CHRISTINE EMMETT on Jenny Diski’s extraordinary memoir, which charts the final months of life with cancer.
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 , 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 , or HBO’s series, Getting On ).
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 ). 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. Read an extract here.