Jenny Diski, My Maureen

Her Work Mitigated the Solitude of Parenting

April 29, 2016  By Rumaan Alam

I realize that it’s an intellectual failure to confuse art with autobiography. But I do it; so many of our best artists dare us to. So I’ll confess a further personal failing and admit that my interest in Jenny Diski was, at first, anyway, vis-a-vis her relationship to Doris Lessing. They were mother and child (Diski, as a young woman, went to live with Lessing), great artist and amanuensis, friends, colleagues; as there’s no one noun that quite covers it guessing at their relationship is like a highbrow version of figuring out who Carly Simon had in mind with You’re So Vain.

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Lessing’s novel The Summer Before the Dark got under my skin. It elevates the premise of housewifely disaffection to the stuff of a thriller, and its effect on me likely had something to do with having read it during my first son’s infancy. I felt as invisible and ineffectual as its heroine Kate does upon reaching middle age. She takes to the road, realism turns into surrealism, and Kate eventually seeks refuge at the apartment of a sexy younger hippie called Maureen who is at once her child, her friend, an alternate self, the person Kate may have been had she been born at another time.

I’ve long been envious of the kind of intimacy Kate and Maureen enjoy, an intimacy that’s always seemed to me strictly the province of women. At any rate, on my darkest days of parenthood I have wanted to do what Kate did: wander through Europe, have affairs and adventures, bond with a Maureen of my own.

Some writers suffer when given free rein (David Brooks comes to mind) but Jenny Diski was a writer of such meandering intelligence that she was able to elevate the blog entry into an art form. I don’t always understand the things the London Review of Books publishes, but I did always enjoy Diski weighing in on the Prince of Wales, on the illogic of bank fees, on Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter account.

Whether Diski was in any way a part of Lessing creating Maureen, I can’t know, at least until Patrick French publishes his biography of the Nobel Laureate. (Diski wrote of recognizing herself in Lessing’s novel Memories of a Survivor.) But what Maureen is for Kate—a road not taken—Diski surely was for Lessing; what Maureen is for Kate, Diski surely was for me.

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I’ve sought out several Maureens, to mitigate the solitude of parenthood, which is exacerbated by the solitude of my chosen profession. My Maureens are mostly writers, mostly women, most of whom I don’t know at all. But I imagine their work as direct address, meant for me. My Maureens show me other lives and other ways of being; they exhibit intelligences far greater than my own; they have adventures I’ll never have; they have insights that are beyond my reach; they make me chuckle at the computer when I should be doing my own work, or at least folding the laundry. Someday, when I grow up, I would love to know that I have been this person for someone, for anyone: that I have been Maureen. Lessing made it to 94; Diski only 68. She was shortchanged, but to have been Maureen seems to me the measure of a life well lived.


Feature photo by Gary Calton.

Rumaan Alam
Rumaan Alam
Rumaan Alam is the author of three novels: Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother, and Leave the World Behind. Other writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Bookforum, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and the New Republic. He lives in New York with his family.

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