No one gets out of here alive

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS/MUSIC - Jenny Diski Blooms­bury, £16.99 Re­view by Todd McEwen

CAN­CER is ev­ery­where. It’s like a par­al­lel uni­verse. If you don’t be­lieve it, take your­self off to the Can­cer Cen­tre at the West­ern Gen­eral in Ed­in­burgh. There’s an en­tire city of pain there.

And can­cer di­aries are now a ma­jor lit­er­ary genre. In Grat­i­tude is partly the late Jenny Diski’s ex­am­i­na­tion of this. She took the time, while dy­ing, to dis­cuss the ins and outs of the kind of book she was writ­ing: should it be writ­ten at all? What are the mer­its, the uses of this sort of book? Do such me­moirs com­fort the writer, or the reader?

Diski, who died of lung can­cer last month, was un­cer­tain about join­ing the ranks of those who go pub­lic with a ter­mi­nal ill­ness. She even felt some sym­pa­thy for Clive James, who mag­is­te­ri­ally an­nounced his can­cer with some very ef­fec­tive po­etry, and who, thanks to medicine, now seems to be do­ing bet­ter.

She talks about can­cer books a lit­tle dis­qui­et­ingly, as if writ­ing them is a con­test. She won­ders which can­cer­stricken au­thors will get the most press. She men­tions Un­til Fur­ther No­tice, I Am Alive, by the art critic Tom Lub­bock. That was a vivid book about the writer’s un­hap­pi­ness at hav­ing to leave the world, all the more poignant in that the in­creas­ingly muted form of the book mir­rored his day-to-day losses as his brain tu­mour grew. Diski doesn’t men­tion one of the best, but per­haps least known of the genre, My Di­ary by Mio Mat­sumoto, a sur­pris­ingly beau­ti­ful, wrench­ing graphic novel about can­cer of the tongue.

Diski is op­posed to char­ac­ter­is­ing hav­ing can­cer as a “bat­tle”, as was the late John Di­a­mond, who wrote per­sua­sively on the sub­ject; she also de­spises the pop­u­lar­ity of the word “jour­ney” in its many mod­ern touchyfeely con­texts. Good for her.

Lots of things in this world were ranged against Jenny Diski. Much of that was her own do­ing. One comes away from this book think­ing that the real ill­ness be­ing dis­cussed is not cel­lu­lar but men­tal: she suf­fered from a back­break­ing amount of de­pres­sion all her life and never got any real help for it. A doc­tor she hated told her she had an ad­dic­tive per­son­al­ity and put in her notes that she would have a ter­ri­ble life and a lonely death.

She also con­stantly com­pared her­self to oth­ers. This wasn’t good for her. A writer needs a bit of emo­tional home turf, and this she never got. She wasn’t one of those writ­ers who feeds solely on dis­quiet, although she may have wanted to be.

An­other thing that never helped her, as be­comes plain here, was her re­la­tion­ship, as daugh­ter or step­daugh­ter or adopted daugh­ter, with Doris Less­ing. This was un­healthy, no mat­ter how much good Less­ing thought she was do­ing in “res­cu­ing” this clas­si­cally screwed-up lit­er­ary waif.

Less­ing put a lot of her own trauma, and as­pi­ra­tions, on Diski, fit­ting her with a di­aphragm at the age of 15 and in­tro­duc­ing her to a lot of men too old for her, as if de­cid­ing, af­ter tak­ing this trou­bled girl into her home, that the only thing to do was to force her to be­come an adult as soon as pos­si­ble so she could get rid of her. This is dis­taste­ful and trou­bling. Did Diski sur­vive Doris? It’s too close to call.

In Grat­i­tude reads as though it’s not the book Jenny Diski wanted to write. On sev­eral lev­els, of course, this must be true: she didn’t want to have can­cer, nor find her­self writ­ing a book about her can­cer, and she must have found it im­mensely frus­trat­ing that this was the only book she could write. Par­tic­u­larly in the sec­tion on chemo­ther­apy the reader will grasp how dif­fi­cult it was to get any­thing writ­ten in the midst of this full-scale de­range­ment of body and mind. And it was a close-run thing, but by all ac­counts Jenny Diski got to hold In Grat­i­tude in her hand: it was sped to her straight from the prin­ters by her agent and pub­lisher. This book she never wanted to write.

“You’re not the only fish; not the only one with can­cer”, Diski says rue­fully. She’s good on rue­ful. “The world has its timeta­bles and rhythms. It was pre­cisely for weeks like this that our par­ents were sup­posed to have taught us to put aside child­ish notions of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion for the more ma­ture de­ferred sort. As we all know, come can­cer scans and silent lovers, it doesn’t work.”

Jenny Diski ex­am­ined the na­ture of can­cer – and of can­cer me­moirs – while dy­ing from lung dis­ease

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