Jenny Diski turned her pain into rich writing

NEW YORK • Jenny Diski, a British writer who channelled the turmoil of her early years, which included suicide attempts and confinement in mental hospitals, into a stream of richly observed and mordant novels, memoirs and essays, died on Thursday at her home in Cambridge, England. She was 68.

The cause was a lung tumour and pulmonary fibrosis, her agent Peter Straus said.

Diski got off to a late start as a writer. She was almost 40 when she published her first novel, Nothing Natural, about a single mother embroiled in a sadomasochistic relationship that leads to a mental breakdown.

Its steely, unblinking account of sexual degradation and psychic disintegration impressed those who were not appalled by its sexual politics. The Washington Post's review carried the headline A Sad Day For Feminism.

Diski went on to explore madness, depression and isolation in nearly a dozen novels and a series of memoirs; some of them, such as Skating To Antarctica (1997) and Stranger On A Train: Daydreaming And Smoking Around America With Interruptions (2002), masqueraded as travel books.

I believe we have to make sense of the world we live in; we have to know its boundaries, how to control it.

JENNY DISKI, discussing Rainforest, her second novel with The Guardian of London

She contributed more than 100 essays to The London Review of Books. Many were collected in Don't (1998) and A View From The Bed (2003).

"I believe we have to make sense of the world we live in; we have to know its boundaries, how to control it," she told The Guardian of London in 1987, discussing Rainforest, her second novel.

"And when we cannot do this, I believe it leads to chaos, the essence of which is unorganised emptiness, and that is quite terrifying."

Jennifer Jane Simmonds was born on July 8, 1947, in London. Her father was a con man, black marketer and philanderer who deserted the family temporarily when Jenny was six - leading her mother to suffer a mental breakdown - and permanently when she was 11.

She spent time in foster care and in mental hospitals. At 14, she was raped by an American who had lured her into a deserted recording studio.

Shortly after that, she attempted suicide for the first time.

Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prizewinning writer, came to the rescue after Diski was expelled from her boarding school and had taken an overdose of barbiturates, leading to another round of hospitalisation for psychiatric treatment.

Peter Lessing, a classmate, wrote to his mother of Diski's plight. Doris Lessing, who had left two children of her own behind when she moved from what was then Rhodesia, took her into her London home, where she stayed for three years.

The atmosphere was heady and bohemian, the relationship complex. Diski later appeared in fictional form as the sullen, sarcastic Emily Cartwright in Lessing's dystopian novel Memoirs Of A Survivor (1974).

After Diski found out that she had inoperable lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis in the summer of 2014, she started writing a chronicle of her illness and treatment for The London Review.

It also included reflections on her childhood and on her tangled relationship with Lessing.

The memoir, In Gratitude, was published this month in Britain by Bloomsbury and will be released in the United States next month.

In her first posting for The London Review, Diski issued highly characteristic instructions to her husband Ian Patterson on leaving the oncologist's office for the first time.

"Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer," she told him. "Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Jenny Diski turned her pain into rich writing'. Subscribe