‘I’m Jenny Diski. You therefore aren’t,’ Jenny Diski said in a piece she’d been eager to write about a new edition of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a book – famous in its day – about three long-term asylum inmates each of whom believed he was Christ. We are who we are, Milton Rokeach, the book’s author, argued, because we know that by definition there can only be one of us. The three Christs knew that too – all three of them. Jenny was more thoroughgoing. She junked the name and identity that she was given at birth, and created her own. Having started out as Jennifer Simmonds, daughter of Mr and Mrs Simmonds, she became the disputatious quasi-daughter of Doris Lessing; married Roger Marks; and seeing no reason why she now had to share a name with Jenny Marx, Karl Marx’s sad and stoical wife, took advantage of the fact that Rogajinsky was a name in Roger’s family and became Jenny Diski, wife of Roger Diski. It was neat, it made sense. And it suited her well.
Karl Miller, the LRB’s first editor, met Jenny in the early 1990s, and sensing a contributor, suggested that I get in touch with her – ‘you’ll get on with her, she’s a bit like you.’ He was right: we were quite alike in our manner and even to a degree our appearance or at any rate the clothes we wore; in the things we found funny and the value we attached to that; and in the words we used and how our sentences ran, and, yes, we became friends, very good friends. But there was also an enormous difference between us – let’s just say she was the writer, I was the fan.
‘Writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too.’ When she first heard that she had cancer and that it was inoperable she made a joke. (‘“So – we’d better get cooking the meth,” I said to the Poet.’) She listened as the Onc Doc told her about the illness and the course it was likely to follow, wondered whether he really did mean that it could be over in a matter of weeks, considered whether to sulk (‘Cancer or no cancer, I probably couldn’t sulk unto death, no matter that I’m one of the foremost sulkers on the planet’), concluded that she had ‘no choice but to perform’. Then, as she and the Poet were leaving the room, she set out her terms: ‘Under no circumstances is anyone going to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely.’ Then she thought about the worst cliché of all, a cancer diary, ‘another fucking cancer diary’, and embraced it.
Between September 2014 and the end of 2015 she wrote 17 pieces about herself, her past (Doris Lessing mainly), and the progression of her illness, pieces that have now become a book called In Gratitude. At the start of the year, as she came to the end of what she had to say, diary and book completed, she started to die. It wasn’t a coincidence. Some weeks later she lost the physical ability to write and would ring up to say, each time as if for the first time, that she was sorry but she didn’t think she could write anymore; she still had the words – and even the sentences – but they were no longer getting through to her fingers. Something similar happened to her feet when they hit the pavement between the bus stop on Shoot-Up Hill and Doris Lessing’s house. They too had had a life of their own: ‘The very moment my foot made landfall, the anger began as if the pavement and the soles of my shoes had closed a vital circuit.’ Now a vital circuit had been cut – and she couldn’t fix it by dictating, even to the Poet.
When she started writing for the paper, she’d published five novels; she also wrote radio reviews for the Mail and had a column in the Sunday Times. The column was about supermarkets and called ‘Off Your Trolley’. The first, dated 25 April 1993, was about death (her death), though tinned soup and brands of yoghurt came into it too. The second, more encouragingly, was about mayonnaise, and featured Roger Diski, by now the ‘ex-husband’: ‘A handy ex-husband, just back from France, still with the taste of the real thing in his mouth, nominated himself to test my collection of mayonnaise. I would have double-checked his findings, but I decided against it after seeing him dip a well-sucked finger into each jar. “It’s the undertaste you’ve got to watch for,” he explained knowingly.’ As he was leaving he told her that M&S had started selling caviar and suggested that she do a column about it. But the following week – ‘bad news for ex-husbands’ – they’d sold out.
Her first piece for the LRB, a Diary, was also about exes: ‘Moving Day. My ex-Live-in-Lover will come this afternoon to move his things out.’ Her daughter has gone to Ireland with her father (the ex-husband), where she’ll do rural things which Jenny, ‘born and raised in the Tottenham Court Road’, knows nothing about. The kitten is ill and at the vet’s. She will have the flat to herself:
It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for. It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or: doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing. Or: doing nothing is what I have to do to write. Or: writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self. And be alone.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the best days:
I get on with the new novel. Smoke. Drink coffee. Smoke. Write. Stare at ceiling. Smoke. Write. Lie on the sofa. Drink coffee. Write.
On Monday a man came to talk to her about depression and the difference between clinical depression and melancholia (he’s making a documentary). They don’t disagree. On Friday she has an appointment at the zoo. A talking orang-utan called Jenny is a character in the novel she’s writing and there are one or two things she still needs to find out. From what she’s told it’s clear she is pleased with her choice of primate to impersonate her. Orangs, the keeper tells her, are ‘lazy, sullen and devious’; unsociable animals unlike gorillas and chimps. Duty-bound to pay a visit to Suka, ‘who’ll be Jenny in the novel’, she finds her as she no doubt expected to find her, ‘as melancholic as you please, dropping handfuls of straw onto her head’.
I don’t think Jenny disliked the thought of death – I mean death as a thought. She liked sleep and often took to her bed; and she liked blankness of all kinds: white surfaces, uneventful days. Pointless activity, she said, was better than activity that had a point; no activity was better still. A place that had never been looked at and never would be was best of all. Hence Antarctica (‘other landscapes fidget’), which she wrote about in a piece called ‘A Feeling for Ice’ that would later become her book Skating to Antarctica.
‘A Feeling for Ice’ was a travel piece that had less to do with travel than with her childhood in a block of flats called Paramount Court. Both her parents, she now discovered, had tried to kill themselves; so had she, the first time when she was 14. ‘I came,’ she concluded, ‘from a family of suicidal hysterics.’ What she was looking for in Antarctica was a place where all that could be overlooked, ‘a place of safety’, ‘a white oblivion’, somewhere the memory of her parents’ unwanted and troubling attentions couldn’t reach her and she could forget her own capacity to emulate them.
What she saw first was the penguins.
A legion of black faces and orange beaks pointed out to sea facing in our direction, seeming to observe our arrival. One day, once a year or so, black rubber dinghies approach, and a handful of people come to the Bay, believing that the penguins are watching them arrive. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They parted slightly to make way for us, but they still stood looking out to sea. We were not part of their existence, presented no obvious danger and therefore were ignored, quite overlooked … That was the point, for me, of Antarctica; that it was simply there, always had been, always would be, with great tracts of the continent unseen, unwitnessed, cycling though its two seasons, the ice rolling slowly from the centre to the edges, where eventually it breaks off.
There is no underestimating the therapeutic properties of indifference. In the evening an iceberg floats by her window, ‘a great blank wall of ancient compacted snow’ that might have been ten thousand years old. It was very like Jenny not to want to see anything and then to see the grandest thing.
‘I’m very good at getting what I want,’ she said of herself, and she was. She also said: ‘I’m not entirely ill at ease with boundaries.’ She meant the kind of boundary you have to observe on your tricycle (‘I was a city-bred child’). But she was equally at home with the boundaries that journalists observe – deadlines, number of words. In every aspect of her life I came across she was neat, practical, organised, exact. What she couldn’t control she kept out of sight. She wrote about herself a lot – almost never didn’t one way or another. That in a sense was the point – ‘everything I write is personal,’ she said in one of the cancer pieces – but she wasn’t self-obsessed. She didn’t hijack the subject or intrude herself in the middle of it. But writing about a concentration camp memoir she stayed out of sight – at least until the author was freed and had made his way to Israel. At the same time whatever she was writing about – cannibalism (‘so far so goggable’) or Martha Freud (‘housekeeper of a world-shattering theory’) – the accounts she gave were ones only she could have given. Going over her pieces now, I find that every one, almost every sentence I look at, is so Jenny-ish without at the same time being attention-seeking or straying from the matter at hand that I worry about things I’ve missed out. She said she didn’t do narrative, and that also seems true: she didn’t have the patience or what her dodgy father had called the ‘stickability’. (I was going to say that maybe he wasn’t that bad after all, but then I remembered that he made a living that way – by charming old ladies.)
Jenny and I had a good time. We played cards – a game called Spite and Malice – and fell out: she thought I was a bad loser; I thought she was a bad winner. We went to Valencia to watch a firework display (the ground shook) that the Guardian had asked her to write about and spent half an hour following a young priest because he was wearing jeans under his cassock and we wondered where he was going; we drove round and round a roundabout in southern France because we thought the water sprinklers might clean the car. That sort of thing.