Solitary Refinement: Jenny Diski Article
Vancouver Sun. (July 2006)
The fact of the matter is that if certain writers never write another book, it’s unlikely the reading public would notice. If, however, Jenny Diski never writes another book, it will be a great calamity for mankind.
This British writer possesses an increasingly rare combination of intellect, wit and originality, and her 15 books (both fiction and non-fiction) have arrived often enough to ensure we have an appetite for her enlivening and
Diski reminds readers to read well and reject the piffle publishers often parade before us as having literary merit. And she reminds us writers why we were interested in literature in the first place, before we resorted to groaning about how difficult it all is.
Usually it’s in her fiction that she climbs to the top diving board and takes her risks. Imagine a writer whose territory stretches from the Bible to a rainforest to mentally distressed adolescents to a baby without a brain.
She’s a borderless writer, the best kind.
Her new book, On Trying to Keep Still (Little, Brown/Penguin Canada), is a 300-page quest for uninterrupted periods of solitude to fulfil a “wish to stay still.” She raises, and ultimately answers, the questions and problems that such a singular desire provokes, producing, as has become her tradition, an absorbing and hilarious book.
“I started wanting to write a book called On the Sofa, about doing nothing for several months,” she told me in an interview. “Nothing kept on not happening. The book emerged out of that frustration, though I set up the frustration myself.”
She has toyed with solitary stillness before, in her exemplary memoir, Skating to Antarctica, and in her essay collections Don’t and A View from the Bed.
With the appearance of her travel memoir, Stranger on a Train (which is about a month she spent in the United States, on Amtrak trains), it became clearer that she aches for solitude the way some long for a baby or a boat. It’s almost a coffin-like solitude she seeks, without the obvious disadvantage of being dead.
When pressed, she summed it up more precisely, telling me: “Being on my own requires me to have a sense that no one is there and that no one is about to arrive. It’s also about me feeling that no one is aware of me. Very hard to achieve.”
If you haven’t yet laid hands on Skating to Antarctica, you may be wondering why Diski might be possessed of such a desire. It’s partly explained by her having been raised by two of the most certifiably batty parents ever to reside on the Tube map of London. These weren’t fun, mild eccentrics, but bewildering, head-wrecking individuals. Add a harassing stepmother into the equation, a spell or two in the psych ward to recover, and it’s no abrupt surprise to find a fifty something Diski standing on the doorstep of a book in which attempting to stay still is the central conceit.
The presence of human beings quickly complicates each of her opportunities to be alone. On Trying to Keep Still begins in New Zealand. After amicably surviving the Auckland Writers Festival, she optimistically takes off to a farm-stay in Coromandel (an idyllic part of the North Island).
Things take a drastic turn for the worse when she finds herself trapped in a truck, interrogated by a Bible devotee under the topic sentence, “Everybody wants to be loved, and that shows us God exists.”
Then her misbehaving stomach causes her big plan for the boat trip of a lifetime to disappear into the bottom of a bucket.
Her most successful attempt at solitude comes when she sojourns with a stack of books in the granary cottage of a sheep farm in Somerset, England, for two months. It seems the perfect arrangement for no interruptions.
She documents a riveting interaction between herself and a farmer previously unknown to her: Janet White, a shepherd and the author of The Sheep Stell.
This verges on social anthropology and is ultimately very moving. It fascinates because each of them appears genuinely confused by the other, then interested and, finally, concerned about the other.
Diski is never anything but candid about her anxieties. She worries about the farmer worrying about her until her anxiety reaches fever pitch and she’s convinced the farmer is going to give her the boot.
Both appear to reach this great plateau of regard for each other. This is no itchy-scratchy self-regarding rambling. Anxiety becomes its own uniting language, like Esperanto. It captivates because this is how human beings are.
The funniest part of the book takes place in Lapland, where Diski educates us about the Sami people and their struggling culture while mostly spending a great deal of time bouncing on her arse, frantically trying to get control of a reindeer. I laughed so much at her descriptions of reindeer disasters that my skin became rosy and my brain chemicals rearranged themselves.
“Daydreaming the world away gets harder after childhood,” Diski reflected at the end of our conversation. Get her books on your shelves, rearrange the cushions on the sofa, settle in and prepare to be very, very satisfied.