In Gratitude, by Jenny Diski, Bloomsbury, 250 pp., £14.99, ISBN: 978-1408879900
Doris Lessing taught her to be tough and uncompromising – don’t regret a thing, don’t be embarrassed, don’t get pregnant, don’t feel self-pity, don’t surrender to the sentimental, no need for gratitude, and above all ‑ don’t care what people think about you.
These are the writer’s principles which Jenny Diski learned when she was adopted by the Nobel Prize-winning author at the age of fifteen. They made a pact not to write about each other, a pact which Lessing broke immediately by placing Diski as a waif in her next novel and which Diski now breaks on our behalf by giving us an extraordinary summing up of her relationship with one of the most enigmatic figures of the literary world.
This is not a tribute, nor a piece of thanks for rescuing her at a vulnerable age, but a kind of reckoning in which Diski is perhaps asking the question whether an artist should be a good and moral person. Lessing had, by the time she took Diski into her home in London, already left behind two children in Africa and was, as Diski unflinchingly relates, on the way to destroying the life of her son Peter by incarcerating him in a mother-son relationship from which he would never escape. Lessing even had a connecting door leading to her son’s house: he became totally dependent and had no life of his own. His sad figure is seen in the background on the street in that moment of shock when Doris Lessing is told she has won the Nobel Prize.
It is Diski’s own approaching death which gives her the impetus to go back over this story with such clarity. This is not the final judgement but an attempt to understand lives sacrificed to art. There is a huge sadness: nothing can be done about the past but to try to understand it.
Embarrassment is, strangely, the first thing the sixty-seven -year-old Diski feels in July 2015 when she is told that she has not only terminal lung cancer but pulmonary fibrosis: a double death sentence, with two to three years to live. Embarrassment because it feels so predictable and banal.
Embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness of the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control.
For a writer used to going on the offensive, she now has to devise a strategy for giving in, for managing this inevitable end of life. What can she do but write? She records her last pages, she logs the slow ending and achieves a kind of immortality which is not unlike the Lazarus video made by David Bowie in the last phase of his life, stepping out of the wardrobe to watch himself on his own deathbed, then retreating back into the wardrobe.
She mentions Bowie in this book, not as somebody whose art she admires, but for saying that his biggest regret is not seeing his grandchildren growing up. In a vivid passage, she describes the struggle she had as a young girl trying to work out the question of infinity. She recalls lying in bed in a state of perpetual torment, knowing that the concept of infinity is beyond our understanding. Losing sight of her grandchildren may ultimately have become the painful explanation of that unanswerable question.
When given the prognosis by the oncologist (the “onc doc”), Diski’s instinctive reaction, perhaps a defensive mechanism, is to go for the joke. “We’d better get cooking the meth,” she says to her husband, academic and poet Ian Patterson. Referring to the popular TV series Breaking Bad, her husband, whom she calls the Poet, replies with another quote: “ … this time we quit while the going’s good”. The oncologist and nurse, obviously unaware of the series, look on vacantly as though the couple have lost their senses.
She reflects on how to approach this death sentence. She could sulk to death, she says, adding that she is one of the foremost sulkers on the planet. She could sit in sullen rudeness or in sadistic silence. Or should she try to appear calm in the face of destiny, even cheerful, with people saying she is wonderful? Affirm her atheism? Collapse into religious comfort? Or simply turn her face to the wall and suffer in silence?
She cannot bear the thought of a bucket list, or the idea of lying back to enjoy the morphine. Instead she writes a cancer diary. Her writing was always personal. “I’ve never been apologetic about that, or had a sense that my writing is ‘confessional’. What else am I going to write about, but how I know and don’t know the world?”
Writing in the London Review of Books, she announced her illness and refused all cliches. “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.” And she is appalled at the thought that someone is going to say she is on a journey. “I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.”
Her work has always combined memoir, travelogue and criticism – most notably her relationship with her mother, which she examined boldly in Skating to Antarctica. Her writing is punctuated by frequent and justified rages, given the tough life she has had. “In Gratitude” is a bracing and dispassionate, often humorous chronicle of the final phase of her life.
But there is a bigger role here than merely describing the sensation of approaching death. As she examines this ending of her life “in all its preordained banality”, Diski finds the past looming, in particular the experience of being taken in by Lessing when she was abandoned by her own parents, described as “suicidal hysterics”. Her father was “a con-artist and prolific adulterer”. Her mother kept a knife in her bag so that she could kill her father in case she every came across him. At Tottenham Court Road tube station, he managed to outrun them. Diski was sexually abused by both parents (“There’s nothing wrong,” her mother said. “You’re still my little girl.”). The home was dissolved and the teenage Diski was the principal casualty. Expelled from school, she spent her adolescence in foster care. She was raped by a man who lured her into a recording studio in Notting Hill at the age of fourteen, after which she took an overdose of her mother’s Nembutal, her first attempt at suicide. After spending four months in a psychiatric hospital, it was Lessing who came to the rescue. She had heard about the disturbed young girl from her son Peter, who had been at the same school as her.
This is where Diski’s gifts as a memoirist are at their best, describing the handover, the precise moment of adoption when she stands with her mother outside the door while Lessing stands on the inside holding a cat. The door opens and she hands the cat to Jenny: it’s yours. What was Lessing’s exact role in this remarkable rescue? What are the motives of a writer whose links with reality are blurred by a devotion to her unique fictional settings? What motherhood can she provide when her closest relationship is with her work?
Doris wasn’t my mother. I didn’t meet her until she opened the door of her house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross …
Lessing never formally adopted Diski so the title foster parent didn’t fit. Neither did friend, benefactor, auntie, caretaker or even fairy godmother. Over the years, Lessing becomes “the woman I lived with” or, to make it less open to misinterpretation, “the woman in whose house I live …” Finding a word to describe her own situation was equally hard. Diski was not an orphan – her parents were both alive, so she describes herself more as a waif.
Doris had said clearly and often that I had the freedom of the house. I could eat or drink anything from the fridge and help myself to tea and coffee. I was to treat the place as home. (But hers or mine?) She got up early to work, I’d probably be asleep, but she didn’t like to be interrupted, so I was to ignore her if I met her in the kitchen or on the stairs.
The difficulty for the new young lodger was knowing how to behave in the presence of her benefactor. If the door to Lessing’s bedroom and study was closed, she wasn’t to be bothered.
She’d answer the phone and anything else that came up I should just use my common sense about. But I didn’t think I had any common sense or none that told me when to override the usual rule of silence. Very occasionally a phone call was for me, and Doris would shout up or down from the landing. I’d rush to take it, excruciated at having interrupted her. We might meet over lunch and chat if she wasn’t, you know, thinking, but how could I know? And she’d generally be around in the late afternoon and make supper in the evening. After supper we’d talk or watch some television (The Wednesday Play, That Was The Week That Was, news, documentaries, old movies) and then head off for the night to our rooms. I found myself freezing when I encountered her, as if trying to implode myself, and I couldn’t stop myself saying ‘thank you’ and sometimes ‘thank you very much for having me.’
Diski found herself trying to become smaller and more out of the way. She had been told to do the wash-up and keep her bedroom, which was chaotic, tidy. She was given an allowance and told that gratitude was silly.
She offered a civilised justification: people had helped her at different difficult periods and one day I might be in a position to help someone else. I saw the mutuality of that and I hope I have in some ways, but it’s never consciously been as a return payment to Doris.
Diski’s need to express gratitude was never assuaged; fifty per cent of what she felt, she writes, was fury and resentment, a leftover from the chaos caused by her parents. But there was also substantial anger at having to be grateful, rendered all the more frustrating by Lessing’s insistence that this was something she was not to feel.
Meanwhile the 1960s were in full spate and the ease of access to drugs, and the delusions that went with them, accelerated Diski’s descent into mental illness. The atmosphere in the Lessing household was bohemian and permissive. Lessing got Diski into a new school (she’d been expelled from her last school for stealing ether from the chemistry lab and climbing out a bedroom window to go to a party in the woods) and set up regular sessions in psychoanalysis for her. She became acquainted with the London literary scene and met the people whose work she had read – regular dinners with Alan Sillitoe, Ted Hughes and RD Laing where “people sat around and drank wine and enjoyed themselves and had sex with each other”. She tagged along to the cinema and theatre and listened in on the conversations where everything was talked about, judged and argued over. “Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or a play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art.” Judging from her memoir, this is a piece of wisdom that Diski seems to have taken very firmly on board. Her account of the time she spent in her new home is recorded in a remarkably understated and restrained style; one cannot help thinking that Lessing would have been proud.
But would she? When Diski was thirty she had a nervous breakdown and was visited by Lessing in hospital who said that she should write her own story: “It’s interesting enough, and there are editors who can deal with sorting out your sentences and that kind of thing.” Diski became a fictional subject in Lessing’s work, turning up as a foster daughter in her novel Memoirs of a Survivor. The narrator, obviously Lessing herself, takes in a sullen and acerbic young girl with “a sour little smile, as if she was thinking: I’ve got you, you can’t escape me!”
Given the book to read by Lessing, Diski instantly recognises herself but also remembers how things appeared from her angle. She relates an episode that took place a short time after her arrival when she became withdrawn and sulky and, when asked what was wrong, she asked Lessing did she like her? If not, would she send her away? Lessing walked out of the house in anger and in the morning Diski found a letter in which she was upbraided for her “demanding and threatening behaviour” and accused of emotional blackmail. No reassurance, however, was forthcoming on the question she had asked, not even a benign lie.
This incident happened a few weeks after Sylvia Plath had killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was a very raw subject in the house, much talked about by Lessing’s friends, although Lessing herself had little sympathy for Plath. Perhaps there was something in Plath’s suicide that threw up questions Lessing had been unable to answer in her own life.
Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about.
Lessing then set up an appointment for Diski to see a gynaecologist, who would fit her with a Dutch cap.
I didn’t want to get pregnant did I? And it was really no problem using a cap, providing you took responsibility and never, ever had sex without first putting it in. But I hadn’t got a boyfriend. Well, she didn’t think that state of affairs would last long, and there was no harm in being ready.
But when Diski arrives for her appointment and the gynaecologist asks her age, the reaction is one of outrage.
“What? Fifteen. Fifteen? How dare you come to me asking for contraception! You’re underage. What is that woman doing sending you here? Doesn’t she know it’s against the law to have sex at your age, let alone for me to provide contraception?”
Diski is thrown out of the office and arrives home shaken and expecting the police to arrive at any moment. When told what has happened Lessing clicks her tongue in irritation and says she will find someone else, a more “realistic” gynaecologist prepared to fit a Dutch cap. The following week “an astonishingly large rubber dome” arrives in the post.
It is easy to feel uncomfortable about Lessing’s role acting as carer and adviser to a disturbed young girl. Perhaps she was concerned only by the practical arrangements which suited her work, but there is also the question of her inability to love the refugee she has taken into her life.
Since Lessing’s death in 2013 at the age of ninety-four, Diski has been considering how she might tackle the subject of what she sees as her lack of affection. There is an underlying suggestion that she may have been weighed down with guilt over the two children she left behind in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after her first marriage ended. She had another child, Peter, from a second marriage which also ended in divorce. She moved to London with the two-year-old Peter and the manuscript of her first novel. Lessing was always touchy when asked about what many people saw as the abandonment of her children by arguing that she would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual if she had to spend an endless amount of time with small children.
If there was guilt then why did Lessing not show kindness to Diski? There was altruism, there was charity. But there was no compassion or understanding. Perhaps these are human qualities a writer like Lessing reserved for her writing. Or was she somehow threatened by the clever young woman, refusing even to read any of her protégée’s seventeen books.
The sympathy and anger in Diski’s memoir is for Peter, who lived all his life with his mother and who “essentially turned into the monstrous baby that someone (he or Doris) wanted him to be.
Peter lay in bed all day when he wasn’t watching television. Without a job, he had, “no real relationships, sexual or otherwise …. and eventually became so gross, in the sense of fat and uncouth, that very few people could put up with it.
Of dying, Diski says: “It’s a unique experience. I’ve never done it before and I won’t be doing it again.” She asked the Poet to fulfil just one wish from beyond the grave and that was to be tucked up in a winter-rated duvet. “You know how much I hate being cold, and especially cold and damp.”
The Poet put his foot down because “he hates waste and whimsical dishonesty”.
Then the tears come. Mine. His. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
‘Double or single?’ says the Poet.
Jenny Diski died on April 28th this year. Mary Rose Doorly is a journalist and author.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Catriona Crowe’s essay from 2008 on the eighteenth century memoirist and protégée of Dean Swift Laetitia Pilkington. Here is a short extract:
Swift referred to the Pilkingtons, who were both small in stature, as “a little young poetical parson, who has a littler young poetical wife”, or “mighty Thomas Thumb and Her Serene Highness of Lillyput”. He was genuinely kind to the young couple, helping Matthew with his career as a clegyman and including them in his peculiar dinner parties at the deanery, which always involved contretemps with the servants over the quality of the food or their alleged purloining of beer. He treated Laetitia almost like an intelligent doll, to be played tricks on, pinched, smacked, forced to take her shoes off, quizzed on her knowledge of literature, and expected to listen to him for hours on end. She willingly put up with all of this, rather like a groupie with a rock star, as she was keenly aware of the value of her connection with him in a world where connections led to patronage and wealth. At this point in her life, her literary aspirations did not include her memoirs, but her account of her relationship with Swift later became a major selling point for them.
In 1732, Swift’s patronage procured for Matthew the chaplaincy to the Lord Mayor of London, John Barber, and he decided to go despite Laetitia’s protests that a year’s absence from her and their three children (mentioned almost in passing) would be too hard for her to bear. When she asked to go with him, he responded that he “did not want such an encumbrance as a wife, that he did not intend to pass there for a married man, and that, in short, he could not taste any pleasure where [she] was”. The marriage was obviously in trouble, some of it caused by Matthew’s jealousy of Laetitia’s literary gifts, which had led to a number of people stating that she wrote better than he did. Laetitia finally got to London three months before Matthew’s chaplaincy expired, to find him having an affair with an actress and attempting to pimp his wife to the portrait painter James Worsdale, a transaction which she claims to have resisted.