I first came across Jenny Diski in an essay she wrote for the New York Times Magazine. The premise of the essay was simple: Women should be allowed to use the word cunt. If the word was so bad, “couldn’t we,” Diski wrote:
reappropriate it, take it back, make it ours, what with it’s being quite a good and descriptive word, and at least not an already appropriated Latinized metaphor: vagina (sheath) or vulva (wrapper) to serve the purpose of the male penis (tail)? Reappropriation worked interestingly when African-Americans took back their unmentionable word and yelled it ironically to one another in the street, while rendering non-African-Americans dumb. So did the gay community when they took up their term of abuse so that now universities offer courses in Queer Studies.
Because the Times is the Times, the word cunt was itself unmentionable. Diski couldn’t even say “the c-word” or refer to it with a couple of stars (“Too risqué, those stars”) so instead she referred to it as “the word I can’t use.” Any stranger reading the piece might call Diski a cunt, of course, but she couldn’t use the term to describe herself, at least not if she wanted to be published in the Times. This avoidance, she argued, gave the word more power:
It seems to me that by merely taking offense and refusing to repossess the word that I still can’t use here — but that you can hear anytime, used casually in a street near you — and therefore make it our own, we remain just as much victims as when we faint gratifyingly or fail to laugh outright in the face of the would-be abuser. I demand it back: my word for my private part, thank you very much.
Diski died yesterday, after two years of illness, an experience that she detailed in the London Review of Books. This didn’t break from the norm. Diski wrote about nearly everything—Princess Diana, Dennis Hopper, Jewish history, her depression, UFOs, her rape. I am sure I am not the only one who jumped to her essays as soon as I saw them in the table of contents. Her writing is clever and wry, sometimes mean, and sometimes a little baggy. It slips from personal observation to joke to assertion to analysis, and in that, it achieves something rare: the uncommon pleasure of feeling you are watching someone else think.
She could be very funny, even about her own cancer (“nobody is better at cancer than me”). But there was also an observant intelligence that undergirds her sense of humor, like her description of a women’s group of the 1970s:
At the time it was clear that there was no chance of getting in touch with your self unless you had witnessed what nature had so perversely, so patriarchally, hidden from your view. Though it seems odd, on those grounds, that we didn’t also require a personal view of our anuses, the goal was a sighting of the cervix, a seeing into the very core: a conflation of geography, biology and mythology. The achieved vision was generally accompanied by gasps of appreciation as if a great work of art had been unveiled for the first time before your very eyes. We swooned: ‘Ah, it’s so beautiful.’ Actually, it wasn’t. It was just sort of pink and fleshy. But it had been hidden and now was seen. So: beautiful.
Diski could also do a delicious take-down. On Downton Abbey: “The rich men and women in their castles are still dishing out charity to the poor men at their gate, but these days it is in the form of daydreams – circuses without bread.”
And then just as soon as you’d categorize her as a kind of sardonic British crank, she’d write something totally unexpected. Her insights seemed to come as easily as her barbs. A few years ago, she described how the actor Stephen Fry was widely praised when he revealed that he had tried to commit suicide. But when the Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones, apparently an oft-reviled person in Britain, described her own desire to die, the reaction was disgust:
Fry was taken at his word. His bravery in speaking out. Her unacceptable and insincere confession. His inspiring words for those with similar problems. Her words inciting the vulnerable to self-murder. It was as if no one had any experience of what she was describing (or the ability to imagine it), and therefore it couldn’t be true, only shamefully exploitative. Except that I recognised well enough the condition she described, whether or not she felt it herself, and was pleased to see a rare expression of it in popular print.
The essay on Liz Jones seems to me a representative Jenny Diski piece because it is a piece that no one else could have written. By that, I don’t mean that it’s a high-brow defense of a somewhat low-brow person—there are certainly many of those. What’s telling about the essay is the precision of Diski’s thinking: her ability to hold multiple truths at once. On the one hand, she finds Liz Jones’s book “witty, rather cunning and touching . . . its author is as grumpy and downhearted a fellow misery guts as I could hope to find.” On the other hand, she thinks Liz Jones needn’t have written that she had her “breasts cut off” when all she meant was that she had breast reduction surgery. “I’m sure there are thousands of column inches of Jones’s writing that I would hate,” Diski writes. But she defends Jones:
People complain that Jones is insincere, milking or inventing her misery to gain readers and money. But that’s what writers do, whatever they’re writing about. Even more people complain that Jones’s single subject is herself. It is, but that single subject has multiple aspects. You don’t have to like her opinions, but she has them on most public and private issues you can think of. If you’re going to berate writers for self-obsession you’ll be left with dreary bookshelves.
And then there’s a throwaway line that has tickled me every time I have read the essay. “If I didn’t already have two friends, and therefore more than I can manage, I would put in to be her best friend. Though I would surely regret it.” Surely hundreds of writers have had this kind of thought about someone they are reviewing, but who else has had the presence to write it down?
When Diski was diagnosed with cancer and learned she would have only a few years to live, she began to write about an aspect of her childhood that she had thus far kept out of her work. When she was fifteen, she moved in with Doris Lessing. The novelist’s son was a classmate of hers and had asked his mother to take Diski in after she was expelled from school for climbing out of the bathroom window and going to a party. She lived with Lessing for three years and they maintained a difficult friendship afterward.
Lessing and Diski had agreed they would not write about each other. (Diski already wanted to be a writer by the time she moved in.) But, as Diski revealed, Lessing broke her promise, and in 1974 wrote a novel featuring “Emily Cartwright” a quiet twelve-year-old with “a bright impervious voice and smile” handed over to an unnamed narrator for guardianship. “Emily’s you, of course,” Diski recalled Lessing telling her when she gave her the final draft of her novel.
Lessing died in 2013. When Diski received her diagnosis a year later, she decided to finally write about the woman whose presence in her life she had not yet pinned down. (In “What to Call Her?” an early essay in the series, she described the various names she gave Lessing—“the woman whose house I live in,” “Doris, my mumble, mumble, mumble,” “the person who bla bla bla.” ) As she told Giles Harvey in a New York Times Magazine profile, “it occurred to her that she might tackle the two subjects, Lessing and her illness, together. ‘Really it’s the form, that’s what excites me,’ she said. ‘It’s a kind of pull-me, push-me thing.’”
The essays about her relationship with Lessing, which are now collected in a book that comes out next month, have the swirling quality of a mind still turning over recent events. Diski moves between her cancer treatments and then back to Lessing’s home, her acknowledgement of Lessing’s guidance and her resentment of the ways Lessing saw her. The memoir is an answer to Lessing’s novel, but it doesn’t have the neatness one expects of a published story—the thoughts don’t seem perfectly settled. The aggregate effect feels less like a memoir and more like the experience of memory itself.
At one point, Diski described her anger reading Lessing’s novel that was based on her life.
The recollection of how I felt and behaved can’t be taken as ‘truer’ than Doris’s fictionalised me, even if I recognised what was missing in Doris’s version of Emily. As she was described, Emily only got to express herself through the narrator’s insights into her psyche. It was as if Doris didn’t want to know, or it wasn’t useful to her story to give Emily a voice or fears of her own. The narrator watches and analyses Emily’s every move and thought, and while I recognised myself in those descriptions, I also remembered being quite opaque to her, simply because my recollection is of an interiority of my own. I put the two views together, fictionalised Emily, remembered Jenny, but they never fitted. Possibly that’s because the bits of me have never fitted together as one is supposed to think they do.
At the beginning of the series, Diski wrote that she hopes that no one will write of her illness that: “I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’” Diski’s aversion to tired language was part of what made her prose so good. Still, I hope it’s not insulting if I say that this writing, with its untidy honesty, is among the most powerful I’ve read. For, as Diski acknowledged, describing things as they are—even the unmentionable things—is the first step to making them one’s own.
Madeleine Schwartz is an editor-at-large at Dissent.