No one gets out of here alive
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