When you are an author there are certain expectations of you, you’re meant to be slightly wacky, a little off kilter, even just a bit mad; what you are not meant to be is ordinary, and definitely never banal!
Jenny Diski lived a life that fitted with those preconceptions perfectly well and in her final memoir Jenny Diski – In Gratitude she delves into that life in a book that surprises, shocks and inspires in bucket loads.
After her parents decided they could no longer cope with the wayward daughter their catastrophic attempts at parenting had produced; Jenny states that she had been sexually assaulted by her mother, expelled at age 14 from school and taken an overdose of her mother’s Nembutal before being admitted to a psychiatric ward for four months, she received a letter from Dorothy Lessing offering to take her in. This came about after Lessing’s son who was in the same classes as Jenny had been suggested the child needed rescuing and Lessing did just that, asking for nothing more than Jenny stay out of trouble and not disturb her when she was writing. Jenny of course, did just that and after bouts of emotional blackmail, tantrums and the finale, a self defenestration to avoid talking to Lessing and her friends at age 19 Jenny moved out.
Fast forward and Jenny is herself a published author, happy with her lot, successful and comfortable and then the bombshell; cancer. Upon hearing the diagnosis of Lung cancer combined with pulmonary fibrosis (a double death sentence in Jenny’s own words) she reacted not with shock or grief but with embarrassment. She was a writer, how could she die from such a banal disease? This disease “so known in all its cultural forms” this wasn’t in the plans.
Upon reaching home and discussing her diagnosis with her partner Ian Patterson Jenny says she told him “Well, I suppose I’m going to write a cancer diary, another fucking cancer diary.” and of course, as an author, what else was she to do? But then what could she write that hadn’t already been written? After all, cancer has been, forgive the terminology, written to death. The only thing worse than writing about her disease was not writing about it; and she just couldn’t bring herself to do that.
Beginning as a monthly column in London Review of Books, Jenny’s account of life with cancer soon evolved and with the inevitability of her future stirring up her past the diary of her illness morphed into a reminiscence of her unconventional childhood and of course her life with Dorothy Lessing. Resulting in a surprisingly graphic memoir of Jenny’s life; from her dysfunctional youth, her life with a Nobel prize winning author and onto her diagnosis and living with terminal cancer.
What started out as just another cancer diary has ended up being so much more and is well worth a read.