Here’s one thing I really love about the writer Jenny Diski: She’s funny. In a time in which the syrupy sanctimony of politics and culture forces its participants to gin up some ridiculous proof — Natalie Portman in her exhaustingly pointless Oscar cape — that they, they, care the most about things, reading the British-born Diski is like taking the coldest shower to cleanse yourself of all the sap.
This is not to say that Diski, who died in 2016, is a lightweight. She’s not. She’s a master of the most difficult skill in writing: the build, the crescendo, the ability to make a reader think that an essay is going one place but then goes another, delivering a wallop to the brain. And she does this without using the florid language that so many well-regarded writers employ to appear intellectually advanced while actually obfuscating the vapidity of their ideas. Her writing convinces me.
Diski was born in 1947 and spent her youth in and out of psychiatric hospitals; for a time in her teens she was taken in by Doris Lessing. Unlike the female writers to whom she might be compared (Joan Didion), she was never trying to be cool or profound or photographed smoking beside a car, she genuinely thought everything sucked to begin with and lit her cigarettes in private. She was an active participant in ’60s counterculture, although ultimately critical of its naivete: “It is the nature of youth to play with style in an effort to come to terms with substance,” she writes in her 2009 book The Sixties. “Easy enough, too, to get stuck there.” She claims to have been an apolitical person — “I wasn’t convinced by any of the true and mutually exclusive solutions on offer... I failed to join anything” — but is a rare writer whose politics, in particular her passion for education, were borne out in actionable ways: She was a teacher before she was a writer, and started a free school for dropouts out of her apartment.
Diski is a master of the most difficult skill in writing: the build, the crescendo, the ability to make a reader think that an essay is going one place but then goes another.
The Diski essay I most often recommend — probably the essay I most often recommend in general — was published in the London Review of Books, where Diski was a columnist, in 2009. After the arrest in Switzerland of the director Roman Polanski that year relating to his admitted anal rape of a child 31 years earlier, Diski writes that she “got twitchy” when she heard about the petition started by Bernard-Henri Levy and signed by luminaries from Salman Rushie to Diane von Furstenberg bemoaning that Polanski was “apprehended like a common terrorist” by authorities and should be freed as a matter of “good sense” and “honor.” Diski writes:
Let’s leave aside the matter of the commonness or otherwise of terrorists as opposed to the uniqueness of film-director rapists, and the question of how soundly Polanski sleeps in prison. Leave aside, too, the years-ago argument and the woman’s present wish not to have legal proceedings — those are legal matters... Polanski was finally charged with unlawful sexual intercourse, rather than rape. The lesser charge was offered to him providing he agreed to plead guilty so that the girl would not be required to give evidence in open court. This is the basis on which Whoopi Goldberg insisted, when the news of his arrest broke, that he should be released, because he hadn’t committed ‘rape-rape.’
She goes on to recount her own horrifying, and horrifyingly banal, rape and its aftermath:
I never spoke of it to anyone until much later, and left the whole thing to be something that had happened. I did figure I was somewhat responsible. Indeed, an older, experienced male friend told me only a few years later that it was impossible to rape a woman: if penetration occurred she was willing. I hadn’t told him about my rape, but I wondered if I ought to stop thinking of it as rape, in that case, since I had been penetrated. I’ve changed my mind about that now, although I still don’t think it was the worst experience of my life.
The casual frankness with which Diski writes is striking, and a necessary tonic in a media landscape prone to making everything seem more urgent than it is. Everyday horrors don’t need to be retold in grandiose terms, seething with rage, reaching toward profundity. Rape, after all, is one of the most normal things that can happen to a woman, and that is why it is shocking that it is not talked about more, and darkly humorous that the anal rape of a child was only acknowledged by a bunch of celebrities in defending the rapist because he made some good movies.
This same tone is consistent throughout Diski’s work, in her writing about depression, relationships, travel, and the cancer that killed her when she was 68: What you might think will be profound actually might be ordinary or even underwhelming. But the latter outcomes are perhaps the most instructive, as she writes in her 1997 memoir Skating to Antarctica, “I am not averse to disappointment. It has its own special pleasures. Disappointment is the hidden agenda within fantasy, a nugget for the aficionado who might trick up the bland negativity of the word by sliding alphabetically towards disjunction and disparity.”
I was in London recently, and I thought of Jenny Diski when my friend and I visited the women-only swimming pond in Hampstead Heath. The pond is open year-round; in recent years it has become overrun in the summer months but the winter brings only the most hardcore swimmers — those who are somehow energized, masochistically or not, by the idea of putting their bodies in 40-degree water and doing a few slow laps. I am not one of those people, but my friend is, and I sat shivering on the dock while I watched her descend the ladder into the pond. Her face betrayed the pain the water caused her body, the disbelief that she was doing such a thing, and the hilarity of the very idea of it. It was nothing, and yet it was everything, and it will stay with me for a long time.