The author Jenny Diski, who published a memoir about living with inoperable lung cancer only last week, has died aged 68.
Diski, a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction, articles and reviews, had serialised a diary of her experiences in the London Review of Books since August 2014. Her memoir In Gratitude (Bloomsbury), which also tells the story of her relationship with novelist Doris Lessing, who took her in at the age of 15 after a difficult childhood, was published on 21st April.
The news was announced by her partner Ian Patterson, himself a writer, translator and teacher at the University of Cambridge, on Twitter. He wrote: “Sad news. My darling Jenny @diski died early this morning.”
In her serialised diary she wrote of her illness: “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.”
Diski’s first novel, Nothing Natural (Virago) was published in 1986. Across 18 published works she wrote 10 more novels, as well as seven non-fiction works including other memoirs, essays and a nature book. Her travelogue Stranger on a Train (Virago) was awarded both the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 2003.
Diski's editor at Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle, told The Bookseller: "...Jenny was funny, sometimes obstreperous, acerbic, strangely sweet and incredibly clever." She recalled: "One Sunday evening I received an email from her demanding a selfie. I’d had my hair cut off and she was determined to do the same. She signed it from ‘Jenny, your non-elfin like author'. She became increasingly ill and one day she tweeted that she had two months left to live. I tweeted back ‘Jenny the deal is: we publish in two months. You stay alive.’ She replied ‘Really hard deal to choose’…Bloomsbury is so proud to be the publisher of this extraordinary book by a truly extraordinary woman.”
Her agent Peter Straus said: “In all her writings spanning forty years she showed herself to be funny, frank and fearless and she leaves as a legacy a remarkable body of work. In 2014 she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given 'two or three years' to live. She didn't know how to react. All responses felt scripted, laden with cliché. Being a writer, she decided to write about it. So began her final work, a series of essays which appeared in parts in the LRB, a publication she had a long and memorable association with.”
Lennie Goodings, publisher at Virago, added: “We publish nine of Jenny’s extraordinary books, both novels and nonfiction. Her fiction was fascinating: intelligent and searching and quite unlike other novels. I would say though that her best subject was herself. Beginning with the astonishing, award-winning Skating to Antarctica, and the three memoirs that followed (Stranger on a Train; On Trying to Keep Still and What I Don’t Know about Animals) she used her own inner life to observe the world and it was always utterly fascinating and surprising – even gripping. I honestly can’t think of another writer like Jenny Diski. Original seems too weak a word for her.”
The novelist Jenn Ashworth told The Guardian: “She was fabulously warm and encouraging to me and taught me to expect more from myself as a writer. For years and years after I read my work, I would catch myself in sloppy sentences and think, ‘Jenny will never let you get away with that.”
The author and journalist Blake Morrison added: “What I liked was her abrasiveness - she was tough, not least on herself. Whatever subject she took on - rape, depression, the Sixties, Antarctica - she had something new and surprising to say.
“She really came into her own over the last 15 years or so, particularly with her non-fiction; some of the diaries and reviews she published in the London Review of Books were small masterpieces. She used an intimate first-person voice, but not confessionally so much as to work out what she thought and felt.”
Diski has sold a total of 37,073 books for £272,222. Her biggest title is 2004’s Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America (Virago).