Obituary: Jenny Diski
Prolific author of novels and reviews who survived a difficult childhood and delighted in breaking taboos
Published 01/05/2016 | 02:30
Jenny Diski, who died of cancer on Thursday aged 68, survived a bleak childhood and miserable youth to become one of the most inventive, original and disturbing writers of her generation, and a prolific author of novels, short stories, reviews, essays, travelogues and memoirs.
She described herself as "contrary-minded", delighted in breaking taboos and never recognised any boundaries to her imagination. When her first novel Nothing Natural, about a sado-masochistic sexual affair, was published in 1986, the poet Anthony Thwaite called it "the most revolting book I've ever read" and she was banned from the Islington feminist bookshop, Sisterwrite, on account of her heroine's predilection for being abused and beaten by a balding old sadist who turns up with a whip in a plastic bag. Yet its frankness and fearlessness, together with its powerful atmosphere of suspense, won her favourable reviews from many critics.
Of her blackly humorous Like Mother (1988), in which Diski used the disturbing conceit of a baby born without a brain, a child its mother christens Nony, short for "Nonentity", one reviewer confessed that after reading it, he had gone to bed "had nightmares, woke up, threw up, and have not been able to touch the book since".
Oedipal threesomes cropped up regularly, too. In Only Human (2000), God gets involved in a love triangle with Abraham and Sarah, while a reviewer in The Times suggested that its sequel, After These Things (2004), could be "God's first contender for the Bad Sex Award", with its torrid description of the nuptials between Jacob and Leah. "I wanted to retrieve the Bible from stupidity," Diski explained in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, "to take it back as an essentially human story."
Jenny Diski was often asked whether her novels were autobiographical - which they were in the sense that her central characters are often in abusive relationships and have difficulties with love and trust. Rather perversely, she saved her genuine memoirs for books that were ostensibly travelogues, Skating to Antarctica (1997) and the award-winning Stranger on a Train (2002), in which her travels provided a framework for vivid reminiscences about her experiences of rape, drugs and breakdowns, her alienation from her parents, her stints in "the loony bin", and her life-long feelings of isolation.
"What I experience with most people is my estrangement from them, the distance of mutually unique separation that words or touch never quite bridge," she wrote.
"Unlike cats, people interfere with my apprehension of reality, they muddy how I can know myself, confuse my understanding of how I am, which is centred around the notion that solitude is a state of perfection."
When Jenny Diski is at her "visceral best", one critic observed, "the reader can only wonder 'why isn't she screaming?' "
She was born Jennifer Simmonds on July 8, 1947, in London to parents who were children of East End Jews who had emigrated from Russia and Poland. Both had been married before and both had attempted suicide.
"The will to live was not strong in my family," she recalled.
Brought up in a flat on Tottenham Court Road, Jenny had all the material luxuries a child could want, but her parents quarrelled violently and sexually abused their daughter.
Her father, a professional conman and prolific adulterer, abandoned her and her mother several times before finally disappearing for good. The first time he left, Jenny was six and her mother had a nervous breakdown so severe that Jenny had to go into foster care for a while until her father came back.
After he left for the final time, she recalled catching sight of him at Tottenham Court Road tube station, "and my mother chased him with the knife she kept in her handbag expressly for the purpose of killing him should they ever meet by chance. He outran her."
Her mother drifted into psychosis, and when they were no longer able to pay the bills the bailiffs came calling (Jenny was instructed to go barefoot about the flat, "in case the downstairs neighbours guessed we were carpetless"). She tracked down her father, who found her a job in a grocers, then in a shoe shop, and for a time she yo-yoed between her parents.
"The only way we got out of it was by me freaking out," she recalled later. Social services eventually paid for her to go to St Christopher, in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, a progressive boarding school from which she was soon expelled for sniffing ether stolen from the chemistry lab.
Aged 14, she was raped by a stranger who had lured her into a recording studio in Notting Hill. She ended up with her mother in a bedsit in Hove, where, after three days, she attempted suicide and was sent to a psychiatric hospital.
As the authorities pondered what to do with her, salvation came in the form of the novelist Doris Lessing, whose son Peter had been a friend of hers at school, and who offered her a room in her house in Camden.
For the next four years Doris Lessing became, in effect, her adoptive mother, although by Jenny Diski's account the relationship was a difficult one.
In coming to Britain from Southern Rhodesia in 1949, the future Nobel Prize-winning novelist had abandoned two of her own children and in her last memoir, In Gratitude, published last week, Jenny Diski described her as "the least motherly, least warm person I've ever known". When Jenny summoned up the courage to ask her: "Do you like me?" Doris Lessing accused her of emotional blackmail. "We never liked each other, really, from the word go,'' Diski recalled.
Before Lessing's death in 2013, the two writers reached an agreement not to discuss each other publicly.
Nonetheless, living in her house in Camden, Jenny found herself in the company of writers such as Alan Sillitoe, Naomi Mitchison, Ted Hughes, Arnold Wesker, Robert Graves and Christopher Logue, and claimed that listening to the sound of Doris Lessing's typing had given her an "implacable understanding of what it is to be a writer".
Diski's father died suddenly when she was 18, and she recalled that the next day her mother turned up at Doris Lessing's house "ranting that he was faking it to get out of paying her alimony. I couldn't bear to listen to her, so I went to Camden library. She followed, screaming hysterically. It was the last time I saw her."
The arrangement with the Lessings came to an end soon afterwards when Jenny jumped out of a bedroom window to avoid speaking to Lessing and her friends. She moved into a squat, though Doris Lessing continued to support her. For the next few years, she recalled, "I did psychiatric hospitals rather than university and tried to commit suicide off and on".
And, as she recalled in an article in the London Review of Books, "We smoked hash all day and into the night, injected methedrine, which was wonderful until you started to come down and discovered a side of depression darker than you'd ever dreamed of."
But in her early 20s a survival instinct kicked in: "I thought I could at least pretend to be an ordinary person, so I became a teacher."
After training alongside Ken Livingstone, she worked in a Hackney comprehensive and in 1976 married Roger Diski (his real name was Marks, but they opted to call themselves Diski), whom she had met when he was working on a magazine called Children's Rights and invited her to write an article.
They had a daughter and together they set up a free school in Camden for children who were getting into trouble on the streets. The marriage did not last.
After her first book, other novels followed in quick succession, including Rainforest (1987), Then Again (1990), Happily Ever After (1991), Monkey's Uncle (1994) and The Dream Mistress (1996).
She also started writing for the London Review of Books, becoming one of its star reviewers. Don't, a collection of her LRB essays, was published by Granta in 1998. Her last novel, Apology for the Woman Writing, was published in 2008.
In 1998 she met Ian Patterson, a Cambridge don and poet who became her partner, and she subsequently moved to Cambridge to be closer to him.
Initially she lived in the house across the street, but she eventually took the plunge and crossed the road, explaining that her cats had been getting confused.
In July 2014 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and given two or three years to live. She went on to write a regular column in the LRB about her diagnosis and treatment, also describing the experience in her last memoir, In Gratitude. An enthusiastic Twitter user, she gave her support to the junior doctors' strike in one of her last tweets.
Ian Patterson survives her with her daughter.