She would protest or maybe just roll her eyes. But a year after her death at age 68 from cancer, the British writer Jenny Diski seems more Jewish than she did during her lifetime.
Much in her prolific oeuvre—18 books, an LRB column and many occasional pieces—reads Sontagian, by which I mean attached to a certain kind of assimilated twentieth century Jewish female intellectual cool, an avuncular contrarian ferocity. If you’re not predisposed, it might tax you, especially if you want a more definitive point of view, linear narrative, or a happy ending. (Full disclosure: when she reviewed my third book, The Steal, for The New Yorker, she wrote mostly about her shoplifting).
I also consider Jewish her feminism, her ability to take risks and her indifference to being liked. Also her rabbinical strategy of putting contradictory facts next to each other but refraining from commenting on them, which depending on your politics can be irritating. The best example is when she writes in 2013 that her anti-Zionism exists alongside of the two types of Antisemitism she has encountered— the genteel variety of the British literary left and the more brutish type she experienced growing up as the daughter of East End first generation immigrant Jews in the 1940’s.
Then there is how she was (and is) reviewed. There is a lot of critical irritation in a way that is familiar to me from the press on American Jewish feminists during the Second Wave. Words and phrases used to describe her work, such as “prickly” or “narcissistic” or even “spectacularly original” strike me as a kind of sexism and maybe worse.
“I start with me, and often enough end with me,” is a sentence from her last book, In Gratitude (2016). Reviewers repeated it, often disapprovingly. Did anyone chastise Roth for his narcissism?
I see the defensive-aggressive stance of a twentieth century Jewish woman writer who, waiting for the inquisition, is trying to stand. Or as a Jewish feminist for whom writing “I” needed to be done over and over to exist on the page.
Although she was not religious, she did not renounce Jewish subjects. In 2004, in an interview in this magazine about her novels Only Human and After These Things, she described re-envisioning Isaac’s binding as “a symbol of the way people are damaged when they’re brought into the world by fallible parents, by parents who suffer trauma.”
And Diski once wrote that she “relish[ed]” the diaspora. Like any writer, she was in exile. But it had particular meaning for a writer whose biography had been one.
In Gratitude is, among other things, the story of how Doris Lessing, a writer who left two of her children in Rhodesia, took Diski in as a teenager. In one Biblical scene, Lessing accuses her of “emotional blackmail” when Diski wonders anxiously if she liked her.
Still, Diski sees Lessing into a heroine who left her country and her offspring for her writing. She also sees her as a mother, although that is a word about which Diski has as much ambivalence as the word Jewish.
She was often interrogating her relationship with her Jewishness, or turning it into the kind of performative joke that Jewish male writers were always doing. In this magazine in 2015, she asked: “Does being Jewish go beyond hankering for chicken soup when I’m ill?”
For her the answer was yes and no and maybe. She traced her ambivalence back to her family. “Disturbed by my parents, who made a human nonsense of everything, I had the growing up, before I got under weight.”
She mentioned the Jewish family in glances, sitting shiva, a “Humbertian rabbi” and, of course, her mother. “The Jewish stereotype gone psychotic,” she writes with characteristic understatement. The more you read about her biography, the more impressive her act of keeping literarily kosher (separating the Jewish writer from the Jewish woman) seems.
Born in 1947, she grew up amid chaos, poverty, mental illness, and sexual violence. Her father was a con man. At around age 12, after her parents’ divorce, she lived with her mother (who had a nervous breakdown) long enough for her to molest her. She fled. She lived in a foster home, tried to kill herself. She was institutionalized several times.
Through some miracle, sent to a Quaker school, she met Peter Lessing, Doris Lessing’s son, who convinced his mother to take her in. Buoyed by the rarified London world of letters, she became a writer. But not before Lessing made her a character, fictionalizing her in several books.
The Vanishing Princess was originally published in 1995 in the UK. It is her first collection of short stories and it is being put out for the first time in America by Ecco Press.
The collection appears seven years after the death of her mother (her father died in 1966). Diski mostly refrains from writing about her mother or Jews. The stories are in general more circumspect and more coiled than the memoirs and travelogues from the 1990s. Yet at a moment of feminist setbacks, it gives readers plenty of heroines who refuse to comply with expectations that we still seem to insist on in women.
Diski has written that being rescued by Lessing seemed like a fairy tale. But the two riffs on fairy tales in this book, with their apocalyptic engineering, suggest as much feminist revisions of Old Testament stories.
The best stories are about modern day princesses who do whatever they want. In “Bath Time,” a riff on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Meg devotes herself to trying to build the perfect bathtub. “How many people had lived their lives up to the point Meg had reached and could say they were about to fulfill their grand ambition?”
The Vanishing Princess, originally published at a moment when Diski was pivoting from fiction to non-fiction, is much less dark than her early novels, written in the 1980s. Nothing Natural (1986), an unapologetic story of a sadomasochistic relationship, irritated reviewers who took it as a critique of feminism. Like Mother (1988) is narrated by a baby without a brain. Her third novel includes a scene where a woman sexually tortures a man.
By contrast, The Vanishing Princess experiments with the elliptical style and subjects that would become her trademark in her 1990s non-fiction. It anticipates the skidding through time and space in her memoir of the loony bin/travelogue, Skating to Antarctica.
“The Housewife,” about a woman and her demon lover, examines the wayward sexuality of the human species, especially the political incorrectness of desire, for women. But Susan is more appealing, less the victim than the heroine of Nothing Natural. And “The Housewife” is striking for Diski’s grotesque comic touches and hairpin curves. It starts out with a witches’ incantation, moves to a gift that might be from a stalker-ish… except that it (a liver in a box) also suggests Portnoy. Ultimately, it’s not even clear that her lover is real.
The best stories reject neat conclusions. In “Short Circuit,” Lillian is a woman who is happy single despite other people’s endeavors to fix her. When she gets into a relationship “only Charlie’s infidelity could make her happy.”
“Strictempo” may be Diski’s first attempt at projecting her own story into fiction. In this version, she tells of her stint in the asylum onto Hannah, a young woman who loves to dance. That story ends with Diski casting the bin as refuge: “she didn’t mind being in the bin at all.”
But the story I found most moving was “Leaper,” in which an unnamed heroine goes home with a woman whose lover has just killed herself. But after they have sex, she recoils when that woman wants her to share her process.
“‘I don’t want to talk about my work’, I heard myself saying. ‘It’s not something anyone else can be involved in. You have to do it alone or it’s not yours.’
And this also was something I knew bone deep but had forgotten in the surprise of sex and death and comfort. There is no alternative to the panic and the fear, because it is the panic and the fear—and the isolation—that are the writing. The desperation created the necessity that made me write. I fed on it.”
I know it is wrong to conflate a character and an author. But this desire for solitude and pain strikes me as Diskian, emerging out of her fragmented identity as a Jewish Englishwoman.
In a 1993 review of a book about Jewish feminists, she seemed taken with the idea that Jewish women susceptible to Jewish sorrows went into battle as a rejection of their mothers. That same year she wrote, “ONE thing about being Jewish is we never forget there’s a down side.”
Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.