In September of last year, Jenny Diski, author of the great memoir-y adventure logs Skating to Antarctica and Stranger on a Train, as well as more than a dozen other books, both fiction and non-, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Almost before she even got home that day she decided to write a kind of cancer diary. But even more immediately, Diski and her partner Ian Patterson, to whom she refers in writing as The Poet (because he is one), started joking about the diagnosis, and, even, Diski notes, falling into the cliché’s of cancer-dom, “battling” an illness and so forth.
As Diski started writing the serialized entries in the diary for her “home publication,” The London Review of Books, a very Diskian structure began to emerge, and she paired the both comic and wrenching recounting of her treatment with the story of being taken in, at age 15, by the writer Doris Lessing. But Diski’s portraiture of the late author of The Golden Notebook isn’t simplified hagiography, nor is it an arbitrary pairing with her cancer log. As the dual narratives go on, thematic motifs start to reveal themselves—complicated, personal, marvelous observations on life, femininity, society, identity—all very Diskian topics, topics I have wanted to talk with her about since I wrote her a fan letter nearly 10 years ago.