I wrote a remembrance of Jenny Diski for n+1. To read the whole piece, go here.
Jenny was a pessimist and a misanthrope of heroic dimensions. But let me qualify that. Let me redefine “misanthropy” for my own purposes, and for Jenny’s memory. Like many people who largely retreat from the world and have some trouble dealing with it, she was so much more lucid and funny about human strivings and failures than those who are happily immersed in it. I always think of her 2003 review of Catherine Blackledge’s The Story of V. Jenny describes her own efforts in the early 1970s to work with the 12- and 13-year-old boys in a juvenile halfway house, called the Free School, neighboring a London feminist center run by “bourgeois hippy adventurers,” and the differences in goals and desires that separated these two groups:
One night I was in the Free School late. I saw a light on in the women’s hut and went to have a look. A window had been forced open. One of the younger boys from the school was standing in the middle of the room, masturbating furiously, his eyes fixed intently on a large, full-color wall poster of a wide-open vulva with a sassy feminist slogan underneath about men not being required. It seemed not so much vicious as funny and sad.
Mocking of human self-seriousness but charitable to human beings themselves, Jenny offered a living example of how, sometimes, compassion can be born of misanthropy. That is the person who comes across in a passage such as this. The writer who comes across is the one who understands, as a writer must, that what is funny is sad, and vice versa, and the writer’s task is to draw out this identity, where the blunt-minded ideologue or ordinary person can only perceive the one face of things or the other. Jenny had continental Jewish roots and a rough London childhood. She spent time in institutions, and was also taken in, and eventually expelled, by Doris Lessing. She had a daughter, Chloe, with a first husband, Roger Diski, who drowned while swimming in Sierra Leone in 2011. She had a second husband, Ian Patterson, to whom she always referred as “the Poet,” who by all accounts, notably her own, made the last eighteen years of her life the happiest ones. She wrote roughly a dozen novels, and seven or so works of non-fiction.
One of her novels, Monkey’s Uncle (1994), is in part narrated by an orangutan named Jenny, who picnics with Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Her debt to Kafka, and to Mitteleuropa in general, comes through here, as also, I suspect, some evidence of her true position relative to her own species. She told me at one point how happy it had made her to learn that “Jenny” was a popular name for orangutans in 19th-century zoos. Her living body of work reads to me now like something of an extended “Report to an Academy”: an Academy made up of human beings who, for whatever complicated reasons (genetics, developmental psychology, destiny) always remained somewhat strange to her. And from the lifelong feeling of being not quite a human being, Jenny illuminated for us (with words that are still alive) the mystery of what it is, or what it would be, to be one.