Jenny Diski, Down the Final Rabbit Hole
On a Body of Work That Ends Without Ending
Jenny Diski was fascinated by Through the Looking Glass when she was a young girl and reading constantly. She contemplated the infinity presented by the rabbit hole, into which Alice falls and through which she finds the world turned literally on its head. As someone who, she wrote later, “couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t provoke myself with impossible thoughts,” Diski pushed Lewis Carroll’s imagined landscape even further. She wondered what would happen if the fall never ended, if Alice hadn’t come to a stop somewhere.
At 66, rereading the author’s note of Doris Lessing’s 2001 novel The Sweetest Dream, one of her last, Diski found herself, again, falling: “I can’t get away from that paragraph. It feels like a well, bottomless; time to hold your breath before you hear the distant splash of a coin somewhere down there.” This author’s note, in which Lessing claims, “There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character,” is logical quicksand. “I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people,” she declares. She quickly adds that this “does not mean I have novelized autobiography.” But why, then, include the disclaimer at all? “Here is a sticky business,” Diski interprets. “She is protecting some (real-world) people by not writing about them. But by saying that she is not writing autobiography she is telling us that something happened… That is the meaning, the weight of the last word.”
Diski wrote ten novels during her lifetime and was at work on a new one when she died a few weeks ago, but her memories of Lessing and their labyrinthine relationship reveal a persisting discomfort with fiction. That’s not really precise enough—toward the genre of fiction she exhibited an appreciation of its capacity to draw out those impossible thoughts. It’s more accurate to say that Diski was concerned with the manipulative powers of narrative and those who wield them, which meant that she was at her best, her most acute, when writing in the real. In the case of The Sweetest Dream, this manipulation occurs in the form of supposed non-fiction, as the author’s note, which is perhaps why Diski was so disturbed. “Author’s notes I take very seriously… Someone has to take responsibility for the written object I hold in my hand.” She goes so far as to describe Lessing’s double-barreled disclaimer as “the trail of sweets to the witch who wants to cook and eat the children for supper: witches get hungry too, but are devious in their method.” The witch, it follows, is Lessing, a salient characterization from a person who, as a child, lived in Lessing’s home and ate her meals.
Diski was concerned with the manipulative powers of narrative and those who wield them, which meant that she was at her best, her most acute, when writing in the real.
It’s no wonder that Diski bristled at Lessing’s “sticky,” engineered concern for the “vulnerable people” who might appear in her work. Diski once found herself in Lessing’s novel Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), in which an unnamed female narrator takes in a child, a young girl: “[Emily] 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.” That book, at least, needed no disclaimer—the parallel was too obvious. Instead, Lessing inscribed it for Diski: “To Jenny love Doris.”
Diski had landed in Lessing’s home as a wayward, “difficult” teenager, who had survived sexually and emotionally abusive parents, poverty, a rape, and a suicide attempt. And yet, Memoirs of a Survivor’s Emily Cartwright is “a self-presenting little madam,” “enameled,” “impervious”—it is an unfeeling portrait, unsympathetic, even condemning. It took much of Jenny Diski’s own career as a writer to shake off that version of herself which was not her version. “Emily only got to express herself through the narrator’s insights into her psyche. It was as if Doris didn’t want to know, or it wasn’t useful to her story to give Emily a voice or fears of her own.” A “true,” cohesive recollection of herself evades Diski still: “possibly that’s because the bits of me have never fitted together as one is supposed to think they do.”
This is the fractured Jenny Diski who emerges from In Gratitude, a memoir collected from her autobiographical columns in The London Review of Books of the past two years, give or take: a writer never quite fitting, never predictable—unfinished. The bits of her, only. The title is itself in some ways a mocking tribute to the dominant, go-to narrative of Diski’s life, a story in which she was saved by Doris Lessing. The child Jenny is constantly being asked to express her gratitude; the adult is writing against a belief that she owes her identity as a writer to anyone. “Gratitude was half of what I felt,” Diski remembers of being taken in by the famous novelist. “But also there was a substantial amount of anger at having to be grateful, the gratitude ever increasing, the bill never settled, and made more enraging by Doris’s insistence that I wasn’t to feel it.”
Diski as a writer and social being is driven and plagued by this staunch refusal to embrace the ritual of thanks, “anything that requires me to participate in a predetermined script. It may simply be that I am not a natural actor. That would account for the funk.” Lessing’s pleas that she be welcome to not express her gratitude feel just as false as the idea that she simply “do as she was told,” instead of smoking, drinking, being sexually active, bunking off of school, and bouncing in and out of psychiatric hospitals, which made up her life both immediately before and after the four years she lived with Lessing. In her own words, Diski always had eyes like “diamonds,” “not the glitzy sort that sparkled and shone”—as one might assume—“but the implacably black kind that knew the worth of concealed things… 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.”
What is refreshing and singular and compulsively readable in Diski’s last memoir is not a waffling discussion of truth and autobiography, as is rampant in the contemporary form. No one reading or writing it anymore can really labor under the impression that memory can ever be truly objective. Diski instead skewers the pretense of objectivity in favor of championing her fraught ownership, this embrace of “the actual truth” as something “unknitted and unravelled.” It is itself a syntactic quagmire but one aimed at clearing out the need for narrative rather than imposing it. In terms of memoir, Diski eschews straightforward narrative, something that “the reader can follow,” for the notion of “an invisible, perfectly transparent door”: open in some ways “to privileged readers, but solid as a drawbridge to those of either side of it who hesitate, knock, arrange kittens on their hands, smooth down their hair, find a face with the right expression.” Aka closed to the imposing figure of Doris, at whom this strange description is aimed—Diski’s frightened walk up to the house in Charrington Street, London, in 1962 ended in Doris opening the door and holding Grey Cat, a kind of welcoming gift. This attempt at something “normal,” offering a stray pet to a child, mirrors Doris’s sheltering of Diski, something Doris, who had notoriously left two children behind in South Africa when she moved to England, may have felt she was supposed to do. And which entrapped Diski in the life of another, very famous writer. Diski’s memoir accordingly breaks open this single act that might have defined her—it refracts.
It’s important that gratitude rhymes with platitude, another rhetorical ritual that animates the second anti-narrative of In Gratitude—Diski’s terminal cancer diagnosis in 2014. She would be pleased that I’ve been able to go this long with only glancing at the subject, loathe as she was to write a predictable “cancer diary.” When told by her “Onc Doc” that the lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis he has found inside her has given her between one and three years to live, Diski makes a joke about cooking meth and the show Breaking Bad, worrying not that it’s distasteful, but that it’s been said before. “I’d committed my first platitude. I was already a predictable cancer patient.” As a chronicle of illness, In Gratitude bucks the serenity expected of such last gasps—she refers to Oliver Sacks, Clive James, and others who have done the same thing—in favor of brutal, real-time honesty, which is, of course, anything but serene. The most acidic, lively language here can be found in exposing, with hilarity and unbridled anger, those aspects of cancer that now engender great, unquestioned bullshit. On the diagnosis itself, its ludicrous window of time: “Two to three years. Will the battery on the TV remote run out first?” Putting on a hospital smock only to walk the few feet across the radiology lab to take it off again to lie in the machine: “it was just another formality, like my date of birth and address, that made me invisible.” Instead of covering herself up, she makes the technicians “deal with” a few more seconds of her nakedness.
The most acidic, lively language here can be found in exposing, with hilarity and unbridled anger, those aspects of cancer that now engender great, unquestioned bullshit.
There is a political tenor to Diski’s cataloguing of the banalities and indignities of cancer that also keeps it apart from other “cancer diaries” which veer toward the allegorical, the religious. Her sudden dependence on strangers is also a dependence on the state: “when modern princesses wake up it’s to a deliberately crippled NHS and princes who are likely as not to have discussed the cost/benefit ratio of all that cutting back.” Her commentary recalls a long career of piercing through the prevailing narrative of a thing to pinpoint the institutional failures behind it, including the fate of real-life royalty. “Diana had a respect for narrative rules that I quite lack, and narrative repaid her by enclosing her possessively in the story,” she wrote when reviewing Tina Brown’s biography of Diana Spencer. In a 25-year stint of column-writing for the LRB that began long before announcing her cancer in “A Diagnosis,” Diski shaped a brilliant brand of first-person criticism that never allowed a personal story to barrel through without its attending socio-political pressures and structural machinations noted, and vice-versa.
There is no more vital example than her writing about the rape she endured at 14, originally in 2009 for her column in response to calls to absolve Roman Polanski of that crime, but weaved now into the predominately post-cancer pieces in In Gratitude. She writes in stunningly clear terms of the event: “I was neither dazzled nor drugged into sex when I was 14—I was embarrassed into it.” A man lured her to a recording studio in Notting Hill, where he raped her by singing in the street to such a degree that she acquiesced to follow him in order to shut him up. The embarrassment does not abate after the violent attack, when she continued to think “of the incident as ‘when I got myself raped.’ I was very aware of having gone voluntarily to the recording studio with him.” By describing truthfully and with what for many would be disturbing resignation how the prevailing misogyny of the time produced a kind of horrible, murky notion of consent—like Polanski’s victim staying alone at his house, drinking his alcohol—she provides a more deliberate criticism of rape culture than a palatably impassioned telling of the story ever could. “In 1961 it didn’t go without saying that to be penetrated against one’s will was a kind of spiritual murder. I was more disgusted by him than I was shamed or diminished. A different zeitgeist, luckily for me.” Still, “let’s call it rape-rape,” she ends, parroting a phrase Whoopi Goldberg used to try to excuse Polanski’s actions. The language, contorted and mired it may be, matters.
Diski shaped a brilliant brand of first-person criticism that never allowed a personal story to barrel through without its attending socio-political pressures and structural machinations noted.
Diski’s writing about her rape, and about sex in general, illustrates how she used autobiography singularly as she entered (and exited) an era of “confessional writing” she resisted. Not because she didn’t write about herself—“I start with me, and often enough end with me.” It’s that she “never had a sense that my writing is ‘confessional’.” There is no ritual in the unveiling, only necessity: “What else am I going to write about but how I know and don’t know the world?” The content itself is not the impetus to write. “Writing the story of my interesting childhood was not being a writer,” she knew when Doris told her to “just write down your life story.” Her devotion to making a working life as a writer brought about the work, simply and plainly, and that’s why the voice in her columns was so clear, unadulterated by show.
In Gratitude doesn’t read like a capsule or a gravestone—there is a palpable sense in reading, even if you aren’t familiar with her LRB “cancer diary,” that this can’t be it. Other work hums at the margins of this one, blurring the edges of the memoir and contributing to its circuitousness, its fracture. She literally asks that you read her other book on the 60s when describing that time, making “a kind of grow your own narrative” and explicitly referencing her catalogue of work. The figure of Doris, that persistent ghost, is accordingly unwieldy: sometimes Doris answers the door, sometimes Jenny is at the door, a different time, knocking—and instead of an impossible threshold, there is “the reader seeing both sides of the transparent door, two people, each hesitating and taking a deep breath… designated by some higher force to stay in contact, to be a family.” She calls herself one of Doris’s tribe in homage to her undeniable force, as someone who (though unlike Diski, she did not identify as a feminist) was a supreme, confounding example of a woman who balked convention. In this way, Doris’s sudden turn to charity is given a double life, two sides of a door, not only “doing what she was supposed to do” but intervening in the narrative of “difficult” girl, failed by the institutions of her parents, her school, and her country.
“Perhaps all acts of generosity are that. Momentary acts. But where was the safety net for either of us?” Diski asks as In Gratitude builds toward—what? Infinity, I suppose, though not “survival” or “bravery,” words she did not tolerate. “But for fuck’s sake, get it back, kids. Fight for what was our right. Get angry.” Diski is referring to Britain’s once-lofty welfare state, but the same can be said for insisting on saying something new, on writing, writing, writing. Which is the miracle of this last book of a prolific writer: that it just kind of ends without ending—her blog and Twitter posts continue after its last page. “How can nothing be nothing? Help me out here, philosophers, there isn’t much time,” she demands. An afterlife awaits her, down the rabbit hole. “The too well known as unknown” was Diski’s parting donation, for which we—a platitude!—are grateful.
Jenny Diski portrait by Crystal Moody.