Jenny Diski wrote 11 novels and seven non-fiction books. She wrote 150 articles and 65 blog posts for the London Review of Books. She wrote about drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll; she also wrote about animals and train travel. She wrote historical fiction and memoir, and essays about literature and fashion. She wrote about her family, her loves, and in the last two years since her cancer diagnosis, she wrote about the life she lived. She wrote herself until the very end.
Jenny Diski died in April 2016 at the age of 68. Here are nine stories celebrating Diski and her work.
Last July, when the English writer Jenny Diski was told she had inoperable lung cancer and, at best, another three years to live, she responded to the news characteristically — that is, in wry poor taste. “So,” she said, turning to her husband, the poet and academic Ian Patterson, “we’d better get cooking the meth.” The Poet — as Diski always refers to Patterson, with tender-ironic reserve, in her personal essays — was just about able to keep up his end of the morbid repartee that is the currency of their marriage: “This time we quit while the going’s good.” The oncologist and the nurse, apparently not watchers of “Breaking Bad,” looked on blankly.
People offer me things to live for. (Another TV quiz show?) ‘But what about the grandchildren. They’re worth living for, aren’t they? And family and friends?’ But finding what is good about life makes their loss all the more miserable, even if you know there will be no you to miss anything. In this long meantime, dying sooner rather than later can be upsetting. Additionally, how much do I want to be dependent on others for my everyday life or, indeed, for finding a reason to stay alive a little while longer? Missing a few months of feeling awful, being dead, versus not missing those months of feeling awful. Dead, at least theoretically, is the less painful of the two options, assuming that dead equals not being at all. Whatever terror there is lies in the present fear of dying, not so much of death. The stoics tell me that I’ve been ‘dead’ before, prior to my birth, and that was no hardship, was it? Back to Beckett, I think. So that’s how I am at the moment of writing this. But of course it’s more complicated than that, more complicated than is allowed by the linear business of writing one word, one sentence, one paragraph after another with the intention of being coherent.
As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering clichés when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all. Or if I had the will, I would say something to the effect that the Cinderella fairy story of Doris and me was a rare instance of life after the ellipsis at the end of most fairy stories. And they lived happily ever after. People usually didn’t much like that answer, because it messed up the simplicity of the story, and reminded them that Doris was not a handsome prince, or I the foundling whose innate nobility was recognised by a prince of the true blood.
But I was that girl whose face was twisted into a snarl when the wind blew in my direction and fixed it that way. I left school with a small handful of O levels and no university education in prospect, made friends with the Covent Garden arty drug types, was living in a squat in Long Acre, and finally went into Ward 6 of the Maudsley Hospital. A friend of Doris’s who came to visit me there told me that she had washed her hands of me and expected that I would become a heroin addict, get pregnant and die an early death. I suppose there was a 50 per cent chance of each of those things happening to me. Or rather of doing those things to myself, compelled by my self-destructive nature, Doris would have said. The belligerent look barely had time to wash and brush up in readiness for hibernation when it rushed back to the face of its owner. You were very difficult, they tell me. You are very difficult, they say. It turned out that ‘doing what I was told’ was not so much following orders, it was some innate understanding of how the world was supposed to work and conforming to it, so as not to make trouble. By the time someone had to tell me what to do, it was already too late.
My eyes were made of diamonds, not the glitzy sort that sparkled and shone, but the implacably black kind that knew the worth of concealed things (some called them ‘your coal-black eyes’). Those eyes radiated the truth of the matter to anyone who dared look at them. And the darkness drew in the world and showed me what the world could do and was doing. Those eyes picked out the lies, the faults, the vanity, the hypocrisy and put them in their mirrored compartments and twisted them like a kaleidoscope, not into shards of chaos pretending to make sense, but into the actual truth, all unknitted and unravelled into what the fuck was wrong with everything. And what was wrong with everything was people and their need to do all those things that made the world go round. The answer of course was that everyone told lies. All kinds, big, small, monumental, trivial, world-shattering, mind-shattering, hateful, loving lies. No one tells the truth – that is the privilege of 18-year-olds. No one knew it, but there was the reason for the belligerence on my face. It was the visual representation of the fact that they’d never get one over on me again.
With Doris were her friends, a couple dressed for a country cottage weekend out of Vogue. X and I watched and saw it all. Sometimes we lay on our beds and laughed. Sometimes they appalled us. We knew that we would become them, and that was one of the reasons for jumping out of windows.
Human beings have never been happy with what they’ve got. We reshape the world, construct machines and contraptions of every kind to alter and control it. We are proud of our innovative dissatisfaction, and quite begrudge the odd chimpanzee using a stick to pry around in termitaries. But while an orangutan might put a large leaf on her head for her amusement or to alleviate the boredom, we are the only ones who actually shape-shift through sleight of body. Until recently, the only way to make major alterations was to push or pull, squash, flatten or compress, lengthen, broaden or enlarge by means of concealed apparatus. Controlling the body is difficult. It requires carefully thought-out structures and appliances which take account of the fact that squeezing one bit will cause a bulge elsewhere, and that death can result from a too constricted ribcage. A degree of rigidity is required but so is pliability.
A next book and a last book must be read in different ways, even if they are identical in content and in either case written in the shadow of a cancer that she surely knew was going to kill her sooner rather than later. None of these introductions to other people’s books, contingent newspaper articles and speeches written between 2001 and 2004 was intended as last words. Rieff is adamant about that. And to underline it he speaks of her ‘unalloyed fear of extinction – in no part of her, not even in the last agonised days of her ending, was there the slightest ambivalence, the slightest acceptance’. But it is very hard for the reader, knowing it to be her last, rather than her next book (and coming to it via Rieff’s elegiac foreword) not to see these writings as valedictory – a round-up of Sontag’s thought and work. We may know that death is always an arbitrary interruption of a life, but with us here and her not, and our narrative-hungry brains being what they are, we bind death to life by assuming a summation rather than allowing life to spill pointlessly over the edge into oblivion.
8. Jenny Diski Interview: ‘The Mediocrity of Fiction is Really to do with Feeling Cosy” (Robert Hanks, The Guardian, November 2015)
“People write to me sometimes, and they say that they know me. And of course I know they don’t know me … There is a need for readers to have a sort of personal relationship with writers, which is why you get so much shit” – she spits the word out – “about whether a book is good. Are the characters believable? Or is the plot good? The mediocrity of fiction is really to do with feeling cosy, and that you’ve got a nice friend sitting in your lap telling you a nice story. I’ve never been a nice friend sitting in anyone’s lap. I just wanted to write stuff down in shapes, really.”
The past is always an idea which people have about it after the event. Those whose job it is to tell the story of the past in their own present call it history. To generations born later, receiving the recollections of their parents or grandparents, or reading the historians, the past is a story, a myth handily packaged into an era, bounded by a particular event—a war, a financial crisi, a reign, a decade, a century—anything that conveniently breaks the ongoing tick of time into a manageable narrative. Those people who were alive during the period in question, looking back, call it memory—memory being just another instance of the many ways in which we make stories.
* * *
Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in New York.