I have been in love with Jenny Diski for almost ten years now. It all began when I read her article on Arachnophobia in The London Review of Books. She was, she told us, scared of spiders. She didn't like it.
I suppose this sounds like a writer's hyperbole, and if you are not an arachnophobe nothing will convince you otherwise, but I discovered in late June that there are those who will recognise the simple truth of what I say. An irrational fear of spiders is common. Roughly 35 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men in the UK have it, though not all of them have it so badly that it is called clinical . . . Clinical spider phobia is different from a slight shudder of the kind you get when the spider you are cupping delicately in your hand as you take it out to the garden tickles your palm. It's only thanks to the new-found me that I can even write that sentence.
She goes on, with her nicely paced, elegant writing, complete with a sense of exasperation --- that literary edge that echoes H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, S, J. Perelman, Betty MacDonald. Irritation, leavened with I'll-put-up-with-it --- "I don't like it, but I got it, and I'm going put up with it, and offer you a running commentary. In case you get here after me."
In Gratitude offers us the ultimate extension of one of the most exasperating facts of our lives: that we are all going, ultimately, to sicken, wither, and die. It's now come to Diski in the form of cancer of the lymph nodes, with fibrosis of the lungs. And it comes with the knowledge that it ain't going to go away --- inoperable is the word --- and further, as one particularly unkindly doctor put it, in his opinion, that these cancers are two of "the worst ways to die."
And we will then ask, after we get into the heart of it: do we want to be reading on? About one of our favorite writers dying? Even though there is little hint here of poor-me, and oh let me tell you about my woe. It reminds one of those rare comic strips of John Callahan, "The Brighter Side of Being Paralyzed for Life." The story that he had to tell was a bummer, but his writing (and cartoons) were definite elbow-in-the-ribs stuff.
I should tell you that Diski pulls it off too. Partially because she has so many other stories to tell while she tells you about inoperable cancer. It's not all "Onc Doc" and chemo and radiation. There's a life story to tell. Which in itself could have been a bummer: her father a professional con-man; a mother --- weepy, all-too-needy; and being told, at one point, by her school principal, as he is kicking her out, "Neither your mother nor your father wants you."
And then, the surprise gift, at age fifteen, being offered the chance to live with Doris Lessing, whose son had known Jenny in school, and said that she should be helped, so there was a new home for her. A weird one, but a home nonetheless.Style is the way out of the doldrums, and Diski has style out the gazoo. For instance, this on being with her old lovers (while she was still relatively young):
The slightest sniff of alcohol means a night long vigil beside an old roué with little more to offer than the excitement of sleep apnoea, which required me to push or pull at the usually ample flesh to check if he was holding his breath such an inordinate time because of the breathing disorder, or because he was actually dead.
Or this extended aside on moods, the cycles that we depressives get caught in, hers starting when she was still quite young,
Each [of her parents] demand to know what the matter was with me sent me falling deeper into the black. Each minute of silence of 'refusing' to answer, made it more impossible to break through the caul I was wrapped in, and increased the fury of my parents . . . these moods could go on for hours, even days. I can't recall how they stopped each time or why I couldn't make them stop at will, knowing that they'd stopped before. My childhood moodiness was no different in form or feeling from the depression I've experienced since my teenage years.
Or on living, from age 15 - 19, in the elegant, artistic environment at Lessing's house, being with R. D. Laing, Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue, Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, and best of all, Robert Graves, around whom
I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older men, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Grave's grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember.
(The day after meeting her Graves asks, "Who was that attractive young Russian girl? What a pity that she spoke no English.")
What Diski found in that environment may remind us of our own perplexity when we were young, listening to people who had "taste," wondering how in hell they got the ability to judge clothes, food, art, music, people, politics, wondering how they separated out the good from the bad, the tasteful and the tasteless, the worthy and the worthless, the artistic and the pedestrian.
Diski tells us of those early days in that august company, "For weeks I listened intently to the table talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily." Doris and her friends
were sharing their judgments of what they'd seen. It was a matter of whether things 'worked,' how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn't and a judgment was made on the balance.
Lessing was such a powerful influence on Diski that she regularly bobs up like an apple in this tub of what might be despair, diverting us from what Faulkner called "the final main." Diski is dying before our eyes, and because we love her and her way of writing, we become fearful. But no, here she is still alive, very alive --- opinionated, sly, funny.
And we don't want her to just pop off: not now, please. We want her to write her way out of this pickle, like she's done with all the others (being kicked out of her home; being locked up in a looney-bin; working as a shoe clerk; getting raped at age fourteen). Now they've stuck her with another pickle, but we don't want to have to fret because we know she can do trickery with her words so that she and her doting readers don't have time to think about the fact that after the last page, she'll be a goner. We will not permit her to make us feel abandoned.
Is it the phrases, the timing, the pacing, the tricky inserts, the wisdom and earned insight that keeps all this going? We're there where the doctors are when you ask them "how much time do I have?" They look not at you but at the ceiling, cite statistics, leaving one merely to quote Samuel Beckett: "We grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter."There is a schedule for her chemotherapy, and then antibiotics to fend off the opportunistic infection, but the physician has to change it, suggesting "that my body isn't playing strictly to the prescribed rhythm."
The body, we shouldn't be surprised to learn, has a mind of its own.
The treatment itself? "When I look back from my current spot in the land of hiatus, the entire process makes me think of clubbing baby seals . . . small, helpless, newborn, cute, white ones with big watery eyes. This probably isn't the right attitude to cancer treatment. I'm feeling oppressed."
Death? What do we think of death --- hers, yours, mine, everyone's? I recall one of my friends saying that he couldn't believe in death "because I can't imagine a world without me in it." Diski --- for once here, faced with it, seems to feel at a loss for words. She writes,
Without a notion of a holiday-camp heaven, something I seem never to have had, I was left with a new and special kind of endlessness, like infinity, but without you. By which I mean me. You and then not you. Me and then not . . . impossible sentence to finish. The prospect of extinction comes at last with an admission of the horror of being unable to imagine or be part of it, because it is beyond the you that has the capacity to think about it. I learned the meaning of being lost for words; I came up against the horizon of language.
Reading In Gratitude (gratitude for what: for what she had for so long? for what she lost? for our being a loving audience, keen to read every word?) --- reading this puts us in a different space from being involved in the death of someone we have known, lived with and possibly loved . . . outside of books. For me, oddly, Gratitude brought me back to Samuel Pepys. As with Diski, we follow someone way off over there through days and nights and lusts and angers and greed and grief and then one day, he suddenly announces, on the page, "This is my last entry."
Why? He can no longer fill it with words because of his encroaching blindness . . . and the suddenness of it interrupts the terrific journey we've had with him; leaves us bereft. We've gone to the limit with him, page after page, gotten to where we genuinely want more of him. And suddenly, we are cut off, without --- as they say in law --- without "recourse."
We want to sue.
In the same way, we have patiently and lovingly gotten into what we might think of the heart of this Diski (confessional; funny; awe-inspiring; insightful) and here she gets near the end, and turns sassy on us.
Much of this writing appeared, regularly, in The London Review of Books, so she takes advantage, at the end here, to stick in some more rude, cheeky, Diski-isms: "Incidentally, anyone wanting to send me a last Christmas sorry-you're-dying prezzie, I want a silk or organic cashmere something, so I can waft my way through the box sets and die happy at having seen the last episode of The Bridge 3 in cozy things that I can stroke . . . Top of the list (after the sumptuous silk) is that our neighbors not start building work till I am gone. Or at least stop them playing Radio 1 [the BBC home-folk bourgeoisie channel] . . . For several days now I've been feeling as if I'm on a holiday, a short one coming to its end.
As one might sit on the edge of a chair that is waiting for another occupant to take it over. It's the strangest of strange feelings. Best travelling clothes, a ticking of a clock that will go on ticking after you leave and after the next occupant too. . . . The clock that clicks as generation after generation passes by.
"It is, of course the ticking, tocking of this everlasting, or outlasting, clock that keeps everything seeming so orderly, that is, you realize, keeping the time."
About time too, someone says in the distance, and you realize that it is about time. Catch a handful of salted peanuts, then pick up your cheap suitcase for the forward journey.