Childhood, mental hospitals, depression, Doris Lessing, drug-taking, first marriage (briefly), secretarial work, teaching (of wayward children), daughter Chloe, grandchildren . . .

Confronting her impending death, Diski’s her usual mix of humorous and thoughtful. She considers herself lucky to have made it to her late sixties. But there are rough patches when that’s not a lot of help. For solace in shaky times, she goes to Beckett and Nabokov.

For entertainment, there are the two long-distance races. First, there are her two competing conditions. Diski boasts that she has “lung cancer with a side attraction of pulmonary fibrosis: two fatal diseases – I don’t do things by halves.” Which one will kill her? The race is on.

Second, there’s the race against Clive James, the other writer publicly approaching death just now. Oliver Sacks and Henning Mankel qualified too and beat them to it – they’ve taken the first two prizes, leaving Diski and James battling for third. . .

Oliver Sacks (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Oliver Sacks (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

But back to Hove and 1962. Diski, 15, is happy enough in her homely psychiatric unit when out of the blue comes a letter from Doris Lessing. Lessing’s son Peter had been in Jenny’s class at St Christopher’s, though the two hadn’t much liked each other.

It’s a fairytale. A boy tells his famous mother about this girl, expelled and now imprisoned in a madhouse. The famous writer, though she has never met the girl, says, “I will give you a home. Come and live with me.”

The girl has always dreamed of being a writer, and so she goes to live with Doris Lessing and her son Peter, and frequently sits at table with Robert Graves, Alan Sillitoe, Lindsay Anderson, RD Laing, and many, many more.

Sadly, there is no happily ever after. Diski is staunch and self-deprecating as she tells it. But at the time she was hurt and bewildered. And she is hurt and bewildered still. Before she dies, she wants to come to terms with the Lessings, with the unlikely triangle that was Diski, Doris, and Peter.

Why did Doris Lessing, when she came to London from Southern Rhodesia, leave her two small children behind? And why, then, take on Jenny, a quasi-foundling? Why did Lessing bring to London just the one child – Peter, the youngest, the child of her second marriage? And why did Peter, once a handsome young lad, turn into an arrogant young man given to lying, and then into a large, shambling shell, staying all his life with his mother? (He died, aged 66, just four weeks before she died.)

Jenny Diski may have claimed she couldn’t do plot or character. But here, at the heart of In Gratitude are plot and characters who would be at home in Iris Murdoch.

Try as she does, Diski can’t understand what went wrong. “The gratitude/ingratitude problem was always on my mind – it never really went away.” She felt resentment, and she felt shame for feeling resentful. She felt shame for always landing on her feet, while so many of her friends back in care hadn’t. She felt shame for having been Lessing’s chosen one, and she felt shame for not showing (in Lessing’s view) sufficient gratitude.

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British writer Doris Lessing, circa 1975. (Photo by Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bitterness and rage overwhelmed Diski. Doris Lessing was not really a fairy godmother: “In a way she reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who was hailed by many feminists as a blow struck for feminism and turned out to be nothing of the sort.”

Lessing took Diski in and then threw her out. Diski recalls the expulsion vividly, though Doris later insisted that Diski had imagined it. The two kept in touch for 50 years, nevertheless, and Diski spoke at Lessing’s funeral.

But the ingratitude remained. “I believe Doris took gross risks with three people’s lives, and I can’t really untangle the strands that might tell me why.”  Diski’s analysis of the situation is engrossing, convincing, and deeply disturbing.

A brief aside: In 1987, I went to Doris Lessing’s house to interview her. She hated interviews, and agreed to see me only because of the recent publication of her book about Afghanistan, The Wind Blows away the Word. (Diski is interesting, by the way, on Lessing’s “crush” on Idries Shah and Sufi-ism.). I had been told I was to discuss this book and no other. Personal questions were also out of bounds. I, of course, thought that wouldn’t be a problem. I’d start with the book and then we’d talk of New Zealand, and soon be chatting away like old friends. Ha!

Lessing was stern throughout. Grim. Her house was grim, too, though that’s probably a little unfair. But it was strange and unnerving, cold, with no sign of personality at all. And strangest of all was this strange man, in his forties, perhaps, and vacant looking, who appeared and disappeared at the door of the room we sat in. And there was no comment from Lessing, though I could tell she was aware of him.

In Gratitude is based on Diski’s LRB pieces but is not strictly a collection. There are changes: the original 17iary columns are restructured into a shortish introduction and three long sections. There is additional material on Doris Lessing and Peter. But the plot is basically the same, and we know how it’s all going to end, if not when.

Perhaps this is the point at which I should confess that In Gratitude didn’t quite fulfill my hugely high expectations. I was thrilled when the review copy arrived, and delighted by its cover. But I was shocked when I opened it. The font was all wrong – a big fat font, so unlike the LRB typeface. And the words ran right across the page, instead of within magisterial columns.

It was an absurd reaction and by page three I had just about pulled myself together. The heart of the problem, of course, is that I was re-reading . I’m certainly grateful for this book but my bet is that those who haven’t read the LRB diaries will find unalloyed pleasure in In Gratitude, whereas those who have read the columns will feel there’s something missing, will sense just the tiniest change of key.

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A monthly column, a series which opens by announcing that death is breathing down the writer’s neck – well, I hesitate to use the word frisson but that awareness makes the tone different alright. Month by month, I’d open the LRB with eager trepidation. Suspense – different shades of suspense – lurked behind every sentence. Diski remains glorious on the bound page but in the serial version the strings she pulled were tauter.

It’s a strange business, this spate of cancer (or substitute other terminal disease) diaries on the market. Are they relatively new? Or is it just that I notice them more these days? Centuries back, monks would presumably have advised on how to avoid Hell or Purgatory. These days a cancer diary is still a reckoning of sorts, as well as a “how-to” guide. Soon bookshops and libraries will have a separate Death Diaries category. The target audience knows no bounds, after all.

John Diamond’s is great (he was Nigella’s husband and an excellent journalist), and Tom Lubbock’s, too – another journalist. His is titled Until Further Notice I am Alive. Lubbock’s wife Marion Coutts’, a sculptor, wrote perhaps the best I’ve read, though she doesn’t strictly qualify, not being the dying one. She had time to write her book, The Iceberg, after Lubbock’s death. At a further remove, there’s Atul Gawande, a surgeon, who wrote Being Mortal, a meditation on old age and dying and a runaway bestseller.

Writing a cancer diary was therapy for Diski. She probably didn’t like the word but it’s a useful shorthand. Her writing is so much more, of course. I feel grief for her but probably, marginally, more for me. There will be no more LRB columns by Jenny Diski.

So I want to express gratitude for the book and immense admiration for the author. Back on Diagnosis Day, she had declared: “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.”

I’ll finish, then, with one more quote, this time from Andrew Brown in the Guardian, who gets it just right: “She deserves our unfeigned admiration, not for her bravery or her struggle, or any irrelevant tosh like that, but for writing so well.”


 

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury, $30) is available at Unity Books.

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