I picked up a copy of Jenny Diski’s first novel, Nothing Natural, at random a few decades ago at an airport bookstore. I read it on the flight from Heathrow to JFK with a degree of shocked engrossment unprecedented in my reading experience. Nothing Natural, a brilliant and claustrophobic tale of female intelligence and female pain, was the best novel Diski would ever publish. I don’t mean that as faint praise. Diski’s particular writerly genius—fierce, brilliant, highly associative—fits poorly with conventional storytelling.
Diski herself admits as much at one point in the posthumous collection In Gratitude, a compilation of the pieces she wrote for the London Review of Books in the wake of the terminal cancer diagnosis she received in July 2014. “My particular difficulty is that I don’t like writing narrative, the getting on with what happened next of a story that has a middle, an end and a beginning. You may have noticed. Sometimes the need to tell the story, to make sense of a narrative for the reader, feels like one of those devices for rolling up an emptying toothpaste tube, so all the paste will extrude and there’s no waste.”
Gathered in a single volume, these valedictory pieces make us feel even more strongly the force of a brilliant writer’s life brought to an end. In Gratitude begins with a preamble (“Diagnosis”) and is followed by three parts. The middle section offers a diaristic account of Diski’s cancer treatment colored by her savage self-awareness that so many of her contemporaries are in at least one respect also her competitors: “If it were a race, the first man home—except for Iain Banks who won the trophy by a mile—would be Oliver Sacks (announced 19 February—died 30 August), with Henning Mankell (announced 17 January—died 5 October) a close second. Lisa Jardine won a race of her own, staying shtum1 publicly, her death a surprise except to the few who knew. So Clive James (announced May 2011—?) and Diski (announced 11 September 2014—?) still battle it out for third place.” We can now fill in that last date: Diski died on April 28 of this year. Clive James continues to write prolifically, with recent pieces in the Guardian wryly titled “I’ve got a lot done since my death” and “Still being alive is embarrassing.”
In Gratitude is bookended by two long sections concerning Diski’s relationship with Doris Lessing. As a homeless and troubled teenager with a history of abuse, Diski (then Jennifer Simmonds, although it is a name she hardly recognizes as having once been her own) was at school with Lessing’s son Peter. Lessing offered her a home in North London at a time Diski identifies for herself and for the reader as having been just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in February 1963. Diski remained under Lessing’s roof for only a few years, but their fraught, opaque relationship continued to the end of Lessing’s life.
In Gratitude is more than anything else a fascinating account of a young woman’s relationship with a great woman writer who appoints herself mentor. Its contours closely recall those of Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Although the young Jenny Diski is relatively immune to Lessing’s charisma, she gives herself over quite thoroughly to the environment of Lessing’s house in Charrington Street. Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook had been published the year before, and regular visitors to the house included the novelist and feminist activist Naomi Mitchison, the poet Ted Hughes, and the psychiatrist and social critic R. D. Laing.
Living in this heady environment, Diski discovered criticism as conversation. “For weeks I listened intently to the table talk,” Diski writes, “not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily.” Already here one discerns the double-edged blade of Diski’s trademark judgment—her adolescent wondering implies a certain amount of skepticism about the legitimacy of the chattering-class facility with words. She continues:
I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis—from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought—from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study?
The answer seemed to be yes, but Diski says she never “had any confidence” in what she said or thought: “Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essential taste and understanding.” This outsider’s perspective, combined with passionate intelligence, is what made Diski’s own writing so striking and so irreplaceable a feature on the landscape of British cultural commentary.
the analytic rage that motivates so much of Diski’s writing finally strikes me as expressing pain rather than judgment.
The book’s last section takes a different perspective on Lessing and on Diski’s relationship with her, tackling questions about cruelty, the relationship between life and art, and the darker sides of emotions like gratitude and dependency. It should go without saying that the collection’s title is sharply ironic, in contrast to the straightforward use of the term for the title of Sacks’s analogous collection, Gratitude. At the time Diski went to live in her house, Doris Lessing was 44, and present-day Diski juxtaposes that 44-year-old Doris to herself at the same age, “at least as selfish as Doris,” in order to plumb the mystery of why Doris was willing to take her on.
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. Great arrogance, then, or in the mood for taking a chance. Or something else. Or nothing. … 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.
Diski herself is at once grateful for the generosity bestowed on her and not grateful for it at all, “not in that dark place where I am a naughty, angry child.”
Lessing represented Diski more or less directly in two novels that have aged poorly. Amid the metaphysical Laingianism (“inner-space fiction”) of Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), Diski makes a cameo role under the name Miss Violet Stoke, a patient on the ward of a mental hospital first seen playing “a particularly complicated game of patience.” I will quote the passage at length because it provides such a memorable portrait of teenage Diski from the outside (every line insists on the resolutely visual exploration of external appearance rather than invoking the tool of speculative empathy to construct an interior life for the character observed):
She was a brunette, of a Mediterranean type. She had smooth dark hair, large black eyes, olive skin. She was slender, but rounded, but not excessively the latter, thus conforming both to current ideas about beauty in women, and that moment’s fashion. She wore a black crepe dress that fitted her smoothly over her breasts and hips. The sleeves were long and tight. The neck was high and close. The dress had simple white linen cuffs and a round white collar. These were slightly grubby. This dress would have been appropriate for a housekeeper, a perfect secretary, or a Victorian young lady spending a morning with her accounts, if it had not ended four inches below the top of the thigh. In other words, it was a particularly lopped mini-dress. It would be hard to imagine a type of dress more startling as a mini-dress. The contrast between its severity, its formality, and the long naked legs was particularly shocking: it shocked. The girl’s legs were not quite bare. She wore extremely fine pale grey tights. But she did not wear any panties. She sat with her legs sprawled apart in a way that suggested that she had forgotten about them, or that she had enough to do to control and manage the top half of her, without all the trouble of remembering her legs and her sex as well. Her private parts were evident as a moist dark fuzzy patch, and their exposure gave her a naïve, touching, appealing look.
The dispassionate tone of Lessing’s description carries an undertone of censoriousness: there is a middle-aged woman’s harsh judgment of the self-expression in fashion of the female young, and the studied neutrality of the phrasing—not just the designation of the effect as “shocking,” but its insistent reformulation (“it shocked”)—suggests that the observer’s position is objective, unassailable. As our eyes follow the sentences to the girl’s pubic area, we sense a certain amount of dehumanization, and it is curious then to find the suggestion that the exposure of the private parts bestows on their owner the properties of being “naïve, touching, appealing.” Cumulatively, the passage seems to express the mild disdain, even dislike that characterizes much of Lessing’s writing about Diski and her fictional analogues.
The portrait of a few years later, in The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), has a little more nuance but seems equally baffled, put off by the girl’s hard shell. The novel is set in a falling-apart refugee town reminiscent, avant la lettre, of J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, published a little more than five years later. The child Emily Cartright is left with the adult narrator, who observes: “She was watching me, carefully, closely: the thought came into my mind that this was the expert assessment of possibilities by a prisoner observing a new jailer.” This quality, a certain antagonistic watchfulness, continues to be identified by the narrator as the child’s most fundamental characteristic:
The point was that there wasn’t anybody who came near her, into her line of sight, who was not experienced by her as a threat. This was how her experience, whatever that had been, had “set” her. I found I was trying to put myself in her place, tried to be her, to understand how it was that people must pass and repass sharply outlined by her need to criticize—to defend; and found I was thinking that this was only what everyone did, what I did, but there was something in her which enlarged the tendency, had set it forth, exaggerated. For of course, when someone new approaches us, we are all caution; we take that person’s measure. A thousand incredibly rapid measurements and assessments go on, putting him, her, in an exact place, to end in the silent judgement: yes, this one’s for me; no, we have nothing in common; no, he, she, is a threat. … watch out! Danger! And so on. But it was not until Emily heightened it all for me that I realised what a prison we were all in, how impossible it was for any one of us to let a man or a woman or a child come near without the defensive inspection, the rapid, sharp, cold analysis.
Lessing seems to find in the girl’s practice of “defensive inspection” and “rapid, sharp, cold analysis” a sort of emblem for the human condition. But I think the emphasis on coolness and sharpness does not help us understand the person and writer Diski would go on to become in adulthood. Diski’s voice has always been notable for its combination of cognitive power and a curiously impersonal intensity, but the analytic rage that motivates so much of her writing finally strikes me as expressing pain rather than judgment. What we have here is not clinical or dispassionate but rather—almost against the narrator’s own better judgment—invested, implicated, involved. Here is a passage of Diski’s, from the essay “On Spiders and Respect for Sheep” in her Montaigne homage On Trying to Keep Still, that captures for me the most essential qualities of her voice, its humane questing power to sweep up elements of pathos and of self-forgiveness (never self-pity) in its introspective musings:
Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned. A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead. Just a haircut, a hospital visit, a dinner party. Going out. The weight of the thing-that-is-going-to-happen sits on my heart and crushes the present into non-existence. My ability to live in the here and now depends on not having any plans, on there being no expected interruption. I have no other way to do it. How can you be alone, properly alone, if you know someone is going to knock at the door in five hours, or tomorrow morning, or you have to get ready and go out in three days’ time? I can’t abide the fracturing of the present by the intrusion of a planned future.
The self-contained or self-protective quality that Lessing saw as malign shows itself here to be related to a sort of sensitivity to external influences that lets Diski register each interaction with humans and other animals with exquisite precision and insight.
There is very little that could be considered conventionally sentimental about In Gratitude. Diski’s remarks on the death of David Bowie, for instance, are prefaced by the caveat that she is not a fan: “Some good songs, an enviable capacity to shapeshift,” she allows, “but not so much charm, or humility, as some who nevertheless die young, younger, with children and grandchildren to leave.” She tears up, though, when she hears him say during an interview in a tribute program that the distressing thing about dying is “the thought of missing watching his daughter grow up.” This, Diski agrees, is “the unbearable loss”: “Not that there’s anything to be done about any of it,” she adds brusquely, but the heat is there beneath the dismissal. That this, Diski’s final book, simply stops rather than coming to a proper conclusion leaves the reader with her own sharp sense of deprivation and loss.
- UK criminal slang, now assimilated to the mainstream, for staying quiet, keeping your mouth shut. ↩