I’m often drawn back to Jenny Diski’s fiction, whose territory stretched from the Bible to a rainforest to mentally distressed adolescents to a baby without a brain, though it is commonly overlooked in any discussion of her life’s work, which came to an end when she died two springs ago at home in Cambridge, England.
Readers had become familiar, if not attached, to her through her late series of memoir essays in the London Review of Books, for whom she wrote one hundred fifty essays, reviews, and blog posts. The memoir essays (which are now available in book form as In Gratitude) documented her experience after being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and inoperable lung cancer in 2014—and recalled periods of her eventful life until that point. After an unmoored and challenging childhood that dipped into foster care, she was serendipitously taken in by the writer Doris Lessing, and before becoming a writer trained as a teacher, on an impulse creating a free school in 1971 for eight children themselves threatened with state custody. When she embarked on writing, Diski managed to achieve a rare, sophisticated synthesis of intellectual inquiry, personal confession, and reflective interrogation, nourished by boundless critical reading. She also appeared in many British newspapers and in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic and had a monthly column in the Swedish newspaper Götesborges-Posten. Diski was something of a literary rock star in Sweden, though her fiction was not translated there.
For emerging women writers of my generation she was vital. Her work provided evidence that it was possible for men and women equally to share intellectual space. She had long ago breached the levees of the notoriously bloke-populated London Review of Books and become one of their most lively and admired writers. The sheer éclat and originality of her prose was galvanizing. They had no choice but to let her in because it was wholly their loss if they didn’t.
Pragmatic and big brained, Diski did not turn away on the page. Her mode was not the chirpy adjectival cheeriness of someone setting out to be courageous or trailblazing: she was granite-solid determined, an engaged thinker and disciplined stylist, unwavering that things were or are awful and very likely to remain that way or become worse. Literature was both her medium and her object. She’d stare ideas and inquiry down on the page, eye for an eye, word by word, headache to headache, dismantling and rebuilding with the best tool available—language—lubricated with clarity and humor. “Work works” she once wrote to me at a glum hour, when I was being subjected to the ridiculous runaround and stupidity writers regularly experience. She taught the benefits of being an engaged and ambitious reader, how and where literature could reward you. She demonstrated to writers the value of sustained work, not settling easy but chiseling away to a point where reading, thinking, and writing made prose impervious to the meddling of the professional interveners.
Many readers met her only through her memoir and nonfiction, yet she published fiction for eleven years before her first book of nonfiction even came out. Her early novels are not easy to obtain, pointing to a shameful convention in today’s publishing industry, which hews not to writers and their body of work but to single books and their near-term commercial prospects. It was in her fiction that Diski took more risk and went off the top diving board. Diski wrote ten mighty novels, an impressive output for a writer concurrently making her living as a critic and publishing volumes of nonfiction and memoir, who didn’t publish her first book until she was thirty-nine.
Like her essays, Diski’s early novels immediately challenge our assumptions about the women who speak through them. Diski’s women subvert the responses we expect to familiar situations. The early novels attend to straightforward portraits of complex relationships, the recognizable pillars of domestic life and work, existential dread, familial struggle, and life’s daily dilemmas—“the arithmetic of living” as Esther, in Diski’s third novel Then Again, pegs it. Her women are not above critique but rather are implicated in the disasters in their lives. They have sexual appetites and assert them. They participate. They please themselves, all the while navigating the stress and anxiety of doing so, especially when children are involved.
The circumstances of the novels are recognizable but they could be taking place anywhere. This freedom from dependence on cultural markers loosened where her fiction could go and ultimately ended up. In Then Again, Esther is housebound with anxiety, her mentally distressed daughter Katya having disappeared. Esther takes up with Ben, the father of Katya’s best friend Meg, who along with his wife Karen is caring for her. They slept together the first day of Katya’s absence, a deft use of plotting to situate morality and crisis. The guilt-ridden mother is fucking up another woman’s life. The novel looks back over what preceded Katya’s flight—the quandary of apprehending mental illness, Esther’s own unstable identity following a childhood in which a priest vengefully rapes her, literally, out of Judaism, claiming she’s heretic for questioning God. Diski’s portraits of women are neither gentle nor censorious; rather she offers the canvas of challenges they face; she supplies them with contradiction, not judgment.
The clarity and honesty that are so appealing in Diski’s nonfiction have even more ambitious overtones in her fiction. It certainly requires bravery to own up to human messiness in memoir, but it requires imaginative risk to render it in fiction. You can’t rely on the confessional spigot to legitimize the material. The writer must construct, navigate, and infuse difficult questions into narratives by creating emotionally and morally challenging situations with literary tools.
Diski’s nonfiction and memoir initially (in Skating to Antarctica and Stranger on a Train) trapped the essence and strangeness of humanity through movement: travelling to Antarctica while charting her estrangement from her batty mother, her deranged childhood, and an early breakdown that put her in the “loony bin” as she called it; reading voraciously on the London Underground’s Circle line and then smoking her way around America on trains. Later, she found she discovered more by staying still and reflecting back on what had shaped or what was now provoking her (On Trying to Keep Still, What I Don’t Know about Animals, The Sixties).
As the nonfiction examined stasis and took up the “arithmetic of daily living,” her fiction bolted upwards. Two of her later novels, After These Things and Only Human: A Divine Comedy, are a bolder blend, recovering that most familiar of narratives—The Bible—to reshape and repurpose it into a whole new literary enterprise by telling the stories of the patriarchs as family dramas, as she put it, “to retrieve the bible from stupidity.”
With her final novel Apology for the Woman Writing there’s an especially strong convergence with her nonfiction. The novel imagines and explores the life of Marie De Gournay, a sixteenth-century woman who had such a devoted fixation on the French thinker Montaigne that she stabbed herself repeatedly in the arm with a hairpin to demonstrate it and he adopted her briefly. Apology for the Woman Writing confronts the perils of ambition and the lunacy of the writing life: What is writing for, who is it for, and why anyone, especially a woman, would want to do it.
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