Tag Archives: London Review of Books

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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Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Why is this book so popular? And what has it to say about older women? The judges of the Costa First Novel Award in 2014 said of Elizabeth is Missing

This outstanding debut novel grabbed us from the very first page – once you start reading you won’t be able to stop. Not only is it gripping, but it shows incredible flair and unusual skill. A very special book.

151 E missiing cover 3It’s doing really well in the best seller charts: #9 in the Guardian Bookshop list and #6 in the London Review of Books list. 17,443 copies sold to date and #3 in overall paperback fiction chart.

It’s included in the list for the Richard and Judy WH Smith Book Club and the Radio 2 Book Club.

Congratulations to Emma Healey.

(This is the 12th in the series of Older Women in Fiction reviews that I post every two months. For the full list see here.)

The Older Woman

Maud is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. She is the narrator, which is an ambitious aspect of the novel: the ultimate unreliable narrator? At the start of the novel she lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer, Carla.

She [Carla] picks up the carers’ folder, nodding at me, keeping eye contact until I nod back. I feel like I’m at school. There was something in my head a moment ago, a story, but I’ve lost the thread of it now. Once upon a time, is that how it started? Once upon a time, in a deep, dark forest, there lived an old, old woman named Maud. I can’t think what the next bit should be. Something about waiting for her daughter to come and visit, perhaps. It’s a shame I don’t live in a nice little cottage in a dark forest, I could just fancy that. And my granddaughter might bring me food in a basket. (3-4)

The forgetfulness is evident from the first chapter when she buys yet more tinned peaches to cover her memory lapse in the local shop. Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She moves to live with Helen. A strategy to cope with her growing confusing used by Maud is to write herself notes. However, these accumulate and she is unable to make much sense of them.

The thing is to be systematic, try to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. but I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered. I’ve phoned and there’s no answer. I haven’t seen her. I think. She hasn’t been here and I haven’t been there. What next? I suppose I should go to the house. Search for clues. And whatever I find I will write it down. I must put pens in my handbag now. The thing is to be systematic. I’ve written that down too. (22)

The dominant thought in Maud’s head is her friend Elizabeth. She repeatedly tells her daughter, ‘Elizabeth is missing’.

We also come to see Maud as a young girl, through her memories (more reliable) and of the tragedy in her teenage years when her sister Sukey disappeared. This second disappearance is Maud’s concern and shapes the novel’s narrative.

Maud is an interesting character, therefore: a forgetful old woman but also a lively teenager.

The Story

The title suggests that the mystery to be solved is the disappearance of Maud’s friend Elizabeth. But it becomes apparent that she is still bothered by the unanswered question of what happened to her sister. Was she murdered by Frank, her spiv husband? Or did she disappear to escape some problem? And why has half of her compact case turned up in Elizabeth’s garden after all these years?

151 E missing cover 1Maud can remember all the clues she uncovered when she searched for her missing sister. Eventually both mysteries are more or less resolved, but not before Maud has got into trouble for her inappropriate behaviour, especially towards Elizabeth’s son. It is revealed that she has been told several times that her friend Elizabeth had a stroke and is in hospital, and that she has even been to visit her.

The early part of the novel is concerned to establish Maud’s limitations. I found that it took some time to move further into the story and for the twin problems of the two missing women to emerge. In some ways this reconstructs Maud’s understanding of events, fragmentary, disconnected, illogical, always just out of sight. The first person narrative carries this well.

What we find

We get a good look at the importance of memory in managing everyday life, in learning, how change affects people, and the experience of dementia. It also reveals the generosity of Helen, and of her daughter Kate who treats Maud with respect. Some of the muddles are amusing, and reveal that dealing with Maud can be frustrating while other responses are abusive and abrupt.

Brain picture via Wikimedia. This illustration is from "The Home and School Reference Work, Volume I" by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. The book was published in 1917 by The Home and School Education Society. This illustration of the parts of the Brain can be found on page 368. The parts are A. Cerebrum; B. Corpus Callosum; C: Medulla Oblongata; D. Arbor-Vitae; E: Cerebellum, F: Pons Varolii

Brain picture via Wikimedia. This illustration is from “The Home and School Reference Work, Volume I” by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. The book was published in 1917 by The Home and School Education Society.
This illustration of the parts of the Brain can be found on page 368. The parts are A. Cerebrum; B. Corpus Callosum; C: Medulla Oblongata; D. Arbor-Vitae; E: Cerebellum, F: Pons Varolii

Despite losing her memory and becoming increasingly confused, Maud is not a figure of pity. Rather we admire her determination to get to the bottom of both mysteries and to deal with her difficulties with determination and good spirit. But it is in the way she behaves that she implicitly claims the respect that is due, and the dignity of her age.

The purpose of fiction is to take us into new worlds and Emma Healey has done this. We hope for more books from Emma Healey.

More (some links)

Annethology reviewed a number of novels related to dementia in one post: Literary Dementia.

Emma Healey on the Alzheimer’s Research UK blog

Simon Savidge on Shiny New Books.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

Have you read this book? What was your view?

 

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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (again)

It is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth, today, 9th August 2014. Yes, another centenary! To celebrate this amazing woman’s life I am re-posting this review – first posted in February in my series exploring older women in fiction.

116 TJ with Moomin 1956Tove Jansson’s writing will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction. She created the Moomins in 1945. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family for children. She was also an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book.

The Summer Book has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972. It emerged as the most popular fiction title in ten years of sales at the London Review Bookshop in 2013. I came across it as a recommendation in a Mslexia diary and borrowed it from the library. I have since bought two copies: one for my mother and one to keep.

80 Summer Bk coverWhile The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. There was an island, and a house and a little girl called Sophia (a niece not a grandchild) who has now grown up. Tove Jansson spent five months every summer with her ‘long-term companion’ Tuulikki Pietila on an even more remote island from 1964 until 1991.

How does The Summer Book fit with the series of older women in fiction? The main characters are a grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. Their shared summer life is revealed through a series of episodes. These illuminate a vivid relationship between the generations. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.

Sophia and her grandmother, like any friends, dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, comfort, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. Both have tantrums and sulks, and fears and regrets. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.

This is no sweet, passive grandmother but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself including her physicality. The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, ”I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)

When they have retrieved the dentures the grandmother leads the way to a forbidden ravine. She tells Sophie what it feels like to dive.

“You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown and the water’s clear, lighter towards the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.” (p24)

This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. She has weaknesses and sometimes a short temper. She is playful and mostly responsible. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility.

This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie. Of all the older women considered in the novels in this series (about older women) she is the one I most want to be like.

One of the most poignant episodes relates to Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent. In the night she creeps back to her grandmother, and the two get talking about sleeping rough.

“All I said was that when you are as old as I am, there are lots of things you can’t do any more …”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through. I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and it’s been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling that everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

Sophia helps her remember what it was like to sleep in the tent and this enables the child to return to the tent feeling safe. And the grandmother remembers better. They both fall asleep. (p93-4)

The episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.

116ToveJanssonSignature

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Here’s a link to a BBC piece by Mark Bosworth, Tove Jansson: Love, war and the Moomins, looking at her life as writer and artist.

Have you read this novel? Did you react as I have?

Older Women in Fiction: The next book in the series will be Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. It will be in my next post.

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Mind the gap!

Does this happen to you? I finish a novel feeling satisfied. If the novel is good I can enjoy the feeling of a resolution or conclusion. But if I haven’t really enjoyed it then I am pleased to have got to the end. And then I frequently find myself reluctant to start a new book, even one I want to read or must read or that has been in my tbr pile for months. I don’t want to loose the sensation of being in the mode of reader of the previous book. Does that happen to you?

86 Mind the Gap

I have four strategies for dealing with this.

Strategy #1 Short stories

Short stories often work because they pull me in quickly so that my reluctance is swiftly overcome. At the moment I have two volumes that are working in this way for me:

86 sh st

Dear Life by Alice Munro – the queen of short stories.

Grimm Tales for Old and Young by Philip Pullman. These are short, often familiar and quickly pull you into the tale. ‘There was once a fisherman who …’ ‘A beautiful young girl was imprisoned in a tower …’ that kind of thing.

 

Strategy #2 Novellas

I pick up one of Peirene Press’s novellas and know that I will soon move into some very sharp experiences. The quality of the writing is guaranteed, for the Press specialises in translated novellas by European writers of note. Excellent translations too.

86 Portrait

My most recent that I read was Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch).

A pregnant young German woman, (we never know her name) walks through Rome in January 1943. Her journey takes two hours, 114 pages and only one sentence. Everywhere there are signs of war going badly: shortages, threat of bombs, and the presence of the German army. Her husband has been sent to the North African front. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she lives: people are forced into separation from those they love, people are in mortal danger, and living with extreme privation, and her Lutheran beliefs are tested by Catholicism and anti-Semitic ideologies.

And currently in my bag for company on journeys is another novella from Peirene Press, this one French and starting with a bus journey and an atmosphere of dread: Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter). Those of us who live in Devon, beyond Dawlish, must be prepared for many long bus and train journeys while they repair the seawall and track, and so journeys, like the reading gaps, need good books.

Strategy #3 Literary Reviews

I subscribe to two journals, both of which alert me to books I do and don’t want to read: London Review of Books and Literary Review. I also always have several back copies of the Guardian Saturday Review waiting to be combed through. After reading a few recommendations I am usually ready to start on my next book.

86 periodicals

Strategy #4 Start a new book anyway!

Sometimes the necessity of getting through a book – for the reading group, for a review, for a library due date – means I must just dive in. Usually that works too.

 

Do you have the gap sensation? What do you do? Any more suggestions?

 

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