A New Diski Fan


Jenny Diski with Doris Lessing, 1963. Photograph via.

From The New Yorker:

What is meant when a person is deemed ahead of her time? It sounds like a fantastic compliment, yet the circumstances under which people hear it, in reference to themselves, are not always so positive. People are often told that they are ahead of their time as a means of ego consolation following the world’s neglect of their work. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor in the late eighteen-hundreds, for instance, tried to convince his co-workers that they should wash their hands between dissecting corpses and delivering babies. His controversial “theory of contagion” won him much hostile disparagement and dishonor, after which he suffered a crippling bout of madness (possibly caused by syphilis) and perished in an asylum more than twenty years before his theory was embraced. Which is to say that, if you have to be deemed “ahead of your time,” perhaps it’s best for it to happen when you are no longer alive to hear it.

Jenny Diski, who died of cancer in 2016, just after the publication of her final book, “In Gratitude” (which was, in part, about dying), was ahead of her time. Also, to clarify, while Diski frequented mental wards and suffered numerous suicide attempts in her youth, she wasn’t professionally discredited during her lifetime, at least no more so than any writer whose work some people loved and others loved less. Nor would it be accurate to call her neglected; in her native U.K., Diski was a prolific novelist, nonfiction writer, and regular contributor The London Review of Books, where “In Gratitude” was first published as a series of essays. Still, I do not think that she’s received her full due. The literary ledger needs balancing; we owe her a debt.

I am not a “longtime Diski fan” but a new one. I am playing catch-up on all that I need not have missed. “Strangers on a Train,” from 2002, juxtaposes memoir and a travelogue of two American cross-country Amtrak journeys. “What I Don’t Know About Animals,” from 2010, is classic Diski in that it unearths the endless questions we might ask, if we were more actively curious, about beings that confront us daily. Diski wrote, in total, five books of nonfiction and ten—ten!— novels. I have read none of these novels. My Diski gateway was her nonfiction, and, when it came to her fiction, I began with her short stories. The stories collected in “The Vanishing Princess,” which was originally published in England, in 1995, and was reissued this month, reveal a writer avidly experimenting with voice and structure and execution. I want to say her stories are “brave,” but that sounds blurby and false; maybe it’s more useful to describe “The Vanishing Princess” as an artist’s sketchbook, a space where play and adventure are privileged over snoozy competence and sheen, a preference that seems in keeping with the authentically renegade life Diski, as a person, led.

“The Debt We Owe to Jenny Diski”, Heidi Julavits, The New Yorker