Jenny Diski: elegant, melancholy, brilliant
The final collection of essays by the late Jenny Diski is brave, fierce and superbly written
WhyDidn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? By Jenny Diski
IBloomsbury, 448pp, £18.99
n one of the essays in this superb, and sadly posthumous, collection, Jenny Diski refers back to the quotation from Beckett’s Malone Dies that she’d used as the epigraph to her book about a journey to the Antarctic: “I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?” It would have been just as apt, she notes, as the preface to any one of her books, fiction or non-fiction.
That book was as much about her “rather brief, rackety” relationship with her mother, as it was about sailing through icebergs and observing the indifferent gaze of ranks of penguins. It was also about searching for “a place of safety, a white oblivion”. At other stages of her life, she found this, provisionally, between the white sheets of a bed in a psychiatric hospital. Diski is an explorer who never forgets that she is skating on very thin ice. “It’s almost always personal,” Diski says. It is also almost always political. Invariably, it is lit up by delightful shafts of comedy. I laughed aloud several times while reading one of the last pieces, an incredibly moving account of the hospital appointment at which Diski is told she has inoperable cancer. If you like guides to self help, mindfulness and how to be positive, this is not the book for you.
One of the first essays begins with her returning to her flat after helping a man who had briefly been her live-in lover to move out. She is thrilled to walk through her rooms, restoring to herself the solitude without which, she says, “I get lost”. She’s a writer. It is how she has learned to navigate life. “Writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self,” she writes. When she cannot write, the melancholy tilts dangerously into intolerable “bone-deep depression . . . as painful as cancer”. At 14, she took an overdose. After that she was sent to what she calls, with a certain affection, “the loony bin”, thereby escaping the estranged pair of “suicidal hysterics” who were her parents. (These two, she mentions, used, when naked, to chase her around the room and stick their fingers in her vagina.) At 16 she was taken in as a kind of human experiment by the novelist Doris Lessing, who later blamed her for the mental breakdown and early death of her son.
“I suppose the world divides into those who look and those who look away,” Diski writes. Never having been led down the path of a conventional upbringing, she has no allegiance to the “normal”, and looks about her with clear, unflinching eyes. She is fascinated to discover that the version of Anne Frank’s diaries that she read in school had been edited by Frank’s father, Otto, who claimed he did so to make sure they would “enhance young people’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development”. In the unedited originals Diski finds that Frank “had the horrible honesty of a writer who says what there is to be said, even if it is unspeakable. Niceness was not her project.” Diski quotes Primo Levi: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
Diski is an immensely elegant prose stylist. The “terror of the human condition” includes the successfulness of many deplorable idiots. She describes her “real desolation” as she surveys the empire of “vacant celebrity and tawdry sensationalism” over which Piers Morgan holds sway - then describes Tony Blair as his twin. She demolishes the ghastly Richard Branson as “a triumph of lack of style over substance”, then finishes him off with: “He cried when
Immensely elegant prose stylist: Jenny Diski in 1990.
he announced to his staff that he’d sold Virgin Music, but flatly refused to share with those who lost their jobs any of the £560 million he made from the sale.” Describing Howard Hughes’ life of obsessions, she writes: “It begins with twelve peas on a plate and ends with urine stored in Mason jars.”
Instead of the “raw, fierce voice” its blurb promises, she finds in Keith Richards’s autobiography much tedious rambling and the “dreary bravado” of a man who is famous for “getting to sixty six, looking eighty six” and who refers to women only as bitches, chicks, whores and groupies. She describes alternating reading Carol Thatcher’s memoir of her father, Denis, with Moby Dick. “A dozen pages of Denis (‘he was happy in his own skin and had played with a straight bat since the day he was born’) over a cup of tea, then back to Ishmael (‘whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses’) to cheer myself up.”
These essays were among the 200 or so she published in the eccentrically brilliant London Review of Books (LRB), between the early 1990s and her death in 2016. She found asylum in the LRB. It was “a peopled world that tolerated you”. Nobody told her what to do. It was a place of safety.
Susan McKay is writing a sequel to her 2000 book Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People and a book about borders