Writing on Thin Ice

SWNS/Writer Pictures
Jenny Diski, Cambridge, England, August 2002

Jenny Diski covered nearly every conceivable topic in her essays for the London Review of Books: shoes, Stanley Milgram, the women’s movement, Karl Marx. But the essays are always as much about herself as the subject at hand. “I start with me, and often enough end with me,” she once wrote. “I’ve never been apologetic about that, or had a sense that my writing is ‘confessional.’ What else am I going to write about but how I know and don’t know the world?”

Sometimes she does this head-on, as when she discusses Roman Polanski’s rape of a thirteen-year-old girl along with her own at age fourteen. Or in a review of a book on asylums, which she is barely able to write because, having spent much of her childhood in one herself, she begins to get competitive with all the inmates described:

As I read, I saw myself flitting through the pages of Taylor’s account like a precursor-ghost, or perhaps more a tetchy sprite, engaged in a debate with her text, ticking off the similarities between her experience and mine and weighing up the differences…. “I should have been MUCH madder than I was. I haven’t been NEARLY mad enough.”

But even when she doesn’t talk directly about herself or her own experience, there’s an intelligence and humor that immediately identify the writing as hers. She writes in an essay about Germaine Greer:

The problem with being a dedicated social trouble-maker who has not self-destructed is that, as the decades roll by, the society you wish to irritate gets used to you and even begins to regard you with a certain affection. Eventually, you become a beloved puppy that is always forgiven for soiling the carpet. No matter what taboos you kick out at, people just smile and shake their head.

Her writing is sharp, sometimes mean, sometimes seems to roam. It moves from observation to joke to fact to analysis. In this, one experiences the uncommon, pleasurable feeling of watching someone think.

This combination is not popular with everyone—I remember giving a friend a copy of Stranger on a Train, Diski’s book about traveling across America and her own time spent in and out of mental hospitals. It was promptly returned. “An American travelogue? This woman won’t stop talking about her feelings.” But the clarity of her mind at work accounts for the fact that readers who like Diski really like her. She is the rare writer who records her thoughts without going to great lengths to justify them. Reading Diski, one has the satisfying sense that she wrote exactly what she wanted to write.

Diski died last year, after a treatment for lung cancer that she detailed in the London Review of Books, along with a series of pieces about her adolescence living with Doris Lessing.…

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