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When Jenny Diski was told she had an incurable cancer, her first reaction was embarrassment. That wouldn’t be the response of most people, but Diski rarely does as expected. “Contrary-minded” is her own phrase for it, and anyone who has read her over the years will know what she means. Who else would choose as the narrator for a novel a baby born without a brain (Like Mother, 1988)? Or feel a sudden compulsion to go to Antarctica and write a travel book that then turned into a memoir of her mother (Skating to Antarctica, 1997)? As a child
she never did as she was told (borderline personality disorder, the experts called it), and as a writer she’s constantly surprising. Sometimes, for all her wit and knowingness, she surprises even herself.
She was embarrassed because it felt so banal and predictable. With a disease “so known in all its cultural forms”, what could she say that hasn’t been said a million times? Her first response, in the consulting room with the “Onc Doc”, is to make a joke. Even that, she decides, is probably stereotypical behaviour, as is asking, in an apologetic, roundabout way, how long she can expect to live. Two to three years is the answer, but she wonders how much faith to invest in that: life expectancy for cancer patients is hard to predict, and what if the Onc Doc has added a year “for luck” or erred on the low side to avoid raising false hope?
“Well, I suppose I’m going to write a cancer diary,” she tells her partner, “the Poet” (Ian Patterson), when they get home. Weariness sets in: “Another fucking cancer diary.” She thinks how many she has read – by Ruth Picardie, John Diamond, Tom Lubbock – and worries she’ll have nothing new to say: “Same story. Same ending.” But she’s a writer, and there’s no choice, except not to write one, which would feel even worse. What’s more, though she doesn’t quite put it like this, she’s better prepared for the task than most writers: whether fiction or non-fiction, her writing has always been personal (“I start with me, and often enough end with me”), and she has learned that it isn’t what you write but how you do it that’s crucial. However predetermined the script, her version will be different, and – if justification even matters when you’ve just been given the black spot – that’s all the justification she needs.
Her cancer diary began as a monthly column in the London Review of Books, where it found many admirers, myself included. But it doesn’t read like a series of columns. And it isn’t just, or even predominantly, a “cancer diary”. When the Onc Doc tells her the worst – and it’s not just lung cancer she has but pulmonary fibrosis: a double death sentence – the future flashes before her eyes “in all its preordained banality”. But the past, or a particular phase of it, also looms up – the experience of being taken in by Doris Lessing as a teenager.
She was never officially adopted and Diski has struggled to describe Lessing’s position in her life. Foster parent, benefactor, auntie, caretaker, fairy godmother, or simply “the woman whose house I lived in”: none will quite do. As for herself, waif and foundling come closest; orphan’s not right, since her parents were still alive when Lessing took her in. Neither could cope with their daughter, her waywardness a product of their own. They had separated when she was small – her father was living with his new partner in Banbury, and her mother, alone and mentally disturbed, in a bedsit in Hove. Expelled from school at 14, Diski failed to keep the shop assistant jobs her father found for her in Banbury, then went to Hove, where she took an overdose of her mother’s Nembutal. The night before, sharing a bed, her mother had “begun to caress my vulva” (“There’s nothing wrong. I’m your mother. You’re still my little girl”).
After four months in a psychiatric unit, Diski was all set to work as a sales assistant in Oxford Street, when a letter came from Lessing, offering to take her in. They had never met but Lessing’s son Peter had been in the same class as her and it was he who suggested the rescue mission. Her father took her to the house for a recce, trying to impress Lessing with his knowledge of literature (“which was less than slight”) and capitulating when Lessing insisted, against his better judgment, that his daughter should go back to school. When her mother delivered her, she complained that she, rather than Jenny, was the one needing to be looked after and given a home. The house was bohemian-scruffy and Diski felt no more at home in it than anywhere else she had lived. But she understood that she had been given a rare opportunity. She had always wanted to be a writer. Now she would be living with a writer in a house where other writers often congregated (Alan Sillitoe, RD Laing, Arnold Wesker and Christopher Logue among them). Where better to fetch up?
Generously though she had acted, Lessing didn’t ask for gratitude. One day, she said, Diski might be inspired to do something equally beneficent (she did, setting up a school for children from troubled backgrounds). All Lessing asked was that Diski stay out of trouble and not disturb her when she was writing. Diski felt a burden of gratitude nevertheless. And – recipient of charity as she was – anger and resentment were never far away. Her past included spells with foster parents, in a children’s home and with temporary carers; she was desperately insecure. After weeks of sullen withdrawal, she finally nerved herself to ask the big question: what if Lessing didn’t like her? Would she be shown the door? Lessing’s reaction was to storm out of the house. Next day Diski found a note on the kitchen table: what she’d done was unforgivable; if they were going to live together, she mustn’t indulge in emotional blackmail.
Decades on, Diski is still puzzled by Lessing’s reaction – and by other examples of obtuse or contradictory behaviour. Why she sent her off to be fitted with a dutch cap, for instance, even though she was only 15 and wasn’t having sex, but would then complain when men stayed overnight. Why such a stern advocate of “common sense” should fall headlong for Idries Shah and his version of Sufism. Or why a supposed feminist icon should come to see men as beleaguered innocents. Above all she is puzzled why Lessing took her in to begin with. Why the rush of kindness towards “a sulky, angry girl who kicked against everything, especially herself”? Was it a socio-psychological experiment? A search for interesting material (Diski appears, scantily disguised, in a couple of Lessing’s books)? Or was Diski installed as a surrogate for the two children left behind in Rhodesia, or even for Peter, away at boarding school? Whatever the case, she can’t help feeling Peter was the victim and she the cuckoo in his nest. He never moved on or made a life for himself, and died within a month of his mother.
The domestic set-up came to an end after Diski jumped out of a bedroom window (to avoid speaking to Lessing and her friends). Time to go, Doris said, and Diski, 19 by now, agreed, even when the expulsion order was withdrawn. The four years had made her no more stable; if anything, less. She was lucky to survive the rest of the 1960s – the drugs, the dodgy older men (she had already been raped at 14), the psychiatric wards (she calls the Maudsley her alma mater). But she got through, and stayed in touch with Lessing. She also, for a time, received an allowance from her, despite the tension between them. The gratitude/ingratitude issue still nags. She’ll have to die before it goes away.
As to the dying, she would prefer not to be pitied, despises any talk of “courage” or battling the disease and is candid in describing the effects of chemo. “The entire process makes me think of clubbing baby seals,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so not in charge.” In Gratitude is the book’s title but she’s not so perverse as to be grateful for life just because it’s departing; it was always going to give up on her (rather as Lessing did) but later would have been fairer and statistically less aberrant – she’s 68. She consoles herself, kind of, that other authors who announced their cancers in recent years have lasted less long (Iain Banks, Oliver Sacks, Henning Mankell); the last-person-standing contest is now between her and Clive James.
Among so much dust and ashes, humour keeps the reader going – perhaps Diski, too. There’s an echo of Samuel Beckett, morbid yet vibrant, when she contemplates the nothingness to come: “Gone nowhere. No where to go. No she to go to it.” She can cope with the terror of that, just about, since not-being is a state she has experienced before, pre-birth. She even tolerates the cliche of being “on a journey”, since that’s how it feels – a journey from the Big C to the Big D. What’s hardest to take is the knowledge she won’t see her grandchildren grow up. The sardonic mask lifts for a second when she admits that, exposing tears.
That she’ll survive in her books (and,en passant, in Lessing’s) isn’t up for discussion. But she does say a fair bit about writing: how central it has been to her life, how resistant she is to narrative (though she tells a good story), how distrustful she is (and we should be) of the truthfulness of memoir: “there is nothing so unreliable or delicious as one’s rackety memories of oneself”. Unreliable or not, her recall is vivid: whether it’s her adolescent misadventures or the empty fish tank in the hospital radiotherapy department (empty because cuts to the NHS mean fish are no longer affordable, she asks herself, or because the hospital doesn’t want dead ones floating to the top?), she has a gift for putting us there, not just at the scene but inside her head.
In Gratitude works on many levels: as a memoir of an unusual adolescence; as an essay on family dysfunction; as an intimate mini-biography of a Nobel-prize-winning novelist; and as an unillusioned meditation on illness and death. At its heart, though, is the story of a difficult relationship between women, both, as it happens, outstanding writers. However prolific she has been in the past – 18 titles by my count – it’s the story Diski most needed to tell. - Blake Morrison