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 just take their course, I can’t recollect.” “Uncertainty is what I am least good at. I’ve always been prepared to use extreme measures, find drastic solutions, to put an end to uncertainty in my life.” She is aware that she carries about with her “my eternally angry child.”
Her novels are challenging for their readers. They deal with depression, breakdown, sadomasochism, suicide, family trauma. But they are not somber: they are quirky, alarming, unpredictable, and often very funny. She can do a talking orangutan, or a baby born with no brain as a central character, or a retelling of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sara, or a novel about Montaigne’s intellectual influence over a young female acolyte, with equal brio. In fiction and nonfiction, moments from her personal history keep cutting through like shards of broken glass. The Sixties (2009), a shrewd, witty account of the times, Skating to Antarctica, and In Gratitude go over and over the same experiences, but in the first two without naming names.
And a troubling story it is. The angry child had cause. Diski, born Jennifer Simmonds, offspring of a family of Jewish East End immigrants, had an intolerable childhood. Mistreated by both parents, used as a weapon in their war against each other, abandoned by her charming, feckless father, bullied by her unstable mother, put into foster homes and psychiatric institutions, expelled from school, raped at fourteen, attempting suicide, fleeing from one parent to another, she was taken in by Doris Lessing in 1963, when Diski was fifteen and Lessing was in her forties. She stayed with Lessing for three difficult years, and left at eighteen, soon after her absentee father’s death and her mother’s last raving, ranting appearance.
For the next few years Diski was in and out of mental hospitals, diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder,” on drugs, living in a squat in Soho (this is a very urban, Sixties story, for which The Sixties provides the social setting), having random sexual adventures. She was despaired of and disapproved of by Lessing but not quite cut off by her. Gradually she began to construct a workable life, teaching at an alternative school for dropouts and then at a comprehensive school, marrying and having a baby at thirty, surviving periods of depression, starting her first novel at thirty-five.
Like Skating to Antarctica, which intercut her journey into snow and ice with the baleful memory of her mother, In Gratitude tells two stories, one being told as it happens, one looking back into her past and its effect on the rest of her life. Backward and forward it goes between her childhood, her chaotic parents and their wreckage, her teenage years, and her present condition. This “mishmash” (a word used twice in her last sentence) is obsessional and repetitive, as if she keeps being dragged back to the same place, but with no therapeutic or consolatory effects except in the act of writing itself. The seesaw between past and present reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s method in her unfinished memoir, “Sketch of the Past,” written between 1939 and 1940, which rocks between the wartime present and her childhood past.
The present, day-by-day story is of Diski’s diagnosis with cancer, her treatment with chemo and radiotherapy, her writing of her illness journal, the complications of the illness, and the results of the treatment, taking her as close to the end as writing can go. The second story, mixed in with it and circling back from it, is of the relationship with Lessing, which continued for forty years until Lessing’s death, at ninety-four, in 2013, but did not end then, since after Lessing died it could at last be written about. Both stories are told with painful, ruthless precision, savage humor, anger, frustration, and bewilderment.
After Lessing’s death and after Diski’s diagnosis with inoperable lung cancer in August 2014, she started writing this book in the form of long diary-essays in the London Review of Books, where she had been a contributor for many years and where she was edited and published by her friend Mary-Kay Wilmers. These pieces were published between September 2014 and the end of 2015. At the start of 2016, in Wilmers’s words, “as she came to the end of what she had to say, diary and book completed, she started to die. It wasn’t a coincidence.” In Gratitude was published on April 21, 2016; Diski died a week later, on April 28, 2016.
The illness narrative begins with her diagnosis and her immediate feeling, first of embarrassment, and then of weariness at the “preordained banality” of being “set on a track by something outside your control.” For her, a writer who loathed predictability and unoriginality, a person who hated being out of control, this was the worst possible scenario—quite apart from the dying. That valiant joking sets the tone. She makes a joke from Breaking Bad (“So—we’d better get cooking the meth”) and is then appalled by the thought that probably everyone diagnosed with inoperable cancer now makes that joke. “I’d committed my first platitude. I was already a predictable cancer patient.”
To go on being funny is one ambition; the other is to describe every stage of the process as impeccably as she can. How it feels to be given the information, the explanations, the predictions; trying not to be “grumpy and cross,” trying “to feel grateful” to the nurses and doctors. The “insane tiredness” that chemo produces, as if your veins were “filled with sluggish liquidised metal.” The closing down of energy and brain power, as though “a lasso” had been thrown around your life. The atmosphere of the oncology waiting room and its quiet inhabitants (“waiting for their turn in the anteroom of the afterlife”). The machine you’re fastened up to for chemo (“my drip-buddy and me”), the radiography room (“at the start of each treatment…I wondered how to describe the machine”).
She brings the dying life of the body startlingly onto the page: “The body, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, has a mind of its own.” Above all, she wants not to fall into bad writing before she dies. Terror, grief, helplessness, exhaustion, pain, anger, weakness, swirl around inside her; but what also energizes her is the desire not to fall into a “linguistic black hole.”
She dreads “the avalanche of clichés that hung over my head.” She refuses to use the words “battle” or “journey”: “I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.” She has a horror of being “lost for words.” Her intention is to be “coherent” for as long as she can. It is an admirable narrative of great fortitude and honesty, which at moments breaks out of its necessarily rigorous, ironical mode into an eloquent writing of letting go and bidding the world farewell:
Where am I going? Nobody knows. Can I come with you? Aye, bye and bye. There is a kind of excitement. This, that I’ve never done, already done but previously, in a different form, an absolute otherness, nothingness, knowinglessness. That everyone has done, will do, world without end. The ending, and the world going on, going about its daily business. A world without me. To have known but not have any apparatus to know with. The excitement of a newness that is as old as the hills. My turn.
Metaphors are her friend, and many of these are drawn from children’s books and films and fairy stories: Alice through the looking glass, Peter Pan on his awfully big adventure, Rapunzel, the Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty. These analogies thicken up in the book’s counterstory of her teenage life with Lessing. When trying to work out what she should call her (“the woman I live with,” “my friend,” “my benefactor”?), “fairy godmother” did not seem like the best option. The fairy-tale analogies she might have used for her life with Lessing—a Cinderella story, a foundling story—did not come with happy endings. More often she tends toward Hansel and Gretel, and the image of the witch “who wants to cook and eat the children for supper.” But in both of the book’s narrative strands, Diski still feels, in some part of her, like a lost and angry child, trying to make her way alone through a dark wood, surrounded by hobgoblins.
Lessing, who had (notoriously) left two of her three children behind when she moved from what was then Rhodesia to England at the age of thirty, took Diski in on an impulse. Her troubled son, Peter, had been at the same school as Diski, and told his mother about her: they had never met when Lessing decided to open her door to her. She housed her, talked to her, introduced her to a world of books, films, politics, clever people. She gave her her freedom (there’s a startling anecdote of Lessing sending her off, aged fifteen, to a horrified gynecologist, to be fitted for a Dutch cap) and told her that “there was…no need for gratitude.” All this seemed an improvement on the havoc of life with either of her parents. “But it wasn’t really OK.” Really Lessing did want gratitude and good behavior; she didn’t want a sulky, belligerent, reckless, sharp-tongued teenager always in the house. “The gratitude/ingratitude problem was always on my mind—it never really went away.”
Matters came to a head when—like a scene in a dark fairy tale—the frightened foundling plucked up courage to ask the “fairy godmother” what would happen if Lessing didn’t like her. Lessing did not reply. She stormed out of the house and the next day wrote an icy letter to Diski, accusing her of emotional blackmail. So Diski had her answer—and went on feeling that she was “about to be abandoned at any moment.” This scene shadowed the rest of their relationship, and led, inevitably, to the moment when Lessing asked Diski to leave.
Diski is unforgiving about Doris Lessing, as well as obsessed by her, and her account makes harsh reading. She describes Lessing as a confused and controlling person constantly searching for a system to live by (communism, psychoanalysis, Sufism), often chilling, enraged, and scornful, capable of cruelty and arrogance, shockingly betraying of friends in her fiction, and ruthlessly self-protective. Diski is filled with unappeasable rage, especially about Lessing’s all-consuming relationship with her son Peter, who became increasingly unable to live in the world.
She circles repeatedly, without solving it, around the question of why Lessing took her in and then found her unbearable:
I couldn’t think Doris had really thought it through, or if she had, she must have supposed that her command of human psychology was great enough to overcome any obstacles…. I didn’t think about her taking on a needy adolescent as an act of reparation for leaving her two children…. I think she really felt that she could cope with anything, anyone difficult because she wrote about such people every day, and since most of those characters were her, she would know how to manage it, and had already worked out how the relationship with me would be controlled and contained.
This fierce tone of Diski’s about Lessing is not entirely consistent. The question of gratitude remains unresolved. Part of Diski’s life story—and part of why she wrote this book when she knew she was dying—is that she did, also, feel some gratitude to Doris Lessing. This slips out oddly, every now and then, as when we learn in passing that Lessing continued to give her an allowance long after they had lived together, when Diski was starting her first novel. In the middle of a paragraph toward the end of the book, Diski suddenly says: “She must have cared for me in some way.”
For Lessing’s biographer this memoir will be both a priceless resource and a difficult challenge. What the biographer will have to take into account is that Lessing was clearly as much affected by Diski’s presence in her life as Diski was by hers. Diski notes that Lessing’s fictional versions of her in Memoirs of a Survivor and Briefing for a Descent into Hell of course distort her character and the facts of her life. That’s what novelists do. “Writers, including me, quite legitimately appropriate bits and pieces of lives and people for their own ends.” In Briefing, the Diski character, a girl in a mental hospital, is sexually predatory, lost, isolated, and full of rage: “She sat alone, for she knew she had always been alone…. All around her, if only people had the eyes to see it, was a space where flickered and darted flames of hatred, a baleful fire.”
Diski is ironical about such fictional versions of her, but she treats with something approaching horror Lessing’s note at the beginning of her long, late novel The Sweetest Dream, which followed her two volumes of autobiography, in 2001. Lessing says she has written this part of her life as fiction rather than autobiography “because of possible hurt to vulnerable people.” Diski, who recognizes herself as one of those people, is aghast at this, and reads it as guilt-inducing and “threatening.” But she doesn’t remark on the contents of The Sweetest Dream.
The novel is about a 1960s communal household full of lame-dog teenagers, brought in by the Lessing-like house-mother Frances. Drugs, sex, politics, and family breakdowns are all in the mix; Diski’s The Sixties could be read as a commentary. Diski seems to be spread out between a number of the girl characters, who include sulky, resentful Rose, much disliked by Frances; silent, polite, anxious Jill, who has run away from home and school; and Sylvia, “a little, frightened figure…a little bird blown in by a storm,” a frail, anorexic fifteen-year-old with a crazy mother who is befriended by Frances’s equally vulnerable son—and ends up a heroic health worker in Africa. Some of the scenes Diski describes in Skating to Antarctica and In Gratitude reappear, very similarly, in The Sweetest Dream (like the screaming intrusion of the hysterical mother into the house, or a moment when Sylvia says to Frances: “I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful”). Just as Diski spent her last months writing about Lessing, so Lessing, in this late novel, returned to their life together, with irritation, but also with a kind of affection. This was not a one-way story. Frances, trying to deal with Sylvia, says to herself: “She had promised herself not to get emotionally involved, because what good would that do?” But she did.
The two main sections of In Gratitude are called, shockingly, “Doris and Me” and “Chemo and Me.” It is hard not to draw from that pairing the inference that Lessing was toxic to her; or, like chemo, was something that Diski couldn’t bear because she couldn’t control it; or that both were interventions meant to be beneficial, but for which it was hard to be grateful. Or perhaps only that both were extremely difficult subjects to write about truthfully and precisely. The most important thing that Diski learned from Lessing was how to be a “real writer.” “Real writers (as opposed to crowd-pleasers) are often uncomfortable if they aren’t writing on the edge and even crossing it.” The point for Diski was always to write as well as she could about what was hardest to write about. That was the gift of the fairy godmother—or the wicked witch.
I knew Jenny Diski hardly at all and Doris Lessing a little: I interviewed her several times. In those encounters I was mightily conscious of much of what Diski describes in Lessing: the power, the refusal to conform to others’ ideas about her, the impatience, the fierce judgments, the tricky guardedness (not unlike Diski’s), the dry objections to sentimentality, cant, received opinions, or overeffusiveness. And I was also very struck by aspects Diski doesn’t mention: the teasing charm, the flirtatiousness, the pleasure in all the attention, the childlike frankness, the shrewdness and keen observation.
At Lessing’s memorial, on Monday, April 7, 2014, in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where Diski and I both spoke, we happened to sit next to each other in the pew. Diski was trembling violently all through, supported by “the Poet” (Ian Patterson), drinking water, getting to the lectern with difficulty. Once up there she told us about the main gift Lessing had given her:
Doris taught me how to be a writer. I don’t mean she gave me lessons, or talked about writing…. I learned what it was to be a writer from being around, in the house, day by day, observing her being one…. The shotgun sound of typing went on continuously for hours. She typed incredibly fast and only infrequently paused…. She thought as she typed…. Writing was the priority, and when something came along to interrupt—including sometimes my doings and misdoings—she dealt with it fast and efficiently, and with frequent sighs. Then she got back to work…. To sum it up, being a writer meant: getting on with it….Focus is the point.
She ended by saying that for this she would always be grateful.
September 29, 2016
Maya Lin’s Genius
The Heights of Charm
How They Wrestled with the New