In Gratitude – cancer, contrariness and Doris Lessing

Blake Morrison in The Guardian:

LessingWhen Jenny Diski was told she had an incurable cancer, her first reaction was embarrassment. That wouldn’t be the response of most people, but Diski rarely does as expected. “Contrary-minded” is her own phrase for it, and anyone who has read her over the years will know what she means. Who else would choose as the narrator for a novel a baby born without a brain (Like Mother, 1988)? Or feel a sudden compulsion to go to Antarctica and write a travel book that then turned into a memoir of her mother (Skating to Antarctica, 1997)? As a child she never did as she was told (borderline personality disorder, the experts called it), and as a writer she’s constantly surprising. Sometimes, for all her wit and knowingness, she surprises even herself. She was embarrassed because it felt so banal and predictable. With a disease “so known in all its cultural forms”, what could she say that hasn’t been said a million times? Her first response, in the consulting room with the “Onc Doc”, is to make a joke. Even that, she decides, is probably stereotypical behaviour, as is asking, in an apologetic, roundabout way, how long she can expect to live. Two to three years is the answer, but she wonders how much faith to invest in that: life expectancy for cancer patients is hard to predict, and what if the Onc Doc has added a year “for luck” or erred on the low side to avoid raising false hope?

In Gratitude works on many levels: as a memoir of an unusual adolescence; as an essay on family dysfunction; as an intimate mini-biography of a Nobel-prize-winning novelist; and as an unillusioned meditation on illness and death. At its heart, though, is the story of a difficult relationship between women, both, as it happens, outstanding writers. However prolific she has been in the past – 18 titles by my count – it’s the story Diski most needed to tell.

More here.