A casual browse on the Guardian website surprised me with the news of Jenny Diski’s death. I knew she had cancer and I knew it was terminal but there was something about Diski which was indominatable, unbreakable, and somehow it felt that despite the inevitability of the prognosis she would tough it out, complaining and making sarcastic comments all the while, and would be around for a long time. So I was surprised and saddened to hear that she will no longer be around. Jenny Diski moved me as few writers do; she was funny and intelligent, crotchety and unapologetic about her need to sit still and disengagement with the normal trappings of life. Hopefully she’s giving some grief to someone (Doris Lessing, perhaps) in the afterlife. To an extraordinary woman with a remarkable intellect, I raise a glass and will do little else. She would understand.
An old review from my old blog. Read her.
Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski
I had just started my latest attempt at book writing, limiting my reading and blogging to one book a week, when I picked up this book by Jenny Diski on an impulse from the local Oxfam shop. It was only £2.99, which was part of the reason (though Oxfam books are rarely more expensive than that), and another blogger had mentioned Diski positively quite recently which was another piece of the strange puzzle that is my book buying disease. I had also, some time ago, encountered Diski’s name when researching books about the Arctic and had flagged one of her books for future reading (Skating to Antarctica, specifically. Yes, I do know that is quite the other side of the planet). I had no real idea what this book was about, yet when I was mooching about the house feeling a little sorry for myself I picked it up thinking I’d read a few pages to get a feel for it and then next thing you know I’d put all my other books to one side and made this my one book of the week. Or the quarter, at least.
Diski is a travel writer, and this book explores three journeys she undertook: one to New Zealand, one in Somerset and one to Lapland. Yet whilst the structure of the book is created around these journeys, this is very much an exploration of Diski’s desire to keep still. This seems a crazy premise for someone who is a travel writer, though it also seems that becoming a travel writer is something that mystifies Diski and results, largely, from her more pressing inability to say no. What follows is a strange kind of meditation on the idea of stillness, the guilt at not wanting to leave the house (or even her bed necessarily), the social pressure to enjoy activities such as walking or going out in general, the internal and, sometimes, external conflicts that arise and the difficulty in being honest. It is also very amusing, very truth-filled and wry. What Diski does or doesn’t explain about travel is neither here nor there, but her musings are absorbing, like here:
“What people always say about being alone for long periods is some variation on the theme of the immense and unimagined difficulties of having to confront oneself, a concealed self which lurks unnoticed below the requirements of everyday sociability. Coming face to face with yourself, is how they describe it. ‘You really find out who you are’, they say with a look of agonisingly acquired wisdom, implying an inevitable dark night of the soul. What I have discovered during these periods of being alone for as long as possible, is that I am extremely good at passing the time, and taking pleasure in passing the time, reading, idling and pottering, rarely bored, hardly ever restless, sometimes miserable, often dissatisfied with myself and the world, without finding out an iota more than that about who I am, because that is pretty much what I’m like in company too. The agony of solitude passes me by, until, because social guilt and self-analysis are never far away, the lack of agony at being with myself become an agony of lack of self.”
It is a book very heavily seated in introspection, the journeys being as much about Diski’s own response to her environment as the environment itself. Not such much travel writing as a woman writing about herself travelling. And it works. It is insightful and amusing, it is wise, it is challenging in the way watching anyone doing mental gymnastics whilst being rigidly honest can only be. There were times when reading this book that I felt like I was reading my own thoughts expressed more articulately and with greater insight and humility. It had such a familiarity about it, like listening to the rambling of your own thoughts in a dead moment, which was exactly the space I happened to be in at the time of reading it.
For the purists who like a travel writer to write about travel, there is still plenty of travel in this book. But what makes it so interesting is the intensity of reluctance Diski brings to the whole experience “nothing will persuade me that the mere fact of being in a place is enough in itself to justify the effort of getting out of bed to become a tourist, or even a traveller” Diski says, and there is so much truth in that little statement, the reminder that everything we experience is happening exactly where we are right now and we don’t really need to go anywhere to find it, or prove ourselves to anyone. And if this book tells us anything it’s that we can be exactly who we are, without the need to take part or live up to a certain standard. Exactly what I needed to read.
What I didn’t need, however, was the extraordinary list of books she took away with her to Somerset, listed on pages 77 and 78 and from which I have lifted a shortlist of about 5 or 6 I want to read for myself. Including Montaigne, who I think has heavily influenced this book but whom I know too little about to truly appreciate the connection. And I don’t have to either. In fact it is perfectly fine if I never read Montaigne, though I think I will in the end.
I can’t express here how much I enjoyed this book. It was a breath of stale bedroom air, beckoning me to sleep in. It won’t quash my love of travelling, unlike Diski I love walking and experiencing new places. But in many respects she articulated, with great clarity, the way my mind has been turning. It may have been a stroke of serendipity, but I don’t care. I loved it.