'Nothing about Jenny Diski is conventional. Diski does not do linear, or normal, or boring... highly intelligent, furiously funny' Sunday Times. 'Funny, heartbreaking, insightful and wise' Emilia Clarke. Jenny Diski was a fearless writer, for whom no subject was too difficult, even her own cancer diagnosis. Her columns in the London Review of Books - selected here by her editor and friend Mary-Kay Wilmers, on subjects as various as death, motherhood, sexual politics and the joys of solitude - have been described as 'virtuoso performances', and 'small masterpieces'. From Highgate Cemetery to the interior of a psychiatric hospital, from Tottenham Court Roadto the icebergs of Antarctica...
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; 1st edition (April 20, 2021) Hardcover: 448 pages ISBN-10: 1526621908 ISBN-13: 978-1526621900 ASIN: B08C2GKK51
Jenny Diski, who has died of cancer aged 68, was a writer for whom no subject was taboo. Her remarkable first novel, Nothing Natural (1986), about a sadomasochistic affair, was feted and damned in equal measure. It has a quality that persisted in all her work: a refusal to censor, a breezy determination to keep it real (whatever “it” turned out to be). She was the least deceived writer imaginable, and she was never complacent. She once said she wrote each new book out of a feeling that the one before had been a failure…
When you think of the 1950s and who was available in London and Paris to sleep with, you can only wonder that she made time to do any work.
Most of us were easier to take when we were young, especially if we were beautiful.
No one ever mentioned the possibility of a career as a mariner: hadn’t Moses ordered the Red Sea to part rather than have the Children of Israel get their feet wet?
Death has a cachet which lends weight to even the featheriest of lives.
One of the pleasures of reading Jenny Diski, her essays especially, is that pleasure is such a large part of it. She wasn’t vain, or no more so than average, and she didn’t show off any more than other writers do but she enjoyed her own thoughts and her sentences as much as she enjoyed her own company, and she doesn’t let that pleasure go to waste. She entered the life of the LRB in 1993. Karl Miller, the paper’s first editor, met her at a party and suggested that I get in touch with her – I was Miller’s deputy. ‘You’ll get on with her,’ he said, ‘she’s a bit like you.’ By the time of her death – she died of lung cancer in April 2016 – she had written more than two hundred pieces for the LRB, reflections on the world and its stories for the most part. And Karl Miller was right: she and I were quite alike, in our manner and even to a degree our appearance, or at any rate the clothes we wore; in the things we found funny and the value we attached to that; in the words we used and how our sentences ran, and, yes, we became friends, very good friends. But there was also an enormous difference between us. Let’s just say she was the writer; I was the fan.
Between September 2014 and the end of 2015 she wrote seventeen pieces about herself, her past and the progression of her illness, pieces that became a book called In Gratitude – both the gratitude and the ingratitude addressed to Doris Lessing, who’d invited Jenny, then still a schoolgirl, to come and live with her and her son. At the beginning of the new year, as she came to the end of what she had to say, diary and book completed, she started to die. It wasn’t a coincidence. Some weeks later she lost the physical ability to write and would ring the LRB office to say, each time as if for the first time, that she was sorry but she didn’t think she could write any more; she still had the words – and even the sentences – but they were no longer getting through to her fingers. A vital circuit had been cut and dictation couldn’t fix it.
When she started writing for the LRB she’d published five novels; she also wrote reviews for the Mail on Sunday and had a column in the Sunday Times. The column was about supermarkets and called ‘Off Your Trolley’. The first one was about death (her death), though tinned soup and brands of yoghurt came into it too. The second, more encouragingly, was about mayonnaise, and featured Roger Diski, by now the ‘ex-husband’: ‘A handy ex-husband, just back from France, still with the taste of the real thing in his mouth, nominated himself to test my collection of mayonnaise. I would have double-checked his findings, but I decided against it after seeing him dip a well-sucked finger into each jar.’ As he was leaving, he told her that M&S had just started selling caviar and suggested she do a column about it. But the following week – ‘bad news for ex-husbands’ – they’d sold out.
Her first piece for the LRB was also about exes: ‘Moving Day. My ex-Live-in-Lover will come this afternoon to move his things out.’ Her daughter has gone to Ireland with her father (the ex-husband), where she’ll do rural things that Jenny, ‘born and raised in the Tottenham Court Road’, knows nothing about. The kitten is ill and at the vet’s. She will have the flat to herself:
It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for. It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing; doing nothing is what I have to do to write. Or: writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self. And be alone.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the best days:
I get on with the new novel. Smoke. Drink coffee. Smoke. Write. Stare at ceiling. Smoke. Write. Lie on the sofa. Drink coffee. Write.
On Monday a man came to talk to her about depression and the difference between clinical depression and melancholia (he was making a documentary). They don’t disagree. On Friday she has an appointment at the zoo. A talking orangutan called Jenny is a character in the novel she’s writing and there are one or two things she still needs to find out. From what she’s told it’s clear she is pleased with her choice of primate to impersonate her. Orangs, the keeper tells her, are ‘lazy, sullen and devious’; unsociable animals unlike gorillas and chimps. Duty-bound to pay a visit to Suka, ‘who’ll be Jenny in the novel’, she finds her as no doubt she expected to find her, ‘as melancholic as you please, dropping handfuls of straw on to her head’.
Jenny liked sleep and often took to her bed; she liked blankness of all kinds: white surfaces, uneventful days. Pointless activity, she said, was better than activity that had a point: no activity was better still. A place that had never been looked at and never would be was best of all. Hence Antarctica (‘other landscapes fidget’), which she memorialises (we would now have to say) in a piece entitled ‘A Feeling for Ice’ that would later become her book Skating to Antarctica (1997).
‘A Feeling for Ice’ was a travel piece that had less to do with travel than with her childhood in a block of flats in Tottenham Court Road called Paramount Court. Both her parents, she now discovered, had tried to kill themselves; so had she, the first time when she was fourteen. ‘I came,’ she concluded, ‘from a family of suicidal hysterics.’ What she had been looking for in Antarctica was a place where all that could be ignored, ‘a place of safety’, ‘a white oblivion’, somewhere the memory of her parents couldn’t reach her.
What she saw first were the penguins.
A legion of black faces and orange beaks point out to sea facing in our direction, seeming to observe our arrival. One day, once a year or so, black rubber dinghies approach and a handful of people come to the Bay believing that the penguins are watching them arrive. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They parted slightly to make way for us but they still stood looking out to sea. We were not part of their existence, presented no obvious danger and were ignored, quite overlooked … That was the point, for me, of Antarctica: that it was simply there, always had been, always would be, with great tracts of the continent unseen, unwitnessed, cycling through its two seasons, the ice rolling slowly from the centre to the edges, where eventually it breaks off.
For Jenny – maybe not in life but as a writer – there was no underestimating the therapeutic properties of indifference. But now that Antarctica is dwindling and indifference is no longer possible, what would her response be? Twenty years ago, when she was writing these pieces, it would still have been possible for a visitor to Antarctica to see ‘a great blank wall of ancient compacted snow’ floating past their window. Is anything left of it now?
‘I’m very good at getting what I want,’ Jenny said of herself, and she was. She also said ‘I’m not entirely ill at ease with boundaries.’ She meant the kind of boundary you have to observe on your tricycle (‘I was a city-bred child’). What she couldn’t control, she kept out of sight. She wrote about herself a lot – almost never didn’t, one way or another. That in a sense was the point – ‘everything I write is personal’ – but she wasn’t self-obsessed. She didn’t hijack the subject or intrude herself into the middle of it. At the same time, whatever she was writing about – cannibalism (‘so far so googleable’) or Martha Freud (‘housekeeper of a world-shattering theory’) – the accounts she gave were ones only she could have given. Rereading her pieces now, I find that almost every sentence I look at is so Jenny-ish without at the same time being attention-seeking or straying from the matter at hand that I worry about things I may have missed out. She said she didn’t do narrative, and that also made sense: she didn’t have the patience, or what her dodgy father called the stickability.
Jenny and I had a good time. We played cards – a game called Spite and Malice – and fell out: she thought I was a bad loser, I thought she was a bad winner. We went to Valencia and watched a fireworks display that the Guardian had asked her to write about (the ground shook); we spent half an hour following a young priest because he was wearing jeans under his cassock and we wondered where he was going; we drove the car round and round a roundabout in southern France because the car was dirty and we thought the water sprinklers might clean it. That sort of thing. That too was Jenny-ish.
Moving day. My ex-Live-in-Lover will come this afternoon to move his things out, eighteen months after moving in. First thing, I wave the daughter off to Ireland with her dad, for an Easter holiday of dosing sheep and castrating lambs on a friend’s farm. Apparently, they use elastic bands. Father and child might be having me on. What do I know, born and raised in the Tottenham Court Road?
I will have three whole weeks alone in my flat. It hasn’t happened since L-i-L moved in. I have a scratchy feeling of excitement in my head as I anticipate the next twenty-one days. Is this true? There must be sadness at the break-up; am I telling myself lies? No. The sadness is there, all right, but in a different compartment from the excitement. I put both on hold until the clearing out is done.
In the event, it’s a very jovial affair, with all the brittleness and pretence that joviality implies. So, eighteen months after the beginning of the Great Experiment, I do all I can to be amiable and assist. He says he’s pleased to see me smile at him. I smile away as we pack things into boxes, disconnect machines, fill black binbags with socks and underpants. We wind leads and flexes into manageable coils, joking about missed sexual opportunities and how it’s too late to be inventive now. Like a fast cut between forward and reverse in an old silent comedy, with suits over one arm, and bits of stereo equipment in the other, we put things back into the car from which they emerged something very like a geological age ago.
Two cars were needed, in fact, since by now too much has accumulated to fit into his car alone. Still smiling, I volunteer to help. We drive in convoy to his office, cornering carefully because we don’t want anything to break, decant the worldly goods, and settle down in the pub next door for a well-earned gin and tonic or two. I express surprise, as I sip, at how much extra stuff there is after only eighteen months. ‘Imagine if it had been eighteen years’, he says ruefully.
Such a timespan is beyond my imagination; in much the same way, I cannot grasp the size of the universe. The brain is not equipped for the understanding of mythic quantities. Of space: such as the universe. Or time: such as more than eighteen months of living with someone. My brain goes into spasm. ‘They say the universe is set to implode in twenty million (or is it billion?) years,’ I reply.
There was only one moment of open disharmony in the whole event. It echoed the tension there had been all along. There was always an inequality of certainty about the project of us living together. He spoke easily about forever . I did not consider the week after next a safe bet. In recognition of our different styles I bought him an ironic bottle of wine when he moved in, chosen to be ready to drink in 1997, on my fiftieth birthday. It was partly a small gesture of risk, but mostly I expected to be doing exactly what I was doing with it today: popping it into one of the cardboard boxes of his belongings, well before 1997. We stood in the doorway looking at the bottle in the box on the floor. He said he didn’t want it. I said it wasn’t mine, and neither did I. The stalemate was broken when I took the bottle by its neck from the box and swung it (I like to think with some elegance) against the stone step by the drain in the front yard. A storm cloud accompanied the crash of breaking glass, and darkened the day with the threat of sudden, electric rage from each of us. It took a dangerous moment to pass over: but it did, and the milder breeziness returned. ‘Nice one’, he said. ‘Thank you,’ I smiled, with a warm inner glow of satisfaction at the unlaunching of us. No sense crying over spilt claret.
Altogether, a rather civil end to the affair. Refreshments over, I return home, nicely balanced by the gin between a proper sadness and the anticipation of the next three weeks entirely to myself. As I drive, I sing along to the Evs’ ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’ on the radio. It feels as if the car has acquired power steering, so light and easy is the journey back.
Sunday. I wake to the sound of the kitten being sick on the carpet at the foot of my bed. I hadn’t planned for this. It was to be a morning spent repossessing my space. Still, cats are often sick. I get on with my plan.
Taking back one’s space is something of a technical operation. It involves moving through the flat, doing what one does, but in a particularly alert frame of mind that follows the activities slightly up and to the left of one’s physical body. This watchfulness, this observation of the minutiae of your use of contained space, calls for concentration. Everything is deliberate: breathing, movement, the set of the head. After a little while something else occurs: the splitting-off of a protoplasmic self that insinuates itself into every part of the flat. Like smoke, it wisps into corners and under sofas, investigating places that are too awkward for the body to go, and which never get dusted. It’s almost like a dance, a floating self that breathes its way around the place while you only seem to brush your teeth and make a cup of tea. It’s a celebration of solitude that won’t be broken by people coming in from the outside world with their own stories and their own internal speed. Without that kind of solitude, I get lost. It’s as if someone is vacuuming the air out of my lungs. Impossible to live with another person all the time and not begin to scream that they are stopping your breath. For some reason, the other person thinks you’re mad, when you’re really only being practical and trying to save your life. Then it’s time to collect empty cardboard boxes from the off-licence.
All of which is all very well, but the kitten keeps on being sick, and protoplasm won’t flow naturally under these conditions. Worry sets in. I have a special place devoted to worry that has an insatiable hunger to be filled. When it’s empty, it worries anyway about what it’s going to worry about. A sick kitten is ideal worry-material.
To the vet. It is every bit the medical emergency I’d been trying to tell myself it wasn’t. Darwin’s gut has turned inside out. Christ. An unhappy accident. Major abdominal surgery is needed. Now. I don’t ask the price. I think of the worst number I can and try very hard not to imagine how many stomachs could be filled by such a sum in far-off places (or nearer by). What am I going to say? Too expensive, kill it, please? Actually, yes. But I can’t. So I leave Darwin to the vet and his fate (he might die anyway). I feel wretched; he’s been in pain all day, while I’ve been wafting. What am I going to tell the daughter, whose kitten Darwin is?
I’m furious. I didn’t want another cat. Although, perhaps I did. I allowed the daughter to persuade me that three cats aren’t any more trouble than two. Now look. God is very strict.
In bed, I cry, which isn’t unpleasant, but it is unusual. Is it for Darwin, or Ex-L-i-L? Or is it just an interstitial sort of crying that lives between night and the following morning, between sleeping and waking? It feels like sadness, but not mine; or rather, not a personal sadness, but one of great immensity, and slightly up and to the left of me, where I lie saturating the pillow.
Monday. I call the vet first thing. Darwin has survived the operation and the night. It will be two days before he’s out of the woods, but his chances are better. I am hugely relieved, but livid at having to mind so much about a cat, or anything at all, come to that.
As luck would have it, today’s the day a man comes from Bristol to talk to me about depression. I giggle maniacally to myself when I remember. He’s making a documentary on the subject.
What about being alone? Where did that go? I consider phoning and telling him he can’t come. I spend twenty minutes inventing stories about why. An imaginary aunt has just died. I’ve had my first ever epileptic attack. I have to do an emergency reading in Aberdeen. What about a kitten whose gut has turned inside out? What about I’m too depressed to talk about depression? I give up. Anyway, if he’s coming from Bristol, he won’t be home answering his phone.
He turns out to be a perfectly nice man and pleasantly acerbic with it. His only obvious fault is that he drives up in an Alfa. We drink coffee and talk. He thinks there’s a distinction between depression and melancholia – he’s right, there is. He thinks there’s a connection between melancholia and writing (or any of that creative stuff) – he’s right, there is. But I’m wary of making much of that, because a real bone-deep depression is as painful as cancer, and that’s a fact, too. I worry about romanticising it. On the other hand, last night’s howling was precisely what he is talking about. Melancholia is a curiously different condition from clinical depression, or, at least, a place you can get to if you go through the clinical depression and wait. And it isn’t negative. It’s more like being in the part of my head that I write from. So, we bat this about a bit, but I still hear myself hissing aggressively about not wanting to make depression or writing seem mystical or magical. They are, of course, in a way. But they’re also not. Long may confusion reign. Things are difficult; why shouldn’t they be? The nice man nods. It seems we aren’t having a disagreement. Tuesday. Wednesday.
Thursday. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. These are the days. Don’t speak to anyone (except the vet on Darwin’s progress: all is well). Leave the answering machine on. Don’t answer the doorbell (luckily, no one rings it). This is it, then. Me in my space. Me and my melancholy.
I do nothing. I get on with the new novel. Smoke. Drink coffee. Smoke. Write. Stare at ceiling. Smoke. Write. Lie on the sofa. Drink coffee. Write. It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for.
It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or: doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing. Or: doing nothing is what I have to do to write. Or: writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self. And be alone.
Moreover, I don’t have to think about food. No one here now finds eating an essential part of their life. In addition to smoking, drinking coffee and writing, I make regular trips to the fridge to gaze on its cosmic emptiness. I adore its lit-up vacancy. No L-i-L, no daughter, needing the fridge full of possible feasts. I haven’t been shopping for ten days now. There’s a bit of inedible cheese, and a jar of jalapeño chillies that I nibble at when I’m peckish. Every thirty-six hours or so I call in an emergency pizza. Another nice man on a bike brings it round. I do not die of starvation. I continue to drink coffee (sometimes tea), smoke, write and stare at the ceiling.
Pages pile up. I feel guilty. Someone else must have written them. Anyway, even if I did write them, it was too easy. They won’t be any good. Uh huh, there’s the worry centre activating again. Because Friday, I have to go out.
Friday. A trip to the zoo. I want to know about orangutans for the novel. Mick Carman, the head keeper of the primates, has agreed to talk to me. He’s wearing green wellies with khaki trousers tucked into them. He’s been at the zoo for twenty-six years. Again, I feel a fraud. I’m planning to write about a talking orang called Jenny. He’ll think me frivolous. Cautiously, I tell him I’m just a fiction writer. I need some facts, but I make things up, too. Do I know, he asks without prompting, that the Malays believe orangs can talk, really, but they don’t because they think they’ll be made to work if the humans find out? I didn’t know. Thank you, God, and I love you, too.
We discuss the daily routine. Mick reckons that orangs are closer to humans than gorillas or chimps; he doesn’t care what anyone says. I’m delighted to hear this, more grist for my fiction mill. But why? Because they’re lazy, sullen and devious, if I see what he means. Oh, yes, I do see. They’re by far the most difficult animal to keep in captivity because of this, and because they’re basically solitary animals, not social like the other apes. They each live in their own territory, defending it vigorously from all comers, except for sexual encounters. It’s every orang for himself or herself. Speaking of which, I tell Mick, I read a paper written by a Scandinavian woman anthropologist demanding that ‘orangutan’ (meaning ‘man of the forest’) be amended to whatever is the Malay for ‘person of the forest’.
Quite right. Quite right. We must defend the personhood of the solitary, female whatevershescalled-utan with all our might. For she is me and I am her, and soon I’m staring through reinforced glass at Suka (meaning The Delightful), who will be Jenny in the novel. She sits in her cage, solitary and morose, and as melancholic as you please, dropping handfuls of straw on to her head. And I wouldn’t mind betting that some protoplasmic wisp is nuzzling into the corners of her cage, aching for the curious eyes of the likes of me to piss off and leave her on her own.
28 May 1992