Kate Womersley

The death of the author

Jenny Diski, now terminally ill with cancer, longs ‘to die easily’ — in contrast to her former complicated life, vividly portrayed in her challenging memoir

The ‘journey’ — at least the one played out in public — begins with an announcement that you are incurable. Patient waiting follows, described in monthly essays written for a respected publication. Jenny Diski (non-small cell adenocarcinoma, London Review of Books) calls this personally singular but culturally familiar experience the race from ‘the Big C to the Big D’. Surely the hope is not to reach the end in the fastest time. But if you take too long, your audience’s sympathy might tinge with suspicion, as Clive James (B-cell lymphocytic leukemia, the Guardian) recently described, now a survivor of several years.

Claiming a title for your cancer memoir has also become competitive. Oliver Sacks (metastasised ocular melanoma, New York Times) chose Gratitude for the beautiful and moving volume released after he died last August. Diski’s In Gratitude concedes that Sacks got there first, but she has no intention to follow the genre passively, nor recount stoic tales of something ‘learned or earned’. She disturbs the space in her title, daring to bring up her ingratitude too.

The ‘great slog of getting on with cancer’ is the starting point from which Diski reflects on a lifetime of incident and inspiration, stripped of smoothed clichés and what ‘the Poet’ (Diski’s partner, Ian Patterson) would call ‘whimsical dishonesty’. ‘Negativity is my inclination,’ Diski writes, ‘whether biochemical and/or environmentally produced,’ a disposition goaded on by ‘chemo-brain’. When that ‘liquidised metal’ is in your blood, she says, ‘Schindler’s lift, the world’s slowest elevator’ en route to the oncology waiting room in Addenbrooke’s, feels like a personal insult, and the fishless aquarium once you get there strikes a depressing note, its imagined inhabitants presumably long dead.

Diski knows she has much to be thankful for, particularly her two saviours: Doris Lessing and the NHS.

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