Jenny Diski

Jenny Diski was born in London in 1947 and went into foster care at the age of eleven. As a teenager she spent time in psychiatric wards, before being taken in by Doris Lessing, the mother of a schoolfriend. When the LRB’s first editor, Karl Miller, met her in the early 1990s, Diski had been divorced, published five novels and was writing a column about supermarkets in the Sunday Times called ‘Off Your Trolley’. Her first piece for the LRB was a Diary about her ‘ex-Live-in-Lover’. She went on to write six more novels and more than two hundred pieces for the paper, on subjects as diverse as Roald Dahl, disgust, Jewish seafaring, Mrs Freud and Mr Thatcher, Antarctica and UFOs, but her best subject was always herself.

As Mary-Kay Wilmers wrote after Diski’s death in 2016, she ‘wasn’t self-obsessed’. When she heard that she had inoperable cancer she told the oncologist that ‘under no circumstances is anyone going to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely.’ But she embraced ‘the worst cliché of all’, the cancer diary (‘another fucking cancer diary’); seventeen entries were published in the LRB and collected after her death as In Gratitude. A selection of her essays, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?, came out in 2020.

Mother’s Prettiest Thing

Jenny Diski, 4 February 2016

Im not​ as fond of David Bowie as most people seem to be. I’m certainly not dancing a reel in the streets. Some good songs, an enviable capacity to shapeshift, but not so much charm, or humility, as some who nevertheless die young, younger, with children and grandchildren to leave. But that more than anything made me tear up during the tribute programmes. What distressed him most...

Doris was​ in her early forties when I arrived in my vile mustard-coloured coat with a brown velvet collar, my first ‘grown-up’ item of clothing. It was hung in the airing cupboard alongside some marijuana that Doris had grown in the garden her first summer in the house and was now drying out. I never wore the coat again, though we did smoke the dope. Being grown up and behaving...

Who’ll be last?

Jenny Diski, 19 November 2015

If it were​ a race, the first man home – except for Iain Banks who won the trophy by a mile – would be Oliver Sacks (announced 19 February – died 30 August), with Henning Mankell (announced 17 January – died 5 October) a close second. Lisa Jardine won a race of her own, staying shtum publicly, her death a surprise except to the few who knew. So Clive James (announced...

Almost every day since I began writing these pieces I get a letter or an email from someone who has read or remembered and liked my work; they talk about the recent pieces about my cancer or my memories of my teenage years and my relationship with Doris Lessing, my older books, fiction and non-fiction, something they’ve read or remembered. They’re remarkably kind (my paranoia wonders, but I fight back the idea that the LRB’s editors hold on to the ones that are not so positive). They are well meant, offering as solace the people ‘out there’ in the real world who have enjoyed my work.

My Word-Untangling Machine

Jenny Diski, 10 September 2015

I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.

Doris Lessing, The Sweetest Dream

I can’t​ get away from that paragraph. It feels like a well, bottomless; time to hold your breath before you...

Montaigne had his own literary stalker. Eight years after the Essays first appeared in 1580, he received a breathless letter from a young woman called Marie le Jars de Gournay, who declared...

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A good God is hard to find: Jenny Diski

James Francken, 4 January 2001

Was God created by a woman, a writer who dreamed up the early stories in the Bible? Differences in vocabulary and style suggest that the Old Testament is a composite of various sources. The...

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Bad Blood

Lorna Sage, 7 April 1994

This is a compendious, layered novel – see ‘historiographic metafiction’ in the narratology handbook – the sort of novel that intercuts time zones and genres of fiction...

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Drabble’s Progress

John Sutherland, 5 December 1991

Some readers do not much like Margaret Drabble’s later novels because they are so different from her earlier successes. She may have lost one public and not as yet entirely won over...

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