Book Review: In Gratitude
by Jenny Diski
Readers who followed Jenny Diski’s series of autobiographical pieces published in The London Review of Books last year will have not only the rough outline but the full story of this little book, In Gratitude, since the author, who died of lung cancer this year at the age of 68, never had a chance to see the book, much less revise or expand it. These are simply those LRB meditations collected in one volume with a picture of Diski (smoking one of the cigarettes with which she killed herself) on the cover.
And yet, there’s nothing simple about reading In Gratitude. Readers who missed the essays as they were appearing will encounter for the first time their heady and perfectly modulated blend of uncomfortable memoir and lecture-hall mugging, the dry, dyspeptic tone with which Diski recounts both her long quasi-filial friendship with Doris Lessing and her cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s likely that some of those first-time readers will know Diski from one or two of her novels, or else from her popular nonfiction volume Skating to Antarctica, but nothing in those previous works will prepare them for the sheer ungainly cumulative power of this last book, the unsparingly clear-eyed evaluations here of herself as a character in her final story. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so not in charge,” she writes (calling it one of the biggest surprises of being “cancered”):
Everything is presented to me statistically, as probabilities. I can’t find the right questions to break through that, to talk about the cancer that is me and mine, what it is, how it is, how it and I are with each other. Something that pans in on the singularity of the particular cancer I’m hosting.
The most startling thing about In Gratitude, however, is something that will strike those long-time London Review readers much harder than the newcomers: it turns out having read those monthly issues does nothing at all to mitigate the raw emotional reaction to finding the story again in this book. There is still on every page the energy and wryness of Diski’s inimitable voice, still her complete command of the storytelling art, and still, over and over, her own protestations of that command’s inadequacy:
My particular difficulty is that I don’t like writing narrative, the getting on with what happened next of a story that has a middle, an end and a beginning. You may have noticed. Sometimes the need to tell the story, to make sense of a narrative for the reader, feels like one of those devices for rolling up an emptying tooth-paste tube, so all the paste will extrude and there’s no waste.
“I’m much more interested in that closed door keeping people outside and in, separating and including,” she writes, and door is wide open in In Gratitude, pulling readers new and old into a story that’s both captivating and foregone. The author might have made one of her signature quips: “Diski Dies Again!” Everyone who reads this book will wish she were still around to sit back and half-smile at our discomfort.