In Gratitude (Bloomsbury) collects the late Jenny Diski’s articles in the London Review of Books about her terminal cancer and her friendship (or pseudo-parental relationship) with the writer Doris Lessing. A memoir of sorts. The title refers to the fact that when Lessing took Diski in as a ‘troubled’ teenager Diski was unable to figure out how she was meant to show her gratitude, as well as being unable to figure out exactly what Lessing was thinking of her. Her ‘gratitude’ in this book is somewhat qualified; she is critical of Lessing, in the way that a family member might be critical of another, all the while assuming that the relationship is a given. Diski’s own family was something of a train wreck, and there is a frankness as well as a dismissiveness about events in her childhood that is quite alarming at times. Diski writes at one point to the effect that there is little point trying to work out if something was ‘abuse’ when it is in the past and unchangeable. A reader with less of an unsentimental attitude than Diski may feel their heart tugged towards the youngster that Diski was.
There is a frankness too about her drug use and ‘use’ of men and Lessing’s 60s live-and-let-live attitude, which Diski suggests was not exactly what Diski needed at the time. And an unsentimental attitude extends to her cancer treatment and looming death (she died earlier this year, about the time the book was published). A reluctance to gloss over or weigh up the good with the bad, in favour of a certain wry relaying, grabs one’s attention, as does her prose, but one wonders at times how such fine writing can emerge from the crumpled youth she describes. Lessing obviously saw potential, in her equally unsentimental way.
Lessing comes across as a very determined woman, dictatorial at times, but concerned that her acquaintances just get over things and get on with life, for their own good. This attitude seems to have been picked up by Diski to a certain extent. But Diski doesn’t aim to make such summations, though they may appear almost by accident. The book’s strength is the description of the relationship, rather than an attempt to extract some sort of homily, which would probably only have ended up simplifying a complex relationship (as long-standing ones often are), to the detriment of the book.