The Unending Pleasures of Jenny Diski

Photo: Nick Cunard/AP

Let’s start in the Bin, as she always called it. Jenny Diski wound up in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager after being kicked out of boarding school, getting sacked from a couple of jobs, running away from her father’s home, and returning to her mother, who was herself in the midst of an ongoing nervous breakdown. She would return to psychiatric hospitals in her early 20s, and it was an experience she revisited over and over again in her writing. One of her refrains was that she was never quite mad enough actually to belong in the Bin. But there were things she liked about being there, to a point. She liked the white sheets of the hospital bed, and the white walls. They made her feel safe in ways she never quite felt in her parents’ homes, at boarding school, or out in the topsy-turvy London of the 1960s. There were others there who were worse off than she was, perhaps including the doctors and nurses, and she could observe them. The question was how long was she going to stay there and whether when she left she could take that feeling of safety, that whiteness, with her.

Her first stint in the Bin is told in the story “Strictempo,” one of a dozen, not all of them autobiographical, collected in The Vanishing Princess, her only book of short stories, published in the U.K. in 1995 and appearing now for the first time in an American edition. “Strictempo” is in the third person, something that may be jarring to readers who know Diski from her memoirs and essays, especially In Gratitude, the book she wrote after a diagnosis of two sorts of inoperable cancer, published in the spring of 2016, just days after her death at age 68. But substituting Hannah, her alter ego in “Strictempo,” for “I” creates an effect that’s the opposite of distancing. Instead of seeing the Bin through memory — with its echoes throughout an ongoing life, as Diski does in her later memoirs Skating to Antarctica (1997) and Stranger on a Train (2002)—“Strictempo” goes directly into Hannah’s head.

The story’s framing device is a Friday Social: “The music was mostly provided by three LPs called Sinatra Sings Strictempo, Volumes 1 to 3, which were special dance tempo arrangements of Frank’s best known songs.” Hannah’s partner is Terry — older, handsome, with a public-school accent, and once upon a time the recipient of medals for ballroom dancing. He is also a sex offender. The nurses and doctors watch him closely as he dances with the 15-year-old Hannah. There’s a catalogue of patients: Sally, Terry’s Bin girlfriend with a “chronic inferiority complex,” who lashes out violently at her twin sister when she comes to visit; the agoraphobic and claustrophobic Pam, who starts “screaming blue murder” when she realizes the jeans she’s wearing are too tight; Douglas, “shy to the point of anguish” and accused by the doctors of harboring secret angers; and the depressive Pat, who serves as Hannah’s Virgil in the Bin when she isn’t staring at a fixed point on a wall for days at time.

Hannah doesn’t belong in the Bin, she’s on no medication, her counseling sessions are pro forma, and all the doctors agree that swallowing the handful of pills was a not unreasonable response to a desperate situation. “Strictempo” narrates Hannah’s expulsion from school, sacking from jobs, and without too much detail makes clear that her parents are unloving.
Playing truant at school, she makes friends with a young local reporter who lends her books, and she’s canned from a job at a shoe store because she confesses to another girl that she wants to be a writer and the arrangement was based on training her for a career in the shoe trade. When they come to the Bin, her mother and father have a row broken up by the staff, and neither of them will take her home. Yet it’s not a dire scenario: “The truth was that life at Lady Mary’s was much more interesting than most places a fifteen-year-old might find herself, and at the same time, rather safer, calmer even than she was used to … If this was the place in which everyone said Hannah ‘would end up’ it was by no means the worst she could imagine.”

In real life, a classmate from boarding school, not a close friend, intervened when Diski was in the Bin, appealing to his mother to take her in. So for four years in the mid-’60s in North London Diski became the foster daughter of the novelist and future Nobel laureate Doris Lessing. The relationship is recalled in In Gratitude.

Lessing’s long hours at the desk provided a model: “Being a writer meant: getting on with it.” It would not be until 1986, at the age of 39, that Diski became a published author, with the novel Nothing Natural, a thriller-ish account of a sadomasochistic relationship. In between, she worked as a teacher, founded a school with the man she married (they invented the surname Diski together), had a daughter, and divorced. In the early 1990s, she had a column in London’s Sunday Times about grocery shopping when she began writing essays for the London Review of Books, which would remain her home base until the end. After the first novel, five more followed quickly before The Vanishing Princess in 1995.

So the book collects work from the early phase of a three-decade career. “Strictempo” can be read not so much as a first draft (it’s very polished) than as an opening salvo in the telling of a tale she never exhausted, one that pushed her into different ways of telling. “She said she didn’t do narrative,” Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, wrote after Diski’s death, and while that became more and more true over time, it wasn’t always so. The Vanishing Princess gives a picture of a singular intelligence still harnessed to more or less conventional forms and starting to push against them. Later, instead of telling stories straight, she would spiral around them, like a virtuoso skater. That was what her mother wanted her little girl to be, she wrote in Skating to Antarctica: “I would be the youngest champion ice skater ever, and she would be the mother of the champion. It would mean fame, money, travel and a good marriage, and she would accompany me on the route to all these good things. My mother dreamed of making me into an ice princess, but something went wrong.
After a while I refused to practise, and life, in any case, got in the way.
What she got, to her bitter disappointment, though I think the irony might have been lost on her, was an ice maiden of another kind altogether.”

The worst thing you can say about personal essayists is that they lack a personality, and on the page surely many of them do. It’s the opposite with Diski, who once said of celebrities, “For posterity, let me explain about personality. It might be supposed that in order to be one, an individual ought to have one.” Her personality is the first thing critics point to: “The force of Jenny Diski’s personality,” reads a typically admiring review from The Guardian, “the penetration of her mind, are as vivid as anything in contemporary journalism.” This isn’t wrong, but a better word than force might be “presence”: Diski inhabits her subjects, and her personality resides within her prose style.

“Ice maiden,” as she puts it above, might be one way to describe that personality (at certain moments, anyway). Critics typically point out her wryness, her immunity to cant, her inability to flinch. But she could also be enchanting. This is a passage of hers that never escapes my mind:

“The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one that opens to enough depth to allow you to walk in and close the door behind you. No one does close the door — it would be weird — but the perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful. It’s fully stocked with more than one of everything and plenty to spare. Sundries. In bulk. A dozen of; assorted; multi-buys; bumper bundles.

Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets. Boxes of carbon paper. (Children, you interleave a crispy dark-blue onion skin between each sheet of paper, you align them bottom edge and long side, tapping the long and short sides sharply together on the surface of your desk, and if you type sharply you can get as many as six or eight copies, each slightly fainter than the one before.) Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of.

Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.”

It comes from a review of Nikil Saval’s book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, published in July 2014, shortly before Diski’s cancer diagnosis. This prose poem — a lyrical litany of nouns, a child’s reverie channeled by the writer the child became — is the third paragraph of a 4,700-word review (two more paragraphs follow in the same vein before the book reviewing commences). It’s tangential to the task at hand — inquiry into the modern phenomenon of office work, evaluation of the volume at hand — but it marks the piece with Diski’s particular magic and serves as her dream porthole from herself into her subject. Being a freelancer, she was an outsider to offices, but she could find a way into almost any subject, near (knitting, moviegoing, shoes) or far (tabloids, Tories, Jeffrey Dahmer) from her own life. It’s also proof that Diski was one of those writers whose brilliance never faded as she got older.

I went to work at the LRB in 2011, and Diski was one of the reasons why I wanted to work there. One of the best things about working as an editor is that you get to read great writers’ stuff before the rest of the world does. The arrival of a Diski piece was always a holy day at the office, if anything on Little Russell Street could be called sacred. I tried to put my writing under her influence.

There’s a story in The Vanishing Princess that seems to me a blueprint for much that came after. “Bath Time” tells the life of a woman, Meg, through her 18-year quest for “the perfect bath,” daylong, without interruptions, at the constant correct temperature. As a child she fears water, floods, drowning. Her mother runs a bath with disinfectant, the pipes clang, scarcity and the meter dictate a single bath per week. Her student digs come with a cast-iron bath (“too big and slippery”) and unreliable hot water. She becomes a teacher and passes through several “only gradually improving” bathrooms until she tries bathing on acid:

“Waterfalls poured on her upside-down head, tiny drops of wet light, fragmenting into colours of minute and jewelled brilliance so that her saturated hair twinkled messages like psychedelic stars in a multi-stranded universe. The feel of foaming shampoo squeezing through her fingers was indescribable, unearthly. When she rubbed her hair dry, the colours that had sparkled in the droplets of water jiggled inside her head as if her brain were a kaleidoscope, and the smooth wet strands were a beaded curtain that swished aside and let in shafts of light like a Cubist painting. All in all, a thoroughly excellent experience, and although she never washed her hair on acid again, the memory remained.”

This passage creeps very close to hallucinogen kitsch without quite crossing the line or mocking itself. Most of all the bath sounds like fun. But it isn’t the perfect bath. The next one Meg shares with a junkie husband, and she sits on the edge of the tub watching him shoot up. She leaves him, and marries a conventional man who always interrupts her baths by telling her about his day. In their half-refinished derelict flat, they make love on the doorless bathroom’s floor to stay out of view of their infant child. “Neither of them could say, ‘I want a door on the bathroom,” because it was obvious that it would be tantamount to saying, “I want a divorce.” They divorce, and the perfect bath eludes Meg until her daughter leaves home, her lovers are estranged, and she acquires “a flat in need of total redecoration” and then puts all her extra money into redoing the bath. It’s finished in time for Christmas: “You only had to know what it was you really wanted.”

There are two more stories as superb as “Strictempo” and “Bath Time” in The Vanishing Princess. “Housewife” is about a woman in Kent’s affair with a professor with whom she trades daily erotic correspondence and who comes around once a week for an afternoon of love-making. The letters sampled at length are hot stuff, but to quote from them would be to sensationalize a story whose core is the psychological outlook of a cheating lover toward her own spouse and the spouse of her lover.

“Leaper” is a story about suicide and chance-encounter sex. “I’m thrilled. It astonishes me. I’m bowled over with admiration,” says the narrator, of a woman who’s thrown herself fatally under a Tube train. “At the certainty that’s been acted on … I like a person who knows what they want and leaves no room for indecision or an accident of salvation.” The stranger she’s talking to, a woman in sunglasses with “a quality of utter detachment,” asks, “But what if it were a whim?” And soon the two women are in bed together. Something goes wrong when the stranger asks the narrator about her writing and whether she can read it and might be of some help. “You have to do it alone, or it’s not yours,” the narrator tells her, and then something much worse transpires. These are quiet stories with high-voltage wiring about the concealment and disclosure of secrets.

The stakes are lower in five stories to do with family life, iffy marriages, parenthood, and teaching. Something about the husbands, children, students, and strangers in this book makes you want them to get off the stage and exit the story so that you’ll be back inside the heroines’ heads. A third strain of stories (besides the great and the all right) consists of three modernized fairy tales. Two tell of princesses alone in towers (they seem to like it that way, shades of their author) and another replays the story of Rumpelstiltskin from the point of view of the miller’s daughter turned queen. She perceives the absurdity of fairy-tale logic she’s trapped within, tricks the imp, the king, and her father, gets her way with everything, and has a good laugh about it too.

It’s hard for me to imagine a reader exposed to Jenny Diski’s writing who wouldn’t be hooked. However difficult her life may have been, she isn’t a difficult writer. And though her example is likely to inspire or mortify other writers, neither is she a writer’s writer. Her prose conveys the illusion of a spontaneous monologue, a mind mainlined onto the page. Such vivid illusions are always hard-won, the result of hours of solitary toil. There’s something of an illusion, too, about her self-exposure. In the essay, largely about Madonna, that gave its title to her first nonfiction collection, called Dont, Diski warned that most writers who risked self-revelation only demonstrated that there was nothing much there worth looking at. She preferred “the fabrication and self-concealment of fiction, where bad judgment and lack of self-knowledge have somewhere to hide.” All of the selves she put on the page were fictions, even when the label on the book jacket said otherwise. Her life was material. She was her writing, the sum of it a masterpiece.

The Unending, Undying Pleasures of Jenny Diski