Jenny Diski, 1947–2016


In Memoriam

Jenny Diski died yesterday. You might have discovered that fact if you happened to visit the London Review of Books, where Diski published essays, reviews, and blog posts for nearly twenty-five years. Or maybe, like me, you learned it on Twitter, where, hours before the obituaries arrived, old tweets of Diski’s, some of them years out of date, started swirling back into circulation. They joined a tumble of appreciative links and quotations, an accumulation whose size quickly disqualified the possibility of happy coincidence. This is how death announces itself now, at least for the artists who don’t rate a breaking-news alert on our phones: a surge of mentions on social media, a collective attempt to plug up the vacuum of absence with digital abundance. For a moment you think you’ve lucked into an outpouring of spontaneous enthusiasm. Finally! you tell yourself. We’re talking about her now! But then quickly enough the rational brain reasserts itself and begins working down the checklist: Are they handing out Nobels today? A genius grant, maybe? Was someone quoted by Beyoncé? No? Oh. Oh, no. 

This momentary suspension of belief worked again on me yesterday, even though Diski’s death could hardly count as a surprise. She was not old—sixty-eight—but we’d known that her death was coming soon, because she’d been telling us so, in a series of remarkable essays in the LRB, for more than a year and a half. In the fall of 2014, Diski announced that she had an inoperable cancer in her lung. She’d written more than a dozen books, including novels, short stories, and travelogues, and her decision to chronicle her dying was simple. “I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too.”

By the time of her first cancer essay, Diski was already used to writing about herself—“I start with me, and often enough end with me,” she once said—and she was already used to writing about herself in extremis. In 2009, she got fed up with a group of celebrities who had protested Roman Polanski’s arrest for a thirty-year-old rape. Particularly galling, she wrote, was the idea, suggested by the protesters’ petition, “of a thirteen-year-old consenting to have oral sex with a forty-four-year-old film director.” She then went on, with startling clarity, to describe her own experience of being raped, at the age of fourteen. In a similar fashion, a review of a memoir by a psychiatric patient became, in its way, a memoir of Diski’s own harrowing experience as a psychiatric patient decades ago.

Still, there is extreme, and then there is extinction. From the start, Diski recognized the difficulty of the task she’d set herself. “Can there possibly be anything new to add?” she wondered. “Isn’t the cliché of writing a cancer diary going to be compounded by the impossibility of writing in it anything other than what has already been written, over and over? Same story, same ending.”

A reasonable worry for most writers, but it turned out to be unnecessary in her case. It helped that Diski’s story was not the same story. In the narrative of her final months—the steroids, the Weetabix, the fentanyl patch—she chose to tell, for the first time, about living with Doris Lessing as a teenager, and about their complicated relationship thereafter. In large part, however, the appeal of Diski’s essays was the appeal of Diski herself. On the page she was brilliant, irritable, mordant, and humane. She could be hard on herself, and hard on others, but the hardness always seemed to have a point, as though anyone who hoped to reach even a tactical accommodation with what she once called “the adamantine way of the world” had to be prepared to match it rigor for rigor. Often hilarious—she was justly proud of answering her initial cancer diagnosis with a joke—she saw the slant in otherwise ordinary situations, and despised tendentiousness or cant of any sort. 

In an illuminating profile last year, Giles Harvey wrote that Diski’s cancer diary made for a “marvel of steady and dispassionate self-revelation.” This is true, and yet for all her apparent equipoise, Diski also understood that an unflinching record of her final days meant that sometimes she’d have to show herself mid flinch. As she wrote in her final LRB essay, published in February:

I am scared of dissolution, of casting my particles to the wind, of having nothing to cast my particles to the wind with, of knowing nothing when knowing everything has been the taste every day, little by little, by knowing what little meant compared to a lot, compared to something or nothing.

“From a young girl on,” she wrote in another essay, “writing and being a writer was the only way I could think of to be, the only way to balance the down side of the seesaw.” She carried that lesson to the very end, seesaw and all. “Pretty strange to see myself ebullient about being alive,” she wrote on Twitter in January. “Not sure I believe a word of it.”

Robert P. Baird is The Paris Review’s editor at large.