Jenny Diski: el­e­gant, melan­choly, bril­liant

The fi­nal col­lec­tion of es­says by the late Jenny Diski is brave, fierce and su­perbly writ­ten

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Su­san McKay

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

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