Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Diski’


Photos from decades ago of Jenny Diski and Doris Lessing

Dear friends and readers,

Little is more central to a woman’s life, what she becomes, than her relationship to her mother. We see this from the first women writers who tell of something of themselves and their lives (Christine de Pisan) through Jane Austen’s letter and novels, to say Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun (daughter to mother) and Emma Thompson and Phyllida Lawson (the relationship moves back and forth). The book to read is Marianne Hirsh’s The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis and Feminism. We now know that Jenny Diski had two mothers: the abusive, half-crazed, abused woman who tramped the streets homeless with her daughter, and Doris Lessing who took Jenny in and put her in a decent grammar school, helped her go to university, and exemplified the know-how and gave Jenny the connections to start her career as a writer.

If you’ve been reading Jenny Diski’s columns in the London Review of Books some time after Doris Lessing died, Jenny Diski was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer which has jumped from lymph node to lymph node. She courageously but in character told her readership (September 2014) and proceeded not only to write columns about the experience but also to tell a story which may, must have been on her mind and conscience to tell for many years. Now that she assumed she was dying, she wanted to confess, to be found out: she is thanking Doris openly, in public, so others should know, for rescuing her from what probably would have been a life in asylum; she is also revealing the distance between the implied author of the realistic novels so deeply concerned and wise about women’s relationships (from lover to mother, wife to sister, friends to enemies) — and how in actual life Doris treated Jenny when Jenny asked for love or advice or badly misbehaved. How does a semi-withdrawn in the deepest sense unconventional woman cope with an understandably disturbed young woman? And how is Jenny coping with the grinding and deeply wrong-headed ways (from the standpoint of helping the person emotionally) cancer is treated and talked about in our society. Before this it seems it was known among those who knew them as people, for in a couple of the columns when Jenny fast forwards to well after Jenny left Doris’s home and purview and their relationship became attenuated, it seems people were chary to say anything to her about Doris and vice versa.

I’ve followed the columns almost religiously, intensely wanting to know how the chemotherapy was going, if when the series were finished, how she was doing. I found her refusal to talk in terms of battles, and triumphs and her refusal to compromise about her grief and terror of a piece with the candour and insight of her occasional diary pieces in the LRB where she told about how she was raped at age 14, about her wretched parents and early childhood, and her two travel memoirs, Skating to Antartica: Journey to the end of the World and Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America.

As the columns went on and she talked more and more about Lessing, I realized Jenny was also settling old scores. She was doing justice to what had been given, but also getting back. For those interested in interpreting Lessing’s fiction, we learned Emily, the adopted young girl of Memoirs of a Survivor was a portrait of Jenny. Like countless novelists, Lessing was willing to model central characters on people she knows — without asking permission because most people would not give it. Jenny was made very uncomfortable it seems. There were some funny moments early on where Jenny and her biological mother are in a kind of conspiracy as two deluded vulnerable people not coming up to the strong woman with her sensible advice, control, instructions and pocketbook.

But a couple of the columns took my breath away: sad experience has taught me that what I consider to be cold and mean behavior is by some interpreted as “setting bounds,” what I think to be understandable appeals for emotional support by some seen as emotional blackmail. So when I read a column (LRB, 37:1, 8 January 2015, “Doris and Me”) where Jenny tells of an incident that occurred between them shortly after she moved in with Doris, I asked on a listserv what other people thought. I was not surprised to get no answer. Jenny got herself to ask, Did Doris like her; if their relationship did not go well, what would happen to her? the teenager was clearly justifiably intensely worried and frightened and needed reassurance. Lessing’s response was fierce anger and an implied threat that she would eject Jenny back to the working class abyss she came from. As I tell it it’s obvious that to me Lessing acted with cold cruelty to the girl; Lessing’s interpretation of a natural need as trespassing emotional blackmail to me shows her unwillingness to be a secure friend, to commit. I was horrified. Diski does seem to suggest that it was Doris’s son, Peter, who first proposed to take Jenny in, but how that happened, how he met the girl and told his mother and how it all came about not told. Perhaps because the people involved are still alive, read the LRB, and would not want to be named.

To me this kind of encounter is at the core of women’s novels: the opening of the inner heart to the woman reader about things never discussed openly except with an intimate friend (here on the Net it’s become otherwise because the writing self is a different one from the physically social self plus the kind of accountabilty and detail that is part of life off the Net is often not here); a chance for the woman reader to plug into that and live through it, learn, and a need be satisfied — women’s psychologists argue repeatedly women are relational people, especially needing a woman friend or a companion.

Some of the columns which combined what she was going through as a cancer victim (it is victim) and what she knew in her original home and then what she experienced in Doris’s were painful to read. Diski made no concession whatsoever to what’s called normality or sane perspectives. She stays with what she was and repeats what people said of her: she was a “horrible girl.” It’s very strong of her to present herself that way, make no excuses and show the world from her point of view: the problem with it for her was what was wrong was the way other people acted and thought and what they demanded of her without telling her what they wanted. She was supposed somehow to know (LRB, 37:11, 4 June 2015, “What was wrong with everything was people”). There was an intertwining of what Jenny was observing in the upper middle class so-called bohemian circles of Lessing and what she observed in the upper middle class medical establishment today.

One early one turned hilarious at the close (LRB, 36:23 December 4, 2014) where she shows us how lunatic are our social relationships if you ask that they derive from a level of real understanding of one another. No one screams but one gynaecologist when maybe we all ought to be screaming, or scream at least once. Their first criteria is to protect themselves and so won’t tell Diski anything. The column is deeply critical of the cancer establishment as well as showing how they know nothing helpful fundamentally which is what is desperately needed by hideously growing numbers of people on this polluted earth.

Some are poignant. She says it’s like she is alive and dead at once (LRB, 36:21, November 6). That’s what Jim said it was like: being on the other side of a wall only those living with death can understand. There was a column about lullabies and how they are needed to soothe. One of the last was poignant: she has begun to hope she has a future; she tells us she was told that she had two years probably — unless the cancer went into remission was implied, or the treatments did something to extend that time. You see it in the last paragraph.

But it seems now she may die of the treatment (this reminds me of the movie, Wit, where Emma Thompson plays a woman diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer). Her tumor has stopped growing, but the chemotherapy and radiotherapy have done hideous damage to her lungs which had been scarred by pulmonary fibrosis. She has bad trouble breathing, falls and breaks bones (is very weak), was in hospice for a week but then sent home (as not about to pop off for sure any time now). When will she died? no one knows but 1-3 years is still what she’s given. The appearance of calm with which she describes recent weeks is stunning (LRB, 37:13, July 2015, “Spray it Silver”).

Well last week I read a column in mirable dictu which attacked Diski full front: Jenny Diski’s year of bashing Doris Lessing. I answered on the blog a couple of days later, and here extend my reply into a fuller argument. I admit I am not an unqualified admirer of Lessing much as I loved her Golden Notebook until the last one, and have read and admired a number of her novels, memoirs and criticism. I want to come to Diski’s defense because I’ve had the idea all along that just the ideas developed in mirable dictu are those that might be used once the period is over where people feel they must not “speak ill of the dead.

First there are two elements one must begin with. the homelife Diski came from. Nor the state Diski was in. What Lessing did was take responsibility for an abused child in a nearly catatonic state. In one of the essays we are shown that as the adolescent came out of her state (partly due to simply being away from her parents but also in the quiet stable house Lessing provided, with its routines, school, normality of friends), she was frightened. Who would not be? who could endure to go back? One must look at how Jenny is a child with what would be called a major depressive disorder whom Lessing had taken in. She wanted to now if Lessing could get rid of her, did she mean to keep her, and asked Lessing for reassurance that she would and a statement of love. Lessing became deeply angry and refused to say the situation would be at all permanent. In another the adolescent asks for advice about sex, and is given a flippant guarded answer and again told she has no right to ask for such advice.

What are the responsibilities of a caretaker-guardian? It’s true that Lessing did not adopt the girl. In a third Diski runs away and Lessing does not look for her; only when an agency discovers the girl liviing in filth somewhere back to her state, and phones Lessing does Lessing come and try to help. It’s not clear that Peter was responsible for Lessing take Diski in; it seems that Lessing was attracted to the girls’ gifts and felt for her but did not fully imagine what taking such a young woman on would be. Kat leaves out that the Emily a central character of Memoirs of a Survivor is a portrait of Diski. Diski was very hurt by this. And I agree that the series of column comes out of Diski’s anger too. But Jenny needed help desperately. Jumping out of a window, sleeping in stinking rotting wasteland, these are frantic calls for help and Doris had come forward. Jenny needed more than Doris’s cats.

Mirable dictu also misrepresented Diski’s presentation of Peter. Diski does not slam or despise Peter. She feels for him; she does not understand how Peter came to be so dependent. She is suggesting the portrait of the boy in The golden Notebook is Peter. I remember that portrait best of all and that the heroine could not cope with her son. Myself I think the GN is badly flawed because the great solution of the heroine’s life is to throw herself into orgasmic enthrallment in the last notebook. Up to then the book had been brilliant. Diski does not blame Lessing for leaving South Africa and two of her children; she suggests that this reality shows that Lessing was a woman who felt she had to make a choice like this to have a writer’s life — so in Lessing’s own life is a variant on her heroines.

Diski also includes how Lessing remained connected to her when she married and to her daughter (in a way a grand-daughter to Lessing) and that there was a relationship of support and affection there (perhaps publishing help?).

The series of columns has been not only about Lessing but Diski’s inoperable cancer. Diski has been told the probabilities are she will be dead in 2-3 years. She had undergone horrendous treatments and she discusses how all this feels, her fear of dying. In fact the first few columns where she “came out” and for the first time made widely public that her whole career would not have happened but for Lessing seemed to me a tribute, wanting to tell Diski’s life for the first time. She can’t tell her childhood or adolescence or the time in schools without telling about Lessing. I agree that she is getting back and exposing but she’s been hurt and hurt bad. At the same time Diski means to show the goddess has clay feet.


Writer Jenny Diski pictured at her home. '

Jenny recently but before chemotherapy; Doris in 2006

Diski is one who writes autobiographically and if there is anyone she has exposed over the years it’s been herself. She is doing to (or for) Lessing what she has done to or for herself. I have read enough criticism of Diski to know that quite a number of women writers take advantage of what Diski tells of herself to write snark at her books. I’ve not read any of her novels but I have her two travel books and regularly over the years her criticism. I don’t always agree with Jenny, and some of her columns were written with less thought and too much convention. She has a knee-jerk reaction against BBC costume dramas, her mockery (politically astute) of Downton Abbey failed to account for why it stayed popular. But speaking overall, superb, worth reading.

Yes this last End Notes is problematical. She is dying. I thought of the last two that the LRB editor is finally being too soft and should be editing Diski more — asking for cuts or where she is beginning to lose control. But a long time dying contributor can be given slack. I’ve seen what cancer does to people’s brains and their bodies and give credit to Diski that she has been able to write despite the deterioration and pain she has known. Perhaps writing helped to absorb her mind and enable her to forget or transcend her pain while writing.

I gather from what she writes in these columns that all literary London who knows one another knew about this relationship. It was a secret everyone knew — there are anecdotes where others are careful what they say around each about the other. I surmise if was Lessing who forbid the telling in public because Diski waited until she was dead for some time and then told. I surmise Diski agreed not to tell or acquiesced.

It is important to know about Lessing’s private life to understand the flaws in her books — and the distance between the presentation of her persona and what she really was Now I understand the Diaries of Jane Summers. There the central character resents the woman who turns to her for help as well as being a version of the central characters. I was not as stunned by her revelation of Lessing’s behavior (especially the one where she refused to reassure the girl and refused to say she loved her) because it fit into what I feel is part of the person behind the books. I respect Lessing enormously, especially her Grass is Singing, Summer before the Dark, Golden Notebook and Nothing Remains the Same — and just as much some of her critical essays and memoirs.

There are other relatives in England who come out and write about one another to some extent. A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drable, the Amises. It’s not always a comfortable thing to watch. Diski’s columns are not a Mommie Dearest. She says repeated that Lessing rescued her.

As to Lessing’s writing, there is the problem (as I see it) of Lessing’s two identities, the one who writes the science fiction and fantasy and the one who writes the realistic depressed books. I find very great her The Grass is Singing; her On Cats is a work of strong genius. The latter dialogue with women, though Lessing denies she is a feminist. I regard it as a problem as I see much in the former that at strong variance with the latter, and what Diski has to tell us can explain perhaps some of these gaps. One self of Lessing wanted to mother Diski and the other did not.

What I regret is that Lessing did not tell when she herself was still alive, that in her memoirs she left this important relationship out as she did the connection between her son and the son of the Golden Notebook. Had Lessing told too then we would have had her point of view.


Doris-Lessing-at-home (Large)
Doris at home, middle-aged with one of her cats

We now know that What I Don’t Know About Animals is in dialogue with On Cats!

I’m a person who writes openly about myself. People are shocked by what I say sometimes and I’ve been told that I’m risking retaliations of people who feel threatened or resentful or who want happy stories. I say they should not bother read me. I have never been close to a famous person but I have named names and told of all those who hurt and damaged Jim as he lay dying. No one will care about the people who hurt me, and I don’t even know the names of the boys who once gang raped me. But I understand the impulse to tell.

I feel a destruction of Jane Austen herself was done when the majority of her letters were destroyed, three packets between her and Francis, what was left censored and abridged. On Austen-l and Janeites we are still making our way though the Austen papers and eventually I will find a way to make blogs from our readings of these letters in an effort to call these papers t the attention of people and hope some scholar will want to produce an annotated contextualized edition.


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