Tag Archives: Jenny Diski

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing. (13)

I came to know Jenny Diski through the London Review of Books, in which her ‘cancer diaries’ appeared. I followed her as she published 17 articles, from September 2014 until earlier this year and admired the vividness and honesty of her writing.

276 In Grat

Here is a taste of her approach and style from the opening paragraph:

Diagnosis

The future flashed before my eyes in all its preordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of your pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises. (1)

Rejection of Metaphors of fighting cancer

Her writing appealed to me because, in her first article, I read this statement.

One thing I state as soon as we are out of the door: ‘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.’ I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity in the midst, and will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality. (10)

Glynis in Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, makes a similar comment. The metaphor of fighting can blame the loser for losing – you didn’t fight hard enough! In the case of Glynis, she was fighting the US health insurance system, which decided that the rarity of her cancer made her uneconomic to research or treat.

‘Cancer Diaries’

276 J Diski

And despite the ‘preordained banality’ and the rejection of the metaphor of fighting cancer, Jenny Diski decided to write about her illness.

I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too. (11)

Reading the cancer diaries

And so over the next months I read the diaries as they appeared in the LRB, and marvelled at the quality of the prose, how Jenny Diski used her skills to examine the experience of treatment and facing terminal illness. Of course I admired her bravery, but was mostly absorbed in her writing because it was taking me into an experience with which I had only a small amount of familiarity: the best kind of writing.

I also enjoyed her humour, not so much the graveyard kind as of a good companion who finds humour and humanity, life, even in cancer treatment. The ‘Onc Doc’ is an example. So is the description of the radiotherapy procedures. And when the articles were collected and put together in a book, published more or less as she died in April, I bought the book and read it all again.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

And Doris Lessing came into the book a great deal. Jenny Diski had a very troubled adolescence, her mother and father seem to have been unable to parent her. After experiences in psychiatric wards and in care, she spent some time at St Christopher’s School, where Doris’s son Peter met her. Doris Lessing offered to take her into her home in London. It was a decisive change in her life, even if it was not altogether successful, not the end of Jenny Diski’s troubled youth.

I must admit that my admiration for Doris Lessing has somewhat reduced as a result of this account. But the gratitude of the title is in part for the generosity of the older woman. How it corresponds with the cancer diary aspect of this book is not clear to me. But it was fascinating. A unique story retold.

276 Doris Lessing

And …

Since I first read her articles a friend has also been diagnosed with, treated for and very recently died of cancer. I look back at the opening paragraph of In Gratitude. I too found the banality, embarrassment and weariness of cancer treatment and death. And everything that happened, everything that was felt, including the surprises, was lived again by another set of people.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury 250 pp.

Jenny Diski wrote many novels including:

Nothing Natural (1986)

Apology for the Woman Writing (2008)

… and non-fiction:

Skating to Antarctica (1997)

The Sixties (2009)

What I don’t know about Animals (2010)

 

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