- - Monday, June 13, 2016



By Jenny Diski

Bloomsbury, $26, 250 pages

The British writer Jenny Diski, who died at age 68 in April, was somewhat of an expert at writing a book about two very different subjects. She writes at the beginning of this searing, no-prisoners-taken memoir of the cancer that would kill her and her relationship with Doris Lessing who fostered and mentored her as a teen: “[M]y non-fiction so called travel book ‘Skating to Antarctica’ concerned a voyage I took around the Antarctic Peninsula and the story of my rather brief, rackety relationship with my mother. ‘You know,’ I’d say gaily to people who asked what it was about. ‘Icebergs, mothers. That sort of thing.’ “

The manner of Ms. Diski’s style and expression alerts the reader immediately to the extraordinary person — and writer behind them. Her bravery shines through, but also the unsparing attitude to herself and others: “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, winning, or bearing. I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity.”

Although she is appalled at the idea of another cancer diary, in her characteristic laconic fashion, after a few verbal howls, she simply states: “So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.”

Only the most stony-hearted of readers could fail to admire her courage as she honestly and without self-pity tells her tale of woe.

Her cancer diagnosis is only the latest setback in the life of one who has had way more than her share of adversity. To say her childhood was dysfunctional seems woefully inadequate, including as it does a pair of impossible, narcissistically dramatic parents, sexual abuse (including at the hands of her mother), rape, drug abuse, spells in psychiatric hospitals and other horrors. It was from this maelstrom that Doris Lessing, at the suggestion of her son Peter, who was a fellow pupil during one of Ms. Diski’s respites at a “progressive” boarding school, took the 15-year-old into her home.

Ms. Diski realizes that this is an incredibly generous gesture and that Ms. Lessing followed through with it even when it became apparent that her ward would be with her full-time and not just during school holidays. She acknowledges that she provided all manner of practical help ranging from pedagogical to medical/psychiatric, fed her well and generally treated her as part of the family. She got to meet famous writers whose works she had only read or seen performed and hear a lot of literary talk and gossip. This should have been a dream after so much nightmare, but it was anything but.

The trouble was that although the house was warm, thanks to central heating of which Ms. Lessing was very proud — a rarity in early 1960s London, purchased with the profits from her novel “The Golden Notebook” — the lady of the house was cold. All the many duties and even kindnesses carried out were without the slightest vestige of affection; indeed they alternated with outbursts of anger, withering contempt and threats of being cast out, as eventually happened. The relationship between the two women continued until Ms. Lessing’s death in 2013, but it didn’t get any easier.

Despite her gratitude, Ms. Diski paints a devastating portrait of an absolutely impossible, by turns pleasant then amazingly unpleasant woman, one that will be familiar to anyone who encountered her, including myself. Although mercifully, my bruising exposure to her was limited to a two-hour lunch.

Ms. Lessing was notorious for having abandoned her young children, John and Jean Wisdom, when she left Southern Rhodesia to seek fame and fortune in London, carrying the manuscript of her first novel “The Grass is Singing.” The young Wisdoms were luckier than their younger sibling Peter Lessing, (whose father, Doris‘ second husband, she’d divorced but whose name she kept), whom she took with her:

“At Doris’s funeral, Jean (John having died of a heart attack) stood and spoke of being glad that Doris had left her and let her (Jean) have a life of her own. It was something that Peter never had. Peter had no life of his own, ever. Peter’s existence was the saddest and emptiest I can imagine a man who from nineteen had never worked or had a proper job, no real relationships, sexual or otherwise, who had barely gone outside for the last half of his life, who lived alone with his mother, lay on his bed when he wasn’t watching television in the afternoon and evening and eventually became so gross, in the sense of fat and uncouth, that very few people could put up with it.”

Jenny Diski may have suffered at Doris Lessing’s hands, but she escaped and lived a full if turbulent life. Her picture of Peter Lessing, with details too disgusting to print here, and his decades-long dance-of-death with his mother, which ended in their actual demises only weeks apart, is truly shocking. Ms. Diski can grant some measure of forgiveness and understanding toward what Ms. Lessing did to the child she fostered: she cannot do the same for the wreck she made of her son.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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