BOOK CLUB: In Gratitude

CHRISTINE EMMETT on Jenny Diski’s extraordinary memoir, which charts the final months of life with cancer.

In Gratitude

I recently heard of someone just outside my social circle who was bullshitting their cancer diagnosis. No one was really clear on what type of cancer he had, but all were clear that it was very serious and that much attention and care, along with furtive glances for text-updates, were required. It was unsettling to find out that it had all been concocted. Even more so because he had kept a blog in which he documented his ostensible battle with cancer. Hearing about this a few weeks ago, I couldn’t quite figure out how all the sympathetic and supportive do-gooders around him had missed the absence of oncology clinics, physical stress and exorbitant financial demands which cancer imposes. But then, perhaps, it also occurs to me that the narrative spin had value beyond the immediate desire to manipulate one’s friends.

There is something sacrosanct about the cancer/death narrative. Even this year, another “exceptional” “life-affirming” and “affecting” cancer biography has topped bestseller lists. That said, neither the bestseller nor the fictitious blog is the subject of this particular review (If this is your kind of thing, though, you can watch the book’s overwrought trailer here; the blog, though, has unfortunately been taken down). But what do these narratives, which we clearly believe to the point of exclusion, contribute to our lives? And why do their subjects continue to write them?

Death (à la Heidegger) is one angle through which to consider the impact of the cancer biography; that living “towards death” may lend authenticity to one’s life, as the phenomenologist claims. Nonetheless, the age-old tendency towards deathbed pronouncements remains the preserve of old guys spewing platitudes about the sanctity of life: magnanimous gestures, the raising and dropping of hands, some forgiveness and much condescension (do see Mr Hitchen’s attempt to subvert this in Mortality [2012], though his ‘intervention’ remains fairly grandiose and histrionic). From an alternative perspective, Siddartha Mukherjee in his masterful book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer suggests that cancer may itself stands as the ultimate figuration of death – the disease that functions as an evasive aporia of medical science, felling and disfiguring people for centuries without any formidable cure in sight.

Otherwise, as the fictitious blog seems to attest, is it not also possible that cancer biographies play into a desire for controlled pity and tragedy? In The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), DG Compton presents us with a dystopian future where the bewildered and dying Katherine Mortenhoe is hounded by a reality TV show. You see, in the world of Compton’s novel, medicine has progressed so far that barely anyone dies anymore (except for old people, but then no one seems to care about them), so a reality TV show allows the “pain-starved” public a glimpse into “real life” – an endlessly contradictory commodity. Within this context, though, the camera’s mediation is an absolute necessity – no one really wants to confront the physical messiness of disease and death; the same viewers who will experience these “orgies of compassion”, are those who must be kept at a distance: “It was only face to face that they feared her. It was only face to face that, given a leader, they’d have torn her limb from limb.”

I’m harping on, but it’s into this questionable morass that I’ve chosen Jenny Diski’s memoir/cancer-diary, In Gratitude, as my book of the month. On the most basic level, I’ve chosen it because my partner died of cancer last year, and around the time that his diagnosis became terrifying, Diski went public about hers and started writing monthly instalments on her experiences in the London Review of Books (LRB). This meant that I could read Diski’s ascerbic narration of chemotherapy and radiation (“weekends off, just like a regular job”), concurrent to attending its gruesome effects on my partner. I read her instalments as though they were an act of love, and when she died earlier this year I experienced my loss twice over.

The LRB instalments would later be collected and published as part of the main text of Diski’s book – what she describes as a “cancer memoir”. In keeping with the genre, the first essay/chapter describes Diski receiving her diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer; “So – we’d better get cooking the meth,” she tells her partner. And so Diski starts her treatment – a mixture of chemotherapy and radiation, exploring the muggy space of memory and uncertainty (how long do I have left?) and the last-ditch world of palliative oncology. If anything, rather than focusing on grander aspects of her life, Diski mines the banalities, petty feelings and generally unpleasant matters of her existence; the parts that have been excluded by the standard cancer biography.

On the one hand, to die pushing seventy years of age is not great tragedy, even if my id would like to know what the fuck age has got to do with being rubbed out. Even so, such reasonableness doesn’t take account of the kind of thoughts that run swiftly through my mind. Two to three years. Will the battery on the TV remote run out first? How many inches will the weeping birch grow, the one planted by the Poet for my sixtieth birthday (soppy old radical versifier)?

Alongside this account, she also details her relationship with Nobel prize-winning author Doris Lessing. Lessing took Diski in when she was 15. This act, itself remarkable, seems especially discordant when considered in the context of Lessing’s having left two of her own children in Zimbabwe when she moved to London some two decades before. Diski, in considering this contradiction, highlights both Lessing’s “immense personal bravery” as well as “her ruthlessness in pursuit of her cause,” that is, her writing  – a decision that affects all her children: those abandoned in Zimbabwe, the single child (Peter) taken with to London, and, later, the freshy adopted Diski. Diski may have been ‘rescued’ from her histrionic mother and con-artist father, but the adoption also introduced a profoundly ambiguous and embattled relationship between the two writers; Diski was considered a “waif” on Lessing’s doorstep, with her subsequent behaviour read as a lack of gratitude.

Funnily enough, a lack of conventional gratitude and communal feeling is exactly what has drawn me to Diski’s writing. It’s difficult to think of anyone else who could visit South Africa in the early 2000s, prior to the growing scepticism about “the miracle of truth and reconciliation”, and flatly state that her time in Cape Town was like “being in a wealthy nowhere-in-particular.” (Her essay is aptly titled, “On not liking South Africa”.)

But as she states “I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script.” So given the now well-trodden path of the death/cancer narrative, Diski attempts to write against by emphasizing ‘pettiness’ and peculiarity of mind. For instance, in a few paragraphs she considers her prospective lifeline in terms of who will die first: her or Clive James? The winner, I can now attest, is unquestionably Clive James, who soldiers on, despite his leukaemia (he’s pointed out that he’s “highly embarrassed” to still be alive); while Diski died in April this year.

And this leads me to the creaky title of Diski’s memoir: In Gratitude which recalls the standard magnanimity of cancer memoirs, but also suggests its homophonic pair – ingratitude – a play on the interchangeability of the two feelings.

No one is actively ungrateful to anyone; it’s something of an “Ugly Feeling” in that it reflects a weak intentionality when compared with more directed emotions, like anger. Ingratitude therefore reflects more, perhaps, on the expectations of others – a deficiency of appreciation registered through the subject’s visual or verbal expression. In this way it is a feeling that is diagnosed, rather than experienced. But in this sense gratitude, itself, seems to come into conflict with individuality. And what makes Diski’s writing so piercing is her profound need to assert this individuality, throughout her illness, but also against her family, the beatniks she gets hammered with during the 70s and, most significantly, Doris Lessing.

Thus, if there is a struggle in this book, it is for Diski to retain her own aesthetic in the face of the “preordained banality” of cancer. And indeed, as banality has been read since Hannah Arendt, sickness and death are realms which easily lead to de-individualisation and dehumanisation. To see this in the context of cancer – the concept of palliative care (which we associate with Hospice) only came into being around 1950’s. The scepticism with which it was met meant that only in the 1980s did it come to Southern Africa; prior to which the end of your life was barely life at all. In so much is sickness still a realm apart, as Susan Sontag notes in her Illness as Metaphor (1978), that one is either construed as a suffering martyr, edified by one’s illness, or horrifying, decrepit and pitiable (poor Katherine Mortenhoe). These figurations collapse individuality; it is hard to imagine the desires or fears of the sick and dying, no less that these subjects may feel peevish or even lustful (in the interest of these issues, see Von Trier’s film, Breaking the Waves [1996], or HBO’s series, Getting On [2013]).

Diski’s light-handed humour is gradually weighed down towards the end of her book. The pace of the writing slows, and the text loses its breath. A seemingly endless capacity for mirth and irony in the face of death gives way to circumspection and anger, with much of her anger remaining focused on her relationship with Lessing.

At stake is the ambiguity of the relationship, as well as its potentially destructive effect of Lessing’s son, Peter. Peter was, to most observers “the chosen one”, the child who was actually taken to London. In this sense, Diski, upon her adoption became “a cuckoo in Peter’s nest” (even though he had suggested that they take Diski in). “Peter”, Diski notes, “is the great enigma in the story of Doris. He actually is the story of Doris, both in her youth and in her old age. It’s very hard to know how to present the two of them as the years went by, how to describe the dyad they made and which locked them together more and more grotesquely for the rest of both of their lives.”

Peter Lessing died just a few months before Doris – and when he died, by Diski’s account, he died a prisoner without an autonomous existence: agoraphobic, catatonic, empty and “gross”.

When we die, it seems we become public property. Likewise, grief will not necessarily be a question of just deserts. A manipulative and antagonistic colleague is likely to send out emails announcing their great love for the dearly departed; opportunistic acquaintances step in to fulfil societal roles that are meant for the closest of friends. It’s safe to say, that your narrative slips into the hands of others. In this way, we have yet to witness the rumblings and backlash from Diski’s characterisation of Lessing and her son’s relationship. For one thing, Lessing made Diski promise that she would never write about their relationship. But then Lessing had already used Diski as the subject of one of her novels (Memoirs of a Survivor [1974]). And so here, in this memoir, Diski wrestles the towering dame of letters, to retrieve her own narrative through a subjective, and at times fraught and possibly cruel, recasting of Lessing. What begins as the final stand of Lessing’s “waif” ends as a testament to writing against.

In Gratitude is published by Bloomsbury. 


POEM: Masala


My fingers stink for days after
and I dare not touch my face
chillies garlic ginger masala

I sat crosslegged on a mat
in a shady part of the hot yard
with a knife and bowls full of burning

Children came knocking at the door
‘Mommy wants sixpence masala’
tonight’s food will be hot and spicy

It was a girl’s work to learn
the proportions for family potions
boys cleaned gutters and cars

Now I can enjoy the ritual
the cleaning of these fruits
of these bulbs and roots

Today I am making masala
I do not remember a time
when I did not make masala

POEM: The Evil Eye


You cannot compare a place called Benoni
to one named Waterfall.

This is what I learnt when I was six,
as we left the flat, beige tablecloth
of the Rynfield hinterland –
where what the real estate agent grinned was grass
proved instead a Mica mat of woodchips,
biting at my Toughees
the way our maltese poodle Scampie often did –
for a town my waving Zias sighed was “the sticks.”

But our new house by the gorge,
gaping like a fresh cavity in a jaw,
wasn’t snapping or thin,
but green and wet like a Creme Soda float,
or dug and bursting as a zit.
Mom, clutching the cross she intended to affix
in the breakfast nook,
kept repeating that we now had a full one-acre plot.
I did not know what that meant, but I knew it must be a lot.

After a year, defeated by the heat,
Scampie half-darted between monkeys and trees
like it was Athletics Day but he was only going for bronze.
Dad’s work shirts would come home drenched as a dishcloth,
lapping at the day like air rushing to the brain,
like Carlton paper embracing a stain.
“It’s just the moisture in this bloody place!” Mom would say,
“Everything is crying here, don’t think it’s just you, feel the walls!”\

Alone, I ran my fingers, already soiled
by the plants I urged seeds from,
whispering “Look, it also poos!”
along the side of the laundry room.
I wasn’t meant to go near that squat structure
because the neighbours hissed there was an evil eye
painted at the back. I inched out through a gap
that would later lead Scampie free then under a bakkie,
squinting my own fixed gaze to see
the promised sinful iris glaring properly.
Women in Day-Glo takkies jogged past, whistling
“Hi koeks, but where’s your nanny?”

The corner of the wall bore no cornea.
Instead it was plain and shut as a lid.
But when I placed my scrunched fist,
each time a little bigger, against it,
I could feel something there,
see-through but steady, sure
as it dripped.

Finding and losing the self: an interview with Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery tells GARETH LANGDON about the themes of surveillance and identity that swirl around his thrilling new novel, I Am No One.

Flanery Patrick 2015 photo credit Andrew van der Vlies

Sit around any 21st century bar, in any boardroom or coffee house, and the issue of globalisation, our online lives, privacy and the fragmentation of consciousness and self is bound to come up in conversation. Open a newspaper, or online publication, and at least one article that day or week will lament the rise of the internet, the invasions of privacy committed daily by our governments, and the loss of individuality we suffer at the hands of social media. As marketers try and capitalise on a changing world, philosophers continue to fear it but, once in a while, a writer comes along who engages critically with it.

In I Am No One, Patrick Flanery writes of ageing history professor, Jeremy O’Keefe: an American who, after a difficult divorce, expatriated to England and taught in Oxford for some years – long enough to earn a dual citizenship, encounter some strange characters and engage in a romantic relationship. When we first meet him, he is back in the US, teaching and supervising students. The novel opens with a scene that suggests Jeremy is ageing faster than we expected. He has arrived for a meeting with a student, but when she doesn’t arrive, he goes back to check his email and discovers that he had cancelled the appointment a day prior. This complete blank in memory troubles him, and leads him to confide in his young daughter who suggests professional advice and an fMRI. Jeremy is hesitant. His paranoia then begins to grow as a series of mysterious packages arrive at his home. Dropped off anonymously by a bike messenger, each subsequent package reveals more about how much can be known of Jeremy’s private life – from full email records, to browsing history and telephone history. The question is clear – is Jeremy losing his mind, or is he the victim of some ghastly invasion of privacy? Jeremy grapples throughout I Am No One with the various possible explanations for the strange packages, as well as his own uncertainty of his own sanity, personal and national identity, and future as a father and husband or lover.

I had the privilege of exploring these and other themes of writing and the self with the novel’s author when he came to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year.

What strikes the reader with I Am No One is the way in which it is able to fragment and cohere seamlessly, moving across time and in and out of Jeremy’s head smoothly. Flanery suggests this arose from the new approach he took for I Am No One in which he “consciously set out to write in a very different way than the first two (novels)”.

“I decided because I was going to have this single narrator and single point of view that I wanted to do what I could to guard against it becoming too claustrophobic,” he says. “So I decided to borrow the process of an Argentinian writer who I admire whose name is Cesar Aira… he has an idea for a book which he holds in his head and each day he writes forward and he doesn’t go back and re-work until he comes to the end of the composition, and if the story changes over the course of that composition then it changes and he ends up with what he has.”I Am No One

This allows for what Flanery calls a kind of “free association” as he sits down to write, and this lends itself to the kind of novel that I Am No One is – the central character constantly exploring his own consciousness and self as he faces these confusing invasions of his privacy and what appear to be lapses in memory. This technique also drives the plot, allowing for “forward momentum”.

For Flanery though, the real trouble in I Am No One is not the loss of the mind and the free flow of consciousness but rather the loss of the self and the fragmentation of identity in light of our ever dwindling privacy. He relates to me the anecdote that sparked the novel:

“[We] were staying with a friend who was living [in New York] and as we got back to her building, I could see her in the window of her bedroom and I waved from the street but she didn’t see us, and when we went upstairs I said to her ‘You know, I could see you from the street’ and it was the first time she had realised that she was visible in that way. And I began thinking about the way in which New Yorkers are so often kind of living these half public lives but they have to kind of shut off that awareness of the ways in which they are observable in order to maintain a sense of sanity.”

Not long before Flanery began writing the novel, the Snowden revelations had become big news and they remained in the back of his mind throughout the writing. The interplay of his personal experience with global events got him questioning the nature of privacy, and how our being watched affects our identity. With lives lived online in this way – and furthermore in a world that is increasingly globalised – where do we place ourselves; where do we find ourselves? Can we find ourselves at all, or will we live in purgatory as Jeremy feels he has to?

The technology we can now use to increase our reach and social circles seems to excite and terrify us. As our world grows more connected and our reach extends, our localities seem to shrink simultaneously. Flanery notes the “excitement amongst some people about the ways in which technology can be mobilised not just by government but by ordinary citizens to create this world of certain transparency”. However, as we know all too well from recent phone-hacking scandals, and acts of terror, these same technologies can be used to hurt others or protect perpetrators. The trouble is, Flanery notes, that the technologies have become so ubiquitous, that we can’t help but be seduced by them – they are designed to seem as though they should be there and we should not question them – they are extensions of our selves.

Many in the world have responded with a kind of “hyper-nationalism”, which we often read about motivating many acts of terror. Human beings are searching for ways to assert themselves in a world that is fragmented and pays them no heed. There is simultaneously a drive for individuality stoked by social media, and a constant reminder of the insignificance of the single self (or even single nation) in an enormous and globalised world.

Flanery is able to weave all of these themes and debates through the consciousness of Jeremy as he fights to find his own place in his country, his family and even in his own head. This is not a totally foreign struggle to Flanery, noting his own experience living both in Britain and America, and how he is often mistaken for British when he is at home in the U.S. However, he is careful to skirt around the issue of auto-biography, noting instead that he sees “every novel engag(ing) with the process of self-examination”.

The novels are not autobiographical at all, but are rather “always responding in some way to the things that I am thinking,” he says. “Because my thinking is kind of inherently political because of the way I grew up, you know. I see political relationships and the politics of relationships in everyday life, and the kinds of things that can contaminate those.”

I Am No One could be seen – as I think all novels can be – as brief intrusions into the minds of the author. In this way, writers tend to feel the urge to censor themselves at the fear of being exposed or misunderstood. The fear from the first novel, Flanery notes “is a fear with every book you publish… you’re in constant fear of how the people closest to you will respond to it” but that is something that must necessarily be overcome. In this way, we may go so far as to draw a parallel between authorship and our online existence, where censorship is necessary for fear of being “found out”. Jeremy fights this, Flanery is aware of this, and each of us feels this every day as we live out our lives online.

At the end of our conversation, my mind is racing with more and more questions and I want to continue to dig deeper into Flanery’s mind  – but like his privacy, his time is precious and we bid each other a polite farewell.

I am left wondering how I should engage with the conversation on paper, and how it will come to be read. Then I think of how I will be perceived in this feature, and where it could lead – and as these wonders of the internet and writing and my personal investment in any piece of writing (and the inevitable feedback) start to overtake my thinking, I stand up and decide it’s time for some fresh air. Outside, no one will be able to interrupt me. Hopefully.

I Am No One is published by Atlantic Books. The photograph at the top was taken by Andrew van der Vlies.