Diski (standing) with her rescuer and mentor Doris Lessing in 1963
8 July 1947
|Died||28 April 2016(aged 68)|
|Genre||Autobiography, fiction, non-fiction, screenplay, travel|
Jenny Diski FRSL (née Simmonds; 8 July 1947 – 28 April 2016) was an English writer. Diski had a troubled childhood, but was rescued by the older novelist Doris Lessing; she lived in Lessing's house for four years. Diski was educated at University College London, and worked as a teacher during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Diski was a regular contributor to the London Review of Books; the collections Don't and A View from the Bed include articles and essays written for the publication. She won the 2003 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking around America With Interruptions.
Diski was a troubled teenager from a difficult, fractured home. Her parents were working-class Jewish immigrants to London. Her father, James Simmonds (born Israel Zimmerman), made his living on the black market. Her father deserted the family when Jenny was aged six. This caused her mother, Rene (born Rachel Rayner), to have a nervous breakdown, and Jenny was then put into foster care for a first time. Her father came back, but left forever when she was aged eleven. Diski spent much of her youth as a psychiatric in- or outpatient. At the same time, she immersed herself deeply in the culture of the '60s, from the Aldermaston marches to the Grosvenor Square protests, from drugs to free love, from jazz to acid rock, and a flirtation with the ideas and methods of R. D. Laing. Taken into the London home of a school-friend’s mother, the novelist Doris Lessing, Diski resumed her education; and by the start of the 1970s was training as a teacher, starting the Freightliners free school, and making her first publication.
Over the decades, Diski was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction articles, reviews and books. Many of her early books tackle such troubling if absorbing themes as depression, sado-masochism, and madness. However, some of her later writings, such as Apology for the Woman Writing, strike a more positive note; while her spare, ironic tone, using all the resources of magic realism, provides a unique take on even the most distressing material. Compared at times to her mentor Lessing for their joint interest in the thinking woman, Diski was called a post-postmodern for her abiding distrust of logical systems of thought, whether postmodern or not.
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In The Sixties, Diski described her personal experience as a young woman starting out in life: "I lived in London during that period, regretting the Beats, buying clothes, going to movies, dropping out, reading, taking drugs, spending time in mental hospitals, demonstrating, having sex, teaching." This could be considered a normative 1960s life-style, while her representation of the era as a sort of golden age is not atypical of her generation. However, she also described the darker side of the age, such as its pervasive sexism, institutionalised in the countercultural cult of casual sex, asserting that "On the basis that no means no, I was raped several times by men who arrived in my bed and wouldn't take no for an answer." In the book, Diski returns repeatedly to the question of how far the cult of the self in the permissive society gave rise to 1980s neoliberalism, greed and self-interest. She concludes that, in the words of Charles Shaar Murray, "The line from hippie to yuppie is not nearly as convoluted as people like to believe."
Her 1997 memoir Skating to Antarctica, ostensibly about a journey to see the Antarctic ice, also tells much about Diski's early life. The Kirkus Review comments that "Antarctica is not so much a destination as a symptom in this intense, disturbing memoir of a wickedly unpleasant childhood." Diski likens the bleak whiteness of the icescape to the safety of the unbroken whiteness of the psychiatric hospital of her depressed youth. In her obituary of Diski, Kate Kellaway calls Skating to Antarctica "the most remarkable of her books. It stars her daughter, Chloe, who steers Diski into finding out what became of her mother, with whom relations had been severed for decades. The narrative alternates startlingly between a trip to the frozen south and this search – Diski's reluctant advance towards catharsis."
Her 2010 non-fiction work, What I Don’t Know About Animals, examines the ambiguous status of pet animals in Western society, at once sentimentalised and brutalised, or all too often abandoned. Nicholas Lezard, reviewing the book in The Guardian, admires Diski as "one of the language's great, if under-appreciated, stylists", in this case where "her honest, direct and intelligent prose has produced an honest, direct and intelligent look at relations between ourselves and the animal world."
Diski's final, valedictory book, In Gratitude, was published shortly before her death in 2016. In it, she "elegant[ly]" takes a tour of her life, knowing she was soon to die of an aggressive and inoperable cancer. She rejects the usual "cancer clichés", instead going back to her time with Doris Lessing, meeting other famous literary figures including Robert Graves, Alan Sillitoe, Lindsay Anderson, and R. D. Laing. The Kirkus reviewer sums up the book as "Sometimes rueful, often oblique, but provocative and highly readable."
She married Roger Diski in 1976, and their daughter Chloe was born in 1977; the couple separated in 1981 and divorced. Her later partner until the end of her life, Ian Patterson, known as "the Poet" in Diski's writings, is a translator and director of English Studies at Queens' College, Cambridge.
In June 2014, Diski was told that she had at best another three years to live. In September 2014, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. She died on 28 April 2016.
- 2003 J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography for Stranger on a Train
- 2003 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Stranger on a Train
- Katharine Viner Obituary: Roger Diski, The Guardian, 8 March 2011.
- "Jenny Diski". British Council Literature. British Council. Retrieved 2016-01-26.
- Diski, Skating to Antarctica p. 35
- Kellaway, Kate (28 April 2016). "Jenny Diski obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 April 2016.
- Jenny Diski, The Sixties (2009) p. 23 and p. 31
- Diski, Sixties p. 28 and p. 69
- Diski, Sixties p. 33-44
- Diski, Sixties p. 132
- Diski, Sixties p. 24 and p. 97-8
- Rennisson, Nick (2005). Contemporary British Novelists. Routledge. p. 44.
- Gerd Bayer, in Vanessa Guignery ed., (Re-)mapping London (2007), p. 24 and p. 31
- Diski The Sixties p.7.
- Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat (2007) p. 542
- Diski, The Sixties, p. 59 and p. 61.
- Diski, The Sixties, p. 136.
- Quoted in Diski, The Sixties, p. 135 and compare pp. 87–8.
- "Skating to Antarctica". Kirkus Review. Retrieved 28 April 2016.
- Lezard, Nicholas (24 July 2012). "What I Don't Know About Animals by Jenny Diski – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 April 2016.
- "In Gratitude by Jenny Diski". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
- Steve Crawshaw "Roger Diski: Social entrepreneur who championed sustainable tourism to post-conflict countries", The Independent, 10 March 2011.
- Harvey, Giles (10 June 2015). "Jenny Diski's End Notes". The New York Times.
- Grimes, William (2016-04-28). "Jenny Diski, Author Who Wrote of Madness and Isolation, Dies at 68". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-05-03.
- Diski, Jenny (11 September 2014). "Memoir: A Diagnosis". London Review of Books.
- Flood, Alison "Author Jenny Diski, diagnosed with inoperable cancer, dies aged 68", The Guardian, 28 April 2016.