On Saturday, April 30, I came home from the emergency room after just having an IUD of “suboptimal placement” removed (but that’s a story for a different day), to find the newest issue of the London Review of Books in my mail box. I did what I always do now when the new LRB arrives: I peeled off the plastic wrapper and went straight for the bios, to see if Jenny Diski was listed as a contributor. Jenny Diski had been dying, and chronicling her death in the LRB, and every time I found her name amongst the list of contributors to a given issue, I could rest assured that she was still alive, at least at the time of print. This time, though, she wasn’t there, which was especially worrying as her last appearance had been in early February.
I reached the top of the stairs and entered my apartment, and did the thing I suppose we all do first these days: checked my email. A note from a friend confirmed my worry when I’d browsed the bios in search of Diski: she was not there because she is not here. Jenny Diski had died.
I met Jenny Diski, the essayist and novelist, on the pages of the LRB shortly after I started up a subscription. Specifically, I discovered her in the May 8, 2014 issue, just months before she was diagnosed with lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. (“Two fatal diseases—I don’t do things by halves,” she would later wryly write.) On the cover, after her name and a colon, were the words, “Old, Unwanted and Invisible.” Now it feels only too ominous that her contribution to that issue was a review of a book called Out of Time, by Lynne Segal. In her review, Diski tries to settle on a universal signifier for how to know if you are definitively old. (Diski had written sometime before that she knew she was old when she started getting the response “ah, bless” to anything she told her hairdresser, the sort of thing, she felt, that one says to the “nondescript old lady going bravely about her business.” But a Swedish reader had written to tell her that this sort of moping around at sixty-six was “sad and pathetic,” so she was trying to come up with something a bit better.)
Halfway through Diski’s review of Segal’s book, I came to the lines: “We are the baby boomers, the demographic catastrophe waiting to happen that is now happening. Baby boomers lived their life in a golden time. Far from having to go into tens of thousands of pounds of debt, we had free tuition and decent grants to live on while we received a higher education. … We got grants to do up houses we bought cheaply. They [the young] can’t get a mortgage. Workers to our queens, they are providing our good life, in suburbia, beside the sea, in sunny Spain, filling hospital beds, out of their taxes.” Whether she meant it or not (and I think she did), I liked these lines a lot. Who is this woman I thought, and for the first time, I flipped to the bios: “Jenny Diski is getting on with it,” is all I got.
I’ve been getting it on with Jenny Diski in the LRB ever since. I appreciated her biting tone, honest portrayal of mental illness, the struggle to want to know and write authoritatively, while all the while acknowledging the limits of knowing (in herself and in others). The unbearable nagging of a curious mind. Now that the last of her columns has appeared in print in the LRB, I’ve gone back through all my old copies and pulled out every issue in which she appears, looking to see if there were pieces I’d somehow missed, or re-reading the ones I loved the most. It turns out death was a popular preoccupation for Diski in her writing well before she ever knew she was actually dying, and so it was inevitable that Diski would choose to chronicle her illness in print; she announced her diagnosis in the LRB on September 11, 2014, shortly after receiving it herself. From that point on, Diski had the publication as a forum in which to narrate her treatment, and her mental and physical response to being sick.
Diski’s writing on her own demise at times mirrors the potentially cold, clinical nature of dying of cancer in our shiny, modern age. In one of my favorite essays, “Was that when it was beaming me?” Diski describes the months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy she’d undergone, feeling through treatment as though a mere mechanized thing in the room of science: “My dignity was left at the door of the treatment room each day, not because my breasts were revealed, but because as soon as I entered I became a loose component, a part the machine lacked, that had to be slotted into place to enable it to perform its function.” At the doctor’s office, alas, we are but a body on a table, and yet of course, we are also not only that at all. In the space of the medical institution we are simultaneously particular and universal: our fear is our own—of death, of pain, of what we don’t know—but we are not the first nor last to know it.
Diski’s essays on death hold these things together brilliantly, somehow even beautifully. Her writing, which weaves without warning between a methodical, detailed account of treatment and the daily life of the dying and more ethereal, abstract passages, suggests the experience of losing lucidity and finding it again that a drugged body undergoes. It is to the LRB’s credit that they let Diski, who has been writing regularly for the publication since 1992, do whatever she damn well pleased. And in this way, Diski transcends her clinical status as body-cum-puzzle-piece to be wedged in a machine; she is throughout an active observer and writing subject, who tells us on the other side of chemo that, “the entire process makes me think of clubbing baby seals.” She goes on with this imagery at some length: “Although the seals I’m familiar with aren’t adorable chubby babies, but glossy, black, athletic adults leaping for fish at feeding time in London Zoo when I was small, and gigantic elephant seals lounging on the shore in an Antarctic bay paying not the slightest attention to me as I picked my way through the spaces they leave between them. Vast blubber sacks, lolling, shapeless with fat, their truncated trunks flaccid, concealing lip-stick red mouths and throats that appear when they open wide to yawn. No, not them: baby seals, small, helpless, newborn, cute white ones with big watery eyes. This probably isn’t the right attitude to cancer treatment. I’m feeling oppressed.”
But Diski also didn’t allow herself to reside only in nostalgia and self pity, resisting the urge to languish in “one’s own private glumly gleeful saturnalia, world turned upside down.” After all, she writes, “I probably couldn’t sulk unto death, no matter that I’m one of the foremost sulkers on the planet. I’d get hungry. Or want to watch TV.” Instead, she turns her grief and personal experience outwards, not in some sort of false altruistic oh-but-someone-else-has-it-worse-than-me way, but rather, as a sinister sort of comfort. Last October, she wrote with the uninhibited honesty that was her only mode: “As I write there is a world refugee crisis. I’ve never had to cope with that. That little cancer in my lung, and the growing forest of fibrotic alveoli will kill me, but something would have. Please, a real plea, not to speak to me, or anyone else, of ‘bravery.’ I need to be told the story in which it doesn’t matter, a story of the millions who’ve died already.” In this installment, she returns to that sentiment with which she’d first caught my attention: “My God, people like me have been given lives and choices no other generation has ever had. I wonder why. I’m speaking, of course, of a white, Western cohort which the generations on either side quite rightly resent. What the hell did we do to deserve to have it so easy? Nothing.”
For the record, Diski did not have it particularly easy. She has written also of her less than desirable home life as an adolescent, experience with sexual abuse, and struggles with mental illness. But maybe that is the paradoxical point: we have all had it easier than others. We have all had it hard.
And yet, for as long as we can, we get on with it.
Where am I going? Nobody knows. Can I come with you? Aye, bye and bye. There is a kind of excitement. This, that I’ve never done, already done but previously, in a different form, an absolute otherness, nothingness, knowinglessness. That everyone has done, will do, world without end. The ending, and the world going on, going about its daily business. A world without me. To have known but not have any apparatus to know with. The excitement of a newness that is as old as the hills. My turn.
Jenny Diski’s LRB installments about her illness, as well as her early years with Doris Lessing, were written as installments of a memoir, which was published as “In Gratitude,” by Bloomsbury Publishing. It came out on April 21, 2016, days before she died.
Lead image via The Guardian.