(Click on a title)

Every Book I Write is a Failed Book (22/12/09)
It isn't good ideas that keep Jenny Diski writing but how to transform them into something new, she tells Rosemary Goring.

A writer's life: Jenny Diski (19/04/2004)
The solitary and uncompromisingly clever novelist tells Helen Brown she is trying to re-trieve the Bible from stupidity.

Making a solo voyage Jenny Diski has used her life on the edges of insanity to great and frightening effect in her novels.
Ajay Close finds her only need now is for a good degree of solitude.

Puffing her way around a continent (01/09/2002)
Mark Sanderson reviews Stranger On A Train by Jenny Diski

Critical perspective
British Council comtemporary writers review

Every book I write is a failed book

It isn't good ideas that keep Jenny Diski writing but how to transform them into something new, she tells Rosemary Goring.

When I suggest that the heroine of Jenny Diski's new novel is insane, or close to it, Diski crows with laughter. It's a smoky cackle, the infectious, mocking, back-row bark of the school rebel or heckler. "Difficult is a good word to describe her," Diski conceded of Marie de Gournay, her latest subject. She licks chocolate biscuit off her fingers as she sits at her kitchen table in Cambridge, a cat-like smile setting her eyes alight. What next, she seems to be wondering, crouching at the mousehole of this conversation, tail swishing.

Difficult is a word that has, one suspects, often been used of Diski. Brought up in east London, she was the daughter of a volatile mother and charming, feckless father, whom she describes as a conman. This tempestuous marriage finally ended when her dad left for his mistress. Subsequently, Diski went a bit wild. Put into a mental asylum at the age of 15, she later tried to commit suicide. Even though she became a protégé of Doris Lessing, whose son was a school chum, for some years she seemed hellbent on self-destruction.

Now an elegant, handsome fifty-something, with sleek silver hair, she looks precisely as you'd imagine the owner of a narrow brick house in a quiet Cambridge terrace. There's no trace left of that painful adolescence. Until you look int of company, but there's no doubting that given the choice, Diski would rather not have to spend the afternoon talking. Being sociable is really not her thing.
This is the writer, after all, who once travelled to the land of the penguin (Skating to Antartica), and didn't want to leave her cabin when the ship berthed; who crossed America by rail (Stranger on a Train) and would have stayed cocooned in her own thoughts had the craving for cigarettes not driven her to the smoking car. For some time after moving to Cambridge to be close to her new partner, the poet and don Ian Patterson, she lived in the house across the street from him. A few years ago she took the plunge and crossed the road (2the cats were getting confused"), but the top part of the house has been converted to her own private space, with study and bathroom. Given the urge, and a few tins of beans, she could isolate herself up there for weeks.

Many aspects of Diski are echoed in her new heroine. In her absorbing, questioning novel Apology for the Woman Writing – a title taken from one of de Gournay's own works - Diski offers a glimpse into the life of this feisty French bluestocking at the turn of the 16th century. De Gournay was an ungainly girl who exasperated her mother by refusing to learn any domestic skills. Wholly uneducated, she hid in her step-father's library and only devoured every shelf, but made herself fluent in Latin and Greek in the process.

There were two turning points in de Gournay's life. The first was when, as Diski writes, "she resolved to be neither nun nor a wife. She could see nothing wrong with just reading books. But could a grown woman have a life that was devoted to reading?" Her ambition to earn a living through literature was remarkable for her times and her sex. The second life-changing event was reading a collection of essays by Michel de Montaigne, now widely regarded as the father of the modern essay. Montaigne's work struck such a chord with the girl that she fainted with excitement.

Living testimony to the power of self-belief, de Gournay made Montaigne's acquaintance, and so badgered the poor man that he felt obliged to name her his "fille d'alliance". Appointed his editor after his death, de Gournay thereby achieved her aim of surviving by her pen.

Diski admits that envy of Marie was one of the spurs for this novel. "I think Montaigne is completely wonderful, and completely complicated and difficult, and I like him very much. He's so comprehensible. He's just a bloke, in many ways, and that's what he was trying to achieve as well, and I think that chimes awfully well. I hate the business of things having to be relevant and contemporary, but it strikes me that Montaigne is always contemporary."

Like Marie, Diski had an intense response to Montaigne's work. "There always was this sense that he was whispering in your ear, that he was terribly close. I didn't need to be revived," she adds, in a voice dry as toast. "I coped all right … There are some writers you come across, and it's as if you've found your best friend. You know. You pick up Dostoevsky when you're 18, you pick up Nabokov when you're 14, you pick up Hardy. There are people who you read - you might read them quite differently as the years go by – but you and they are passionately involved when you first read them because you are passionately involved in writing. And some kinds of writing or writers just click, and its so understandable what happened with Marie de Gournay."

Sadly, however, it appears that de Gournay was not much of a writer. Diski's disappointment is tempered by wry realism. "It's the business of not being the best. Now that is also central to the book, because actually most of us aren't the best. Hardly any of us are the best. And there is also that thing that every writer must have which is, what's the point of writing if im not Joyce, or Beckett or whoever floats your boat?

"And that's unanswerable. At some level there is no point in writing, I'd say. There's a part of me that still feels that quite powerfully. The world really doesn't need more half-good books … im totally arrogant, but I'm not arrogant enough to think im good enough. And in a sense that's what keeps me writing. Every book I write is a failed book. I feel that very strongly. Otherwise why write another one?"

Diski's constant questioning of her vocation is unexpected, given that she has wanted to write since she was a child. She talks to the "huge hiatus from the wanting to write to the writing", her life as teacher and mother intervening until she finally got started at 36 with a novel about sadomasochistic sex, Nothing Natural. Yet despite the late start, her teenage experience of the Lessing household was instructive.

"The thing about living with Dorris," she says, "there was this feeling of a serious writer. It wasn't about glamour, it was about going upstairs every day and shutting your door and work, work, work, work, work. I got a very non-glamorous view of being a writer from being there. What you did in order to be a writer was to write."

Diski has taken that lesson further than most, since her books are, as she happily admits, almost entirely about the business of writing. The notion that a good idea would be sufficient reason to start another book earns a look that would wither a triffid.
"They're all the same bloody ideas. What's interesting to me, why I wrote a novel about her [de Gournay], is the whole incredibly difficult thing of why on earth I ever started writing. Which is pretty much what all the books are about. They're about being a writer. I mean, there are some stories there, but I don't think ideas are interesting. There are no really original ideas … So my sense with every single book is, 'Oh, that's not what I meant, that's not really worked.' So you get on and write another one. Partly that, and partly I have to pay the gas bill."

The kitchen is growing darker as rain clouds gather over the garden. Diski leans forward. "And that's the essential compromise. I want to be a professional writer like Marie de Gournay wanted to be a professional writer and therefore I write for money. On the whole I don't write for s much money, or the way people want me to particularly, or the way that would make me a best seller. Certainly not in the way that would make WH Smith jump up and down in excitement." (That thought seems to please her.)
Apology for the Woman Writing, she says, "is a book for readers", by which she means those fascinated with the act of reading. "The question that hovers over the whole thing is: does the quality matter?" Diski looks quizzically across the table. "But I don't need to answer that, do I?"

She knows full well she doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want to do. It's one of the things that makes her "difficult". Fascinating and admirable, too.

Rosemary Goring
The Herald 15.11.08