It is a matter of historical fact that, for some inexplicable reason, the Nobel Prize winning writer Doris Lessing took in a 15 year old girl named Jenny Diski, a girl who until she stepped onto the doorstep was unknown to her. She had, perhaps, a vague understanding of the girl’s background: a troubled family – bouncing from one bad parent to the other – time spent in a mental institution, a wilfulness in attitude, unwillingness to comply with authority and limited success with schooling. This limited information she’d learned from her son, Peter, who for a time had been in school with Diski. They were not friends. Perhaps these were all characteristics Lessing felt appealing – Lessing preferred the ‘radical’ side of the tracks – perhaps she thought she could deal with anything, but whatever the reason she decided it would be a good idea to offer Diski a home, and she did. Diski, for equally inexplicable reasons – knowing little about Lessing beyond her status as a writer – accepted the invitation. And so the two women found themselves locked in a relationship that would last to their deaths.
The most recent of these deaths was Diski’s, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014 and, in spite of the cliché (which troubled her endlessly) she wrote something which was not quite a cancer diary (because that would be too tawdry) but more like a memoir, and in the memoir she talks about dying, she talks about cancer and alongside this she unpacks her relationship with Lessing and holds it up to some scrutiny. This memoir is called In Gratitude, and it was published just before her death in April 2016. As a great fan of Jenny Diski (Trying to Keep Still is one of my favourite books) and in honour of her memory, I had to read it. I also have more than a passing interest in Lessing, and a copy of The Memoirs of a Survivor sitting on my shelf unread; so it seemed an opportune time to read both books. Because as Diski explains in In Gratitude:
“’Emily’s you, of course,’ Doris told me, handing me the final draft manuscript of The Memoirs of a Survivor in 1973. She always let me know when I appeared in her books, or when she used something I’d told her about, events from my past or present.”
Aside from the un-named narrator (which we can, I think, safely assume represents Lessing), the main character in The Memoirs of a Survivor is Emily a young girl who is deposited on the narrator’s doorstep, unbidden, after some sort of crisis or social upheaval which brings around massive social change. And the girl is Diski, or Lessing’s impressions of Diski, wrapped up in a fictionalised world. In Gratitude was written after Lessing’s death in 2013 so there is no prospect of a response from Lessing; neither, it seems, was Diski able (or, perhaps, willing) to respond to Lessing’s shaping of her in Memoirs. Read together the two books give a fascinating insight into the relationship between the two women – its origins as inexplicable as the bringing together of Emily and the narrator in Lessing’s novel – taking the form of a strange, oblique conversation. A talking at each other, not to each other. Or perhaps a talking out. Their relationship was difficult, and perhaps in the end talking out was the only thing to do.
The Memoirs of a Survivor was written by Lessing some years after Diski had moved out (escaped / been kicked out, depending on point of view) and it is possibly best described as a post-apocalyptic story though there is no overt apocalypse and the nature of whatever the social disorder is isn’t made clear. The narrator is a woman living by herself in this post-apocalyptic world, living in her own apartment by herself. Then one day a man arrives and leaves a girl, Emily, with her. There is no reason given, and no disagreement from the narrator either. She simply accepts the girl as her responsibility. Yet from the beginning their relationship is polarised and fraught, as she describes here:
“We talked. Or rather, we offered each other little remarks, both waiting for that switch to be turned somewhere which would make our being together easier. While she sat there silent her brooding dark gaze, her mouth set with its definite possibilities of humour, her air of patient thoughtful attention made her seem someone I could like very much. But then, just as I was sure she was about to respond in kind to my attempts, my feeling of pleasure in her potentialities, there would come to life in her the vivacious, self-presenting little madam – the old fashioned word was right for her: there was something old-fashioned in her image of herself. Or perhaps it was someone else’s idea of her? “
Immediately there is a sense of hopefulness coupled with a harshness, a criticism. She was someone she ‘could like’ if only she wasn’t such a madam! The sense of frustration is there immediately. Whilst the narrator accepts Emily and Emily settles into her home, there is never a point where the two women become comfortable or accepting of each other. What follows is both an exploration of Emily in this new environment, an environment the narrator seems to be ill-equipped for, and an exploration of Emily. This occurs in two ways. Firstly there is the intense observation, the skewering of Emily’s character by the narrator. She watches,; Emily herself is a subject for observation and judgement, unable to speak for herself. Then there is a strange device in which the narrator comes to ‘understand’ something of Emily’s background, what has made her the way she is. For some reason our narrator has a strange wall through which, if the conditions are right, she can see through to another place. And in that place she sees Emily. Emily and her unkind mother, her awkward and uncaring family. Through this device some of the judgement on the part of the narrator is quelled, but it is a cold quelling coming from distance rather than interaction. It does, perhaps, mirror the reality of Diski’s memories of her early time at Doris’s house, as she describes here:
“At Doris’s house, I’d creep down from my top-floor room, past her closed door on the middle floor, to the kitchen for something to eat (did I eat too much?) or another coffee, knowing that no matter how carefully I avoided a creaking stair, or returned the cheese to the fridge, wrapped so it wasn’t obvious that I’d eaten any of it, she would know I was there in the house. It wasn’t just a sense of discomfort at being an interloper, I wanted to be invisible, not to be thought about on my own account. The idea I had was not to be a felt presence, to be a ghost, not to exist except for myself, until some signal said that Doris was ready to acknowledge me, and then I had to act my presence, shape up and be a good guest, however that was.”
Diski describes that early time at Lessing’s house in rawer, and more compassionate detail. There’s a sense that she is mystified by Lessing’s generosity, the random act of kindness, and yet similarly mystified by Lessing’s apparent distance and seeming lack of emotional preparedness for what Diski’s presence in her home might bring. Lessing is not the classic compassionate heroine here; she is cold, distant, pragmatic and logical. Calculating, in some respects. On the one hand, Diski describes Lessing taking early and practical steps to ensure she is in possession of birth control (being 15 and not sexually active) and yet responds with livid anger (coolly, and in writing) when Diski expresses her fears as to what would happen to her if Lessing decided it wasn’t working out, accusing the girl of ‘emotional blackmail’. And yet Diski admits that the accusation might have been true, yet this kind of behaviour was what she had become used to: her mother’s violent and emotional outbursts, her father’s suave persuasiveness. How did Diski feel about this time? Conflicted, as you might imagine and as she explains here:
“There was, she said, no need for gratitude, that was silly. She offered the civilised justification: people had helped her at different difficult periods and one day I might be in a position to help someone else. I saw the mutuality of that and I hope I have in some ways, but it’s never consciously been as a return payment to Doris. My need to express gratitude, the insufficiency I felt, was never assuaged by the long view. Gratitude was half of what I felt. The other half was fury and resentment, a leftover from all the chaos before, which in one way or another my parents were incapable of resolving. But also there was a substitute amount of anger at having to be grateful, the gratitude ever increasing, the bill never settled, and made more enraging by Doris’s insistence that I wasn’t to feel it. Also anger at the discomfort I felt trying to live invisibly in an unfamiliar house with someone I didn’t know, at having to relax when I couldn’t, at having to be at home when I wasn’t.”
Did Lessing recognise this conflict in the young Diski? Yes she did, but recognising it didn’t make Lessing any more equipped to deal with it or any more sympathetic. Instead she observes with knowing judgement, the behaviour, to her, obvious and unnecessary. And yet she does not excuse her own inability to deal with it and she attempts, in her own way, to understand it. From Memoirs:
“I did not ask. I never, not once, asked her a question. And she did not volunteer information. Meanwhile my heart ached for her, recognising her manner for what it was; and, at the same time, while I was really quite soft and ridiculous with pity for her, I was in a frenzy of irritation, because of my inability ever, even for a moment, to get behind the guard she had set up. There she was, the solemn, serious little girl, in her good little girl’s dress, showing every mark of the solitary child, all self-consciousness and observation, and then off she’d go, chattering and rattling, being ‘amusing’, offering me little skills as a return for – but what? I did not feel myself to be so formidable. I almost felt myself not to exist, in my own right. I was a continuation, for her, of parents, or a parent, a guardian, foster-parents. And when we left here, presumably I would hand her over to someone else? The man who had given her into my care would come to take her back? Her parents would arrive? Otherwise, what was I going to do with her?”
This is, perhaps, the honesty in Lessing coming out. If she has skewering judgement it is directed towards herself as much as Emily/Diski, it’s just that Emily/Diski is the subject here and the narrator character is observed only through her judgement and her actions. And in this Lessing shows how she, the narrator, failed through her passivity (though I doubt Diski thought Lessing passive), through her inability to face up to the situation, her inability to see, despite her oppressive observation, what was going on. As she describes here:
“She returned to a nest she had made for herself on the floor, of fur rugs and fur cushions. The room smelled like a den from the furs, but sniffing, trying it out, I realised that otherwise the air was fresh and sharp and that I was breathing in great gasps. Emily made a place for me in the rugs, and I sat and covered myself. It was very cold: no heating here. We sat quietly together – breathing.
She said: ‘Now that the air outside has become impossible to breathe, I spend as much time as I can in here.’
And I understood it was true: this was a moment when someone said something which crystallised into fact intimations only partly grasped that had been pointing towards an obvious conclusion…in this case, it was that the air we breathed had indeed become hard on our lungs, had been getting fouler and thicker for a long time.”
Is this Lessing admitting that Emily/Diski moving away from her was the right course of action? That her own failure to act arose from an inability (or deliberate blindness) to recognise that the air had become stale, unbreathable? The more I read Memoirs, along with the insights that Diski gave into her own perception of their years together, the more it felt like a plea. I wonder if Lessing wanted Diski to read it and see in there not just an analysis of Diski’s behaviour, the version of herself that Lessing saw, but a vulnerability in Lessing herself. A portrayal of a woman who failed to act, who thought she could handle it and instead just sat back and watched it all happen. A women who was frail and flawed in her own way, not least of which was her inability to spot her own failures, to see the things she couldn’t see. The narrator is passive, she waits and watches. Emily, however, interacts with the world, frustrating as she finds it. She tries to be a part of something. In this the narrator comes to admire Emily, through it is, you feel, always a grudging admiration. As she describes here:
“I was seeing a mature woman, a woman who has had her fill of everything, but is still being asked from, demanded of, persuaded into giving: such a woman is generous indeed, her coffers and wells are always full and being given out. She loves – oh yes, but somewhere in her is a deadly weariness. She has known it all, and doesn’t want any more – but what can she do? She knows herself – the eyes of men and boys say so – as a source – if she is not this, then she is nothing. So she still thinks she has not shed that delusion. She gives. She gives. But with this weariness held in check and concealed…”
Oh the conflict. It runs through Memoirs like blood through the veins of the story. There is always this desire for peace, for quiet, for a meeting of minds and acceptance, and perhaps that existed some of the time. That the narrator/Lessing understands the source of Emily/Diski’s behaviour is always there, but the fact that logical understanding doesn’t breed empathy is also there too. However the narrator tries (and it’s not apparent that she tries that hard, although she does actively try to see through ‘the wall’ which is her means of knowing the girl’s horrible upbringing) she cannot get past her aversion to something in the girl. As she describes here:
“The point was that there wasn’t anybody who came near her, into her line of sight, who was not experienced by her as a threat. This was how her experience, whatever that had been, had ‘set’ her. I found I was trying to put myself in her place, tried to be her, to understand how it was that people must pass and repass sharply outlined by her need to criticise – to defend; and found I was thinking that this was only what everyone did, what I did, but there was something in her which enlarged the tendency, had set it forth, exaggerated.”
In the end she simply lives with it, and perhaps that is how the two women got along eventually. And in the end Memoirs is a fiction, however much it is also an attempt by Lessing to make sense of that time and of her relationship with Diski. If, however, that’s what it was it didn’t succeed. And this is where In Gratitude adds another dimension. Memoirs may be Doris Lessing telling it as she saw it, but Diski reminds us that it is only ever one side of the story:
“Memoirs of a Survivor was published eleven years after I began to live with Doris. She gave me a copy of the novel, as she did every one she wrote. It was inscribed ‘To Jenny love Doris 25/11/74’. It made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which has itself been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.
The other me I recall at that time is the me of my own feelings and behaviour, which seemed always at odds or out of true with Doris’s analysis. The recollection of how I felt and behaved can’t be taken as ‘truer’ than Doris’s fictionalised me, even if I recognise what was missing in Doris’s version of Emily. As she was described, Emily only got to express herself through the narrator’s insights into her psyche. It was as if Doris didn’t want to know, or it wasn’t useful to her story to give Emily a voice or fears of her own. The narrator watches and analyses Emily’s every move and thought, and while I recognised myself in those descriptions, I also remembered being quite opaque to her, simply because my recollection is of an interiority of my own. I put the two views together – fictionalised Emily, remembered Jenny – but they never fitted.”
Through Memoirs we see Jenny Diski the character, but through In Gratitude we can see Jenny Diski the woman and Doris Lessing the woman too. She wasn’t just a prize winning fiction writer, but also a flawed human being who perhaps had stronger relationships with her characters that the people around her.
Taken separately these are both wonderful books. In Gratitude, I think, is a wonderful exploration of what it means to be a human being: flawed, frail, determined to be unique and yet fitting into a mould someone else’s mind has made for you. Diski explores this through her experiences with cancer and dying – a ‘journey’ (though she would hate the term) which defines your experience before you’ve even experienced it. But she also explores it through her narrative; her real life story with Doris Lessing, the writer who tried to fix her in a novel (or two, or three), who tried to fix her quite literally. The Memoirs of a Survivor is a wonderfully written story of two women thrust together in inexplicable and difficult circumstances, trying to make it work and failing. Yet taken together both books are elevated, it is revelatory and beautiful and sad. All the things they didn’t, or couldn’t say to each other are there on the page. And huddled in between the frustration, the anger and the disappointment is love. It wasn’t, in the end, gratitude which tied them together. Doris Lessing may not have been Jenny Diski’s mother, yet their relationship reminds me of mine with my own mother – a woman who is wonderful in her own right but so different to me that we are sometimes like alien beings – it is one part love and one part frustration and yet I couldn’t be without her. And perhaps what Diski says about her own reading of Memoirs is true, that she recognised and didn’t recognise herself in it; but perhaps, had she still been alive to read it, Lessing would say the same thing too about how Diski presents her in In Gratitude. It is a wonder and a privilege to read these two women, both fierce and intelligent and articulate, skewering each other and yet loving each other too – not a perfect love, not the usual cliched version of it, but a more honest version – and knowing that, somehow, it’s okay that their relationship wasn’t perfect. Because relationships aren’t. They are often hard, frustrating and annoying. But they both valued the other, even if they couldn’t say it, and in the end I think they were better together than apart. Whether they’d agree with that statement…well, I guess I’ll never really know.
In Gratitude is published by Bloomsbury
The Memoirs of a Survivor is published by Harper Collins