I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
So many writers, and so many we have never read or have heard of, Jenny Diski, for instance, whose excerpt from her travel book Skating to Antarctica I came across in the London Review of Books. It read conventionally enough: the narrator’s journey to the cold and ice, but then, like an iceberg itself, the submerged story of a little girl left in an orphanage by her father after her mother went mad sliced through the pages. A very quiet, unobtrusive slicing that brings down the reader’s safe enterprise. Gone is the comfort of your chair or bed or tub—wherever it is you read most comfortably—because you’ve unexpectedly been sunk into a sunless childhood, that drowned icy place at the end of the world.
I wrote Diski the first fan letter, to a stranger, of my life. I was now waiting for the publication of her book, I said, and thanked her for the beautiful excerpt. She wrote back to thank me for my note. A year later I wrote again saying I would be in London, and there we met and there I read the whole of Skating as well as what I could manage of her other work during my week’s stay.
She had published a great deal. In the story “Housewife” in her collection The Vanishing Princess, a woman receives a package containing a wet and slippery pig’s liver—a welcomed love offering, it turns out. That week, far from any London I knew, Diski and I had dinner in a restaurant that specialized in internal organs—kidneys, liver, brains and such. I took it as a good sign that we might be friends, so I ordered the bone marrow.
Ecco Press in the United States issued Skating to Antarctica this summer and has just brought out her novel Dream Mistress. I phoned Jenny to talk about it and about herself for BOMB in the wish that she be better known here for her wonderful work.
Jenny Diski I may not be able to do this.
Frederic Tuten Why?
JD I’ll get the giggles. You won’t ask me anything about art or life or any of that stuff?
FT Do you know what Andy Warhol said? Art—isn’t that a guy’s name? (laughter) Let’s start by talking about fiction versus nonfiction and your recent novel Dream Mistress.
JD Dream Mistress is about storytelling, about writing really, where stories come from and where they go to in their improbable way. That has something to do with fiction and nonfiction.
FT You have two stories in your nonfiction book, Skating to Antarctica: an ongoing narrative of a voyage to Antarctica, a sort of travel book, but weaving through it you have memories of childhood—a horribly stark and sad childhood. It’s not about telling stories; it’s about what two stories tell.
JD Well those two stories happened to come together in real life. But Skating could have easily been a fiction centered around Chloe, my daughter, everything about my background and retrieving what I didn’t want to retrieve, which was my mother. In the beginning, it was my deep, quite irrelevant wish to go to Antarctica. Then came my search for my mother’s birth certificate—those two things didn’t come out of each other. They didn’t particularly belong together, just as in some funny ways the stories in novels don’t belong together until you put them together. It seems to me that’s the art of writing. The fact that Skating is officially a piece of nonfiction doesn’t make it less of a piece of artifice then any novel I’ve written.
FT I agree. So how did this Antarctica trip come about?
JD I conceived a fantasy to go to Antarctica and thought, That’s what I’d most like to do in the whole world—just as one suddenly has a dream. Sometimes things don’t seem possible, then suddenly they seem possible. I saw an ad and I thought, Oh, I could actually go as a tourist.
FT You actually saw an ad?
JD In the Sunday paper, “Antarctica, the Cruise.” I badly wanted to go to Antarctica. Whiteness and emptiness—that was the space I wanted to put myself in, physically. And having realized I wouldn’t get anyone to cover my expenses if it were an article—forgive me for this very inartistic thing—I concocted a book. I put together my wish to go to Antarctica with my burgeoning anxiety about Chloe wanting to find my mother, who I had not seen in 30 years. We invented four pages, a proposal, that was exactly the book I ended up writing—to my and everybody else’s surprise. I just went by the skin of my teeth.
FT So you knew you were going to interweave the two stories from the very start. You once said that both the nonfiction, Antarctica, and the novel, Dream Mistress, are about the fallibility of writing.
JD No, the fallibility of stories. The accidentalness of them, the way they come together arbitrarily. The fact that they go to all sorts of very unexpected places that necessarily, obviously, return back to where you started from.
FT The obvious links between the two books are the autobiographical ones, the story of the mother and the story of the father.
JD Yes, and some of the actual incidents are identical in both books. I was obviously aware of that, I was deliberate.
FT But in Dream Mistress, if I understand correctly, Mimi is dreaming all these voices and characters?
JD Yes, she’s dreaming.
FT Dreams are the metamorphosis of her internal life, so to speak, and so she’s also her mother.
JD She’s the creator of her mother.
FT The dreams are the way you tell many narratives.
JD The dreams are supposed to be the freedom of narrative from the facts of life. The fact of Mimi’s life is that there are absences in it. The mother disappears; the lover disappears. Nothing happens in Dream Mistress except that Mimi stays in bed for three days. It’s not heavily plotted. All there is to Mimi are the absences of certain people; that has become a theme in her life. What happens in her dream life, or daydream life, are the narratives that grow out of the absences, the transformations—like Chinese boxes.
FT At the end of the book you have these very haunting pages of a trip over a beautiful, green ocean leading to a square tower. Inside the tower, people are in transit to another ferry. And in the corner of the tower is a woman in bed, writing. The link is the notion of the world going by and the writer writing.
JD Yes, that’s the center of it. I suppose the Dream Mistress is separate from both Mimi and her life. In the same way that being a writer essentially feels separate from me as a person in my everyday life; and yet, my everyday life is obviously essential to the work. It’s as if there is a writer…
FT There’s the living person and the one who writes about the living person?
JD Yes, yes.
FT While the world goes around. Did you feel that Skating to Antarctica was a continuation of Dream Mistress?
JD No, I felt it was a continuation of examining what writing is, where it comes from. For me, the accident of wanting to go to Antarctica and my mother turning up…. She didn’t turn up, but the threat of it, the idea of her being thought about and spoken about, the coincidence of those two things happening in my life…. I didn’t think, Oh good, this is the stuff of a novel. In this very mercenary way I invented a book which worked. While I was traveling, I kept a straightforward journal. I didn’t actually do any writing.
FT So when you came back, you had notes from the travel?
JD I had notes and the daily events.
FT Was this the first time you did travel writing?
FT Will you do it again?
JD I’m coming to America to travel the trains, which has also been commissioned as a book. I’m going to sit on trains, go around America and make it all up and not make it up. (laughter)
FT How long a journey are you going to make, or make up? What is your plan?
JD As long as it takes…. You can go around the edge of America by train. I want to go around it and then I’ll cross the middle. I have no real plans except to allow fiction to happen.
FT For the record, you made another voyage recently.
JD Oh yes, I went on a freighter from Hamburg, Germany to Savannah, Georgia on a dry bulk carrier, carrying 25,000 tons of potash and me and a couple of Germans, Americans, and the Croatian crew. It took three weeks.
FT You went where?
JD I went 15 miles an hour across the Atlantic. You could walk it, couldn’t you? And I arrived in Savannah, Georgia, which was an interesting nonevent. Nothing happened on the trip. Well, lots of things happened on the trip, really, but nothing was supposed to happen, except I wanted to be on a boat for a long time.
FT How did it feel?
JD I loved it. I had a bit of a problem because the other passengers were difficult. A German couple drove me crazy, a woman of 70 who said she could be my mother. Actually, of all the people in the world who could be my mother, the German woman of 70 couldn’t. She kissed me. It was awful. So that was a bit of an intrusion. What I really want is to be on a boat for a very long time without anyone else on it; but then I’m not a sailor, so that’s a problem.
FT Are you interested in adventures?
JD No. I dread adventures.
FT Just a quiet trip on the ocean with no passengers. You’d be happy for weeks on end just not talking to anyone?
JD Absolutely, when I was alone, I was deliriously happy. I sat and read and I stared at the sea and I didn’t have a second of boredom.
FT This train trip sounds as if it’s going to be much more jolting. A lot of people to talk to, queries to make, and conductors…
JD It’s about smoking carriages. The one place where you can smoke turns into a patio area for the bad people, a mental hospital, really. That’s how it is, days of people smoking, drinking, and eventually looking after each other in some strange way. It’s very peculiar, very American.
FT I don’t know very much about you, as you know.
JD I don’t either. (laughter)
FT When did you start writing? Your first book was Nothing Natural?
JD I wrote that when I was 34. I’d never written anything—rather I’d never finished anything before—but I’d always thought I wanted to be a writer, from when I was naught.
FT You did? Always?
JD Yes. In fact, I couldn’t think of any other reason for anything other than being a writer.
FT So what happened before Nothing Natural? Were you in university?
JD I wasn’t doing anything; I was doing quite a lot of things. I didn’t go to university. I left school about two weeks before my university entrance exam. I was a troubled young person, Frederic. Wayward, even. And so I spent the three years I would’ve been in university in psychiatric hospitals, which is another kind of university, and in some ways more interesting. I fucked around a bit and then went into a spin from 20 to about 23. I was quite a professional at it. Then I participated in ’60s London—did a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—mostly drugs, not much rock and roll. And then, although that was more or less at the same time as the end of the bin period, I overdosed, quite majorly. While I was recovering in the hospital, this shrink turned up—the regular shrink who comes to see people who have tried to kill themselves, and suggested I go to—and he named the first hospital I’d gone into. (laughter) In my few years in the bin, I’d seen many people who cycled in and out; they’d been there six or eight times. I knew you could spend your life getting in and out of mental hospitals, it could well have been a career. I didn’t want to do that.
FT I don’t know the foreground. There’s the book and then there’s who you were before the book. What made you into that writer?
JD Well, none of this is relevant, really, because I always wanted to be a writer.
FT People always want to become writers, they don’t necessarily do it.
JD It was desperation, really. When I was 30 I suddenly decided I wanted to write some essays. Actually, what I wanted to do was to be made to write. So I went to university as a mature student and did two years of an undergraduate anthropology course—the whole evolutionary thing. I did those two years and then I had a major depression, a really long, paralyzing thing. I dropped out of university. And everyone went, Oh, no, there she goes not finishing anything again. But I started writing Nothing Natural. I mean once I got off the sofa, which took awhile.
FT How was it received?
JD It was received surprisingly well. Its moment was right. It was seen as shocking, but it was the middle of the women’s movement so people were prepared to be shocked. There was a bit of a problem about the S&M. And a lot of women misread the end. They felt that the heroine had been vindicated, which suggests to me that I mis-wrote it.
FT My reading of the end was that although she wants to abjure that life with Joshua—which is an S&M life—she returns to him.
JD She cops out completely. They didn’t get that. But people were interested in it and it got coverage. So in that sense, it was damn smart of me to write that book first.
FT It put you on the map—that’s what they say.
JD And I got on with the next book pretty fast. My depression was largely due to the fact that I wasn’t writing and all the time my thoughts were, What am I if I’m not a writer? And by that time I was 30 and more or less trying to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t a writer because I’ve got no patience with people who say they are writers and don’t write. Yet I couldn’t make any sense of any of it if I wasn’t writing. Then I woke up one morning and I thought, I could write this novel. It’s a terrible thing to say.
JD I don’t know, because it’s so fucking magical.
FT But it was cooking in you for a long time.
JD It is process. Whoever the dream mistress was, she was biding her time up there.
FT Emerson wrote to Whitman after he read Leaves of Grass, “I realize you must have had a long foreground.” The poem seemed like a miracle, but the miracle had been in process. Jenny, maybe we can talk a little bit about love in your fiction.
JD I didn’t know there was any love in my fiction.
FT There’s always love in your fiction; it’s not necessarily “Life with Father” as in the television series, but it’s love of a sort, isn’t it?
JD I suppose.
FT Or as the title Nothing Natural implies, the notion of a love that’s natural is discussed in the first book. Rachel is talking to her friend Becky, and Becky is thinking that there’s no future in Rachel’s relationship with this man because it’s only meant to be short-lived. And Rachel says to her, “What is there otherwise? I mean what would you expect?” The real tension is between the notion of an ideal love relationship that lasts forever with its ups and downs, and something that is not that, but could be.
JD That stems from my incomprehension of the family. I find families vile and dangerous, and I don’t find love that relates to family life very plausible.
FT In Nothing Natural, the opposition is in erotic love to familiar love. They don’t seem to blend. Is that what your novels propose: that the erotic life of love doesn’t last very long?
JD I’m perfectly sure that the erotic life of love doesn’t last very long, and I don’t think that one replaces the other. You choose how you make connections with people, and I find it hard to believe that very many people can put them all together and make them work. I find love a very difficult subject to talk about. I find it a very difficult word to even use, though my new novel—the one I’m working on now—is, in fact, about a great and profound and very long-lived love. Scary isn’t it? Luckily, it’s set a long time ago.
FT It’s scary because that’s also what I’m writing about.
JD You’re not writing about Abraham and Sarah are you?
FT No, not Abraham and Sarah. That long ago, huh?
JD I couldn’t possibly write about love in any more modern a context.
FT Didn’t Sarah have a child when she was 105?
FT Ninety. Well I exaggerated 15 years; don’t be such a pedant. (laughter) That’s quite a long-lived love. Is that why you chose them?
JD Because of the absolute difference between them—between Abraham’s desires for a monotheistic God and certainty, and Sarah’s desire for reality in a child. It’s much more complicated than that. They’re looking for different things together. Sarah is intriguing because she’s hardly there. All she does is love. And God tells her that she’s going to get a baby—the only time in the Bible when anyone laughs. She says, “What? At my age?” That alone makes her a heroine. Whereas Abraham falls on his face—strictly speaking, that’s not true—but I just want to write about those two working it out, and God interfering—the miserable bastard that he is.
FT Yes, or that She might be.
JD There’s no question that God is a man.
FT You think it’s definitely a He?
JD Absolutely, yup. Sorry.
FT Now I’ve lost my train of thought…. Parenthetically, I was amazed at how well you synthesized the love affair in Dream Mistress. It’s just perfect. You go from the honeymoon phase to the disintegration phase in such a short space of time. He does to Mimi exactly what he did to his last wife, and he will do it again to the next woman, he’s that kind of serial romantic. But Mimi’s mother, Leah, also left her—which as I remember is the same situation as in Skating to Antarctica. The mother leaves and the father stays behind, then takes her to an orphanage and leaves her there.
JD Well, the mother goes barmy, she doesn’t exactly leave. The daughter finds her gaga in the bedroom, and she’s taken off to the madhouse.
FT I remember that she left her in some way.
JD In a sense.
FT But she never literally walked out is what you’re saying.
JD Not in Skating to Antarctica, she didn’t.
FT But she does in Dream Mistress. She literally walks out and the child is waiting for her, just waiting for her, and goes to school still waiting for her.
JD Several days, several days; it’s awful.
FT Then she’s picked up by the service people. Why did I start there?
JD You’re going to make a connection.
FT Leah, Mimi’s mother—a Jew—converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun, but there’s a fascinating rationalization of the conversion, especially her address to a god Leah says she has no faith in. But she has belief. The new book is about Abraham and Sarah and God. Where does that come from?
JD I’m very interested in what faith is. It is a gift, it’s grace coming down, but you have to start with some kind of belief before you can accept that. Faith is an absurd notion that you either accept for no very good reason or you don’t. I think it’s heroic.
FT You think that faith is heroic?
JD I do. I think a total lack of belief is also heroic, and I think they’re in some way related.
FT Which side do you fall on?
JD I don’t have any belief, but I’m quite religious about it.
FT But you have faith? (laughter)
JD I don’t think I do, but I’m intrigued by faith. I haven’t really gotten through that one, so I keep writing about it.
FT Does Judaism have any factor in that faith or that belief?
JD No, because the more I read about Judaism the less it seems to have to do with anything transcendental. I read the Bible recently, from beginning to end, and it terrified me. I don’t know how they made a religion out of it. I mean, I know how Christianity did, but I can’t see how you derive religion from the Old Testament. God is a monster made in our own image, but what wonderful stories!
FT I like those tales: the soap operas of the ancient world.
JD The idea of being driven by this god that you have created is quite fascinating. That is faith. It has to do with nothing except one’s own imaginings, the way in which you create your imaginings in order to sustain yourself in an arbitrary world.
FT Do you think that’s what Leah does in The Dream Mistress?
JD Well, she’s the most completely inconsistent character—she doesn’t work as a character. Leah, the woman who becomes this nun has none of the intellectual possibilities to invent this perverse religion that the nun invents, this perverse faith. But that is part of the business of telling stories, and that comes from the moment when as a child Mimi is standing outside and her mother goes into the church.
FT Yes, she’s left on the steps and the mother goes into the darkness, into St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields.
JD This Jewish child watches her mother go into the church of an alien god. That’s baffling and disturbing and very scary. There is a sentimental grasping for hope which, in fact, the child despises. But in the storytelling, Mimi, this woman who was that child, takes on a real ability to justify religion. The story transforms: the woman with the sentimental need transforms into somebody very dark and strange and deliberately not like the mother who left her. The inconsistency is deliberate because the novel is about what you do with your stories. I’d much rather my mum become a cynical nun then wail to some alien god for no understandable reason.
FT It’s not just that she becomes a nun or a convert, she becomes a philosopher, she talks about the notion of the word. In the beginning was the word, God emanating from the word—it’s very complex thinking about divinity and creation. If you were to think about writing as a writer, the word is—that’s it.
JD But all that could never have come from Leah.
FT Yes, once I got into that part of the book, I said, Wait a minute, this is so out of character, there’s no way you can see the evolution of this. But, the way I took it was that this is not Leah, but Leah becoming…
JD …Bella, who becomes Sister Boniface.
FT It gets complicated. A bomb explodes and Leah is given the name Bella because no one knows who she is—her face has been destroyed. Someone says “Bella” as a terrible pun on the face that’s so misshapen and ugly. If we take this dream mistress as being the center of consciousness of the book, then any dreamer can dream anything, a Jewish mother can become a metaphysician.
JD Yes, there’s the transformation of the story.
FT Once I got that notion in my head, I thought, Why not? We’re not in the consciousness of Leah, we’re in the consciousness of the dreamer.
JD Or storyteller. Now, that the storyteller has any relationship to me, the author, I dare say there’s a motive behind it.
FT What would that be, I wonder?
JD How would I prefer to tell the story of my mother? Do I want a whiner, or do I want a philosopher?
FT I understand the desire to transform someone who really was not what we’d love them to be.
JD Never mind about me. Mimi makes someone heroic out of the woman who abandoned her, something magnificent.
FT In other words, the treachery, the despondency, the sadness wasn’t the ordinary garden variety: this is heroic stuff. She didn’t leave her daughter without a thought—she left because she became an ennobled figure of thought.
JD Yes, we might choose to wish that.
FT That would be the rationale: the abandoned child’s ego is saved by the idea that the parent didn’t leave out of lust or sadness, but because they were saving the world, or becoming nuns, metaphysicians, theologians, or whatever.
JD Yes, but if you weren’t abandoned, you wouldn’t be free to invent them in that way. The abandonment is absolutely essential to who Mimi is and what she can achieve.
FT Do you think that’s true when her mate, Jack, leaves her?
FT In some way the dream gets transformed? There’s another amazing character—I wish I could remember his name—the man who takes Bella from the hospital and lives with her.
JD I don’t know that he has a name.
FT He does the same thing that Jack does to Mimi. But this man leaves his wife and children for a disfigured woman, older than his wife. He takes her from the hospital and nurses her and loves her.
FT That’s an extraordinary notion.
JD Mimi turns her mother into a hero, and he turns a disfigured, faceless creature into a heroine. The fact that she’s faceless is rather like Mimi being abandoned by her mother. It enables him to love like he couldn’t possibly love a woman with a face.
FT I never thought of it that way. He’s able to love a woman who is faceless.
JD Yes, that’s right. It’s another way of falsifying her, if that’s the way you want to think of the story.
FT Which is the fiction.
JD Which is the nature of fiction, yes. It all sounds incredibly coherent, doesn’t it?
FT It does to me. But you know, Jenny, you said something else so interesting, before—about being on the ship and how it would’ve been wonderful if people weren’t there. Because when Leah becomes Sister Boniface in a convent, she is most happy, most perfectly content with herself, when the other nuns aren’t present. The nuns are what trouble her, not obedience, not humility, none of that; it’s the interaction that disturbs her. Do you see that as an autobiographical element?
JD I’m afraid so. I’ve found being with other people very difficult.
FT But we all do in some way—it’s not such a strange thing. It’s always a question of dosage.
JD It is, but my dose is very low. I have a terrible, terrible ache to be on my own, to be away.
FT When Mimi has the affair with Jack, as long as Jack is within the boundaries of his marriage, and it’s circumscribed, it’s kind of thrilling. But when he says to Mimi, “I love you,” and she sort of reluctantly comes out with the same words, the death knell has sounded. Once he lives with her, there’s the most horrific sense of claustrophobia, of invasion.
JD For this character, love is intolerable. Given what you learn about her, it’s not terribly surprising…people who need to be married or to be living with somebody all the time also have their reasons.
FT When this man, whose name we don’t know, takes the woman from the hospital—the disfigured Bella—and nurses her, and loves her, and makes love to her, we go into his story, one story folding into another story in his consciousness. He says that when he found her in the bombed café, her face was all bloodied and he saw through this smear of a face—her true face—and it was his face. That is the face he connects to. You used the word transcendence a few times today.
JD Oh, God.
FT There’s yearning in this book, but love doesn’t work on a daily level—there’s a transcendental urge for love in this novel, don’t you think? That notion of the face which corresponds to our face, not that it looks like us, but it’s the face we find correspondence in.
JD No, it’s not the face that looks like us, it’s the face that we’re…
FT …waiting for.
JD Waiting for, yes. I don’t know what to say about that. In a sense that’s just a description of…
FT …of consciousness.
JD Well, there is an urge to find something. On the whole we look for pattern and I suppose faces are the first pattern we ever see. I don’t know why, but over time, there’s a particular kind of face that you respond to. It’s specific to the person, and it’s unchangeable. You might fall in love with other people, but in spite of their face.
FT It’s strange, I feel the same way. Voices can do it: the sound of a voice, the timbre, the quality, the tone. What do you think of your writing life in the future—what are your goals and what are you reaching for?
JD You picture me as if I were somebody who thinks of herself as a writer.
FT Well, you do.
JD Most of the time I don’t.
FT You said from the very beginning that you did.
JD I don’t quite believe it, though. The simple answer to that question would be to write a good book. Each book is a failure of a different kind: inevitably, it’s not the book I wanted to write, it’s not the book I had in my head. So you write another book in order to get a bit closer to writing the right book.
FT But isn’t there a vision in your mind, cloudy as it may be, of what that book is like?
JD I do have the platonic book in my head, and it’s got no characters and it’s got no plot.
FT It’s perfect.
JD Yes, and every time I start a book, the first sentence inevitably means that it’s not going to be the right book. It becomes a thing, and more and more it becomes its own thing, but it always moves away from the thing I really wanted it to be.
FT Because the notions of characters and plot are the messy anecdotes of life.
JD Absolutely. I hate writing stories. I hate plot, I hate characters. I just know that I have to have them, or I think I have to have them, but they’re not really what I want to be writing about.
FT They’re the requisite artifice.
JD Exactly, and if somebody could show me a way out, I’d be delighted.
FT I used to think Finnegan’s Wake did that.
JD You’re talking deep pretension and give us a break!
FT I’ll remember to say that. When we talk about Finnegan’s Wake, we’re talking about deep pretensions, and, give us a break!
JD We don’t sit down to write Finnegan’s Wake now. It’s impossible; you have to write in a humble way. You can’t write thinking that you’re about to produce art. I can’t anyway.
FT No, I understand. That in itself is a kind of condemnation. If you think that, then you’ve fucked yourself because you’ve put yourself into an order of being that has no right to write. Roy Lichtenstein used to say to me, “The problem with most painters is that when they start to paint, they already have in their mind a painting that looks like art.” Of course that just condemns it to looking like every other painting that’s made. The notion of writing something that’s made to be art means it’s already a convention.
JD For me, it means it’s already worthless. It’s not starting from where something should start from, and it can’t be sustained.
FT Dream Mistress really starts from something preconscious.
JD Yes, actually most of the novels I write, even Skating, started from abstract shapes. They start from form, really, you could almost draw them.
FT What would be the shape of Dream Mistress?
JD That was about Chinese boxes.
FT Stories within stories?
JD Patterns coming out of other patterns. But I’m talking about the kind of shape you see that you can hardly grasp. You know, sometimes when you’re nearly asleep, there’s an apprehension of geometry that’s different. That’s where the novel comes from.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee