The Triumph of Jenny Diski

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski, London, 1963
Estate of Jenny Diski
Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski, London, 1963

The epigraph for Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica (1997), a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion, was from Beckett’s Malone Dies: “I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?” Beckett, alongside Montaigne, Nabokov, and Joyce, was one of Diski’s literary heroes. And Beckett’s bitter deathbed punning would have worked as an epigram for In Gratitude, too, as Diski herself observes. Now that the sound of Diski’s fierce, cool, prickly, noticing, and absolutely original voice has come to the end, it’s clear that she was always talking about herself, and, equally, that she was incapable of lying on that or any other subject.

Illness narratives and memoirs of youth, of which her last book, In Gratitude, makes a gripping and deeply discomforting mix, are both open to charges of narcissism. Over her idiosyncratic thirty-year career as a novelist and essayist, Diski often mentioned narcissism, with a kind of shrugging bravado. “Maybe in the end I’m so narcissistic,” she said in an interview in 2002, “that I prefer my own lack of belonging. That’s where I belong: my own exclusive club.” “I write fiction and non-fiction,” she says in In Gratitude, “but it’s almost always personal. I start with me, and often enough end with me. I’ve never been apologetic about that.” But then she adds: “The odd thing is, narcissistic writer though I am, I have always thought of writing straight autobiography as incredibly tedious.” There always had to be “some other component in the narrative than just my personal history.” Later on, she jokes: “But back to me (it’s not all about me, I know, but some of it is).”

The “me” that she starts and ends with is not always easy to like. Across her essays, fiction, and memoirs a contrarian, challenging personality comes through. She is harshly joking, wry, downbeat, irrepressible, sharp as a knife, a stand-up female Jewish comedian in print. She is spiky, caustic, and watchful. She needs affection and warmth but will not court it. When she allows herself to be tender (notably about her companion, “the Poet,” and her daughter and grandchildren), she does it guardedly, self-mockingly.

She does not suffer fools or mince words. She is attracted to inertia and solitude and has a tendency to stay put, hide under the covers, obliterate herself. At the same time she wants to travel, explore, ask questions, and take on challenging subjects. She wants to be entirely herself, and hates the idea of being shoehorned into a preexisting script. She is not a cheerful person: “Negativity is my inclination.” She wants to be in control: “When I have ever let things…

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