Disk, Dyer: Memoir as (cough) quest narrative

I only started reading Jenny Diski after she died. I went out and bought the as-good-as-posthumously published In Gratitude, which brings together material from her LRB diaries about her life with cancer, and about her time living with Doris Lessing, who took her in as a teenager when she went off the rails. When I finished that, I asked for recommendations as to where to go next. Skating to Antarctica, came the response, so I tracked that down and read that.

I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards memoir. I always ask myself: am I reading this book because of the facts of the life it describes, or because of the writing? (Please don’t tell me that it is pointless to try to separate form from content.) (This ambivalence towards memoir is perhaps bound up in the fact that my own life is far too uninteresting to merit memorialisation.) So, Jenny Diski had a chaotic childhood, being fought over by two belligerent, neurotic parents, both of whom attempted suicide at least once, and acted towards her in ways that occasionally bordered on child sex abuse, and she spent time in mental institutions, and she got cancer: lucky her! She has stuff to write about. I’ve lost no one. No one’s mistreated me. My life has been lucky and privileged and healthy. What a bummer.

Of course, what makes Skating to Antarctica such an excellent book, and more than just a high-quality misery memoir, is what she does with these life experiences, with this content. Her formal brilliance works both at sentence level, and in broader, structural terms – in the way, for instance, that she uses a solitary trip to Antarctica to frame the story of her childhood. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the book is powered by an irony that seems at once languid and vigilant. (“Indolence has always been my most essential quality,” I see I have underlined on one page.)

I loved it, and I recognised it as being kin to another writer I love, Geoff Dyer. “Very Dyer” I noted, near-anagrammatically, next to a couple of passages.

Here is an example:

The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is either lovingly preserved in its natural state or derelict, depending on how you choose to look at it. If derelict landscapes, like the murkier parts of King’s Cross and the old unreconstructed docklands appeal, then Grytviken is a pearl of desolation. A rust-bucket ghost town, left to rot in its own beautiful way.

Here is Dyer, in Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to Do It:

Leptis, in other words, only really got going when it fell into ruin; its decline was its glory (and vice versa). That is part of the consolation of ruins. It is impossible to visit the Riviera without wishing you had been there earlier, with Scott and Zelda in the twenties; or Anjuna when the first full-moon parties were held in the late eighties, when it wasn’t raining. Ruins do not make you wish that you had seen them earlier, before they were ruins – unless, that is, they have become too ruined. Ruins – antique ruins at least – are what is left when history has moved on. They are no longer at the mercy of history, only of time.

There is also the discussion of cameras.

I’ve never owned a camera. Never taken one on holiday […] How could I go so far, to such an out-of-the-way place with such out-of-the-way sights without taking photos? Easy, I say. I like looking at stuff. You have to stop looking in order to point a camera at something. (Diski)

I don’t even own a camera. The only time I take a picture is when tourists ask me to take on of them, with their camera. (These rare works are now dispersed around the world, in private collections, mostly in Japan.)” (Dyer, in The Ongoing Moment)

Then there is the general bloodyminded orneriness of being English. Here’s Diski, when it appears that the group might not actually make it to Antarctica.

There was considerable satisfaction at the thought that I might not set foot on the continent that I had taken a good deal of trouble to get to. I considered further ventures: how I might fail to let the sand run through my fingers in the Gobi desert; how I could turn back twenty-five feet from the summit of Anapurna; how, gaining disguised entrance to a Masonic initiation ceremony, I would shrug my shoulders at the door and wander away. I could easily go to Agra and fail to clap eyes on the Taj Mahal – too easily.

This is wonderfully, performatively self-deprecating, very much in the way that Dyer takes ostensible character flaws and promotes them as defining qualities, but Diski can send her cynicism zinging outwards, too, with all the off-hand brilliance of a Roger Federer passing shot. Here she is on Scott of the Antarctic, and what would have happened if we had known earlier the truth of his tawdry failure:

Thus a generation would have lost a myth, while another generation would have been deprived of the satisfaction of debunking it.

Skating to Antarctica was published in 1997, the same year as Out of Sheer Rage, the book that saw Dyer perfect his version of this particular voice. It seems astonishing to me that these two writers, that seem to me soulmates, don’t get mentioned in the same breath; I’ll have to read some of Diski’s fiction to see if the voice carries over to that. Though not of the same generation – they were a decade apart in age – they must have read each other.

Skating to Antarctica also shows how crucial structure can be to memoir, a genre where you might think a certain formlessness is forgivable, even native. The book alternates in its few long sections between the journey south towards the Pole, and Diski’s childhood (including present-day passages in which she interviews her former neighbours and witnesses to her unhappiness). The chronologies of the two narratives are nicely integrated via a subplot in which Diski’s daughter takes it upon herself to try to find her grandmother’s death certificate; the two older women are so estranged from each other that Diski doesn’t even know if her mother is alive, and this final information is scheduled to come while Diski is away on her trip. There is thematic coherence, too. The book opens in the whiteness of the hospital ward, and quickly establishes the whiteness of Antarctica as its goal and destination, with the (non-)colour standing for the blankness, stoicism and absence that Diski sees as central to her own attitude to her life.

There is one point, however, when this structural, thematic groundwork allows the book to really sing. If memoirs are structured as quests – quests for experience, even if undertaken unconsciously, unwittingly – then there is going to be a scene when the quest is achieved, and this is going to be followed by some kind of reflection on what that victory means, how that experience has formed the person thus enabled to write the experience down. (This clearly won’t apply to a book like In Gratitude, where the whole point is that there is no final point from which to look back on the experience being described.)

I won’t reveal how Diski deals with the end of her quest, but what follows, the passage of reflection, is strangely unlinked to what comes before. It doesn’t really treat the talismanic nature of Antarctica, nor about the particular traumas of her life. This is the paradox of memoir. The epiphany she narrates is at once dependent on what came before – it couldn’t have existed without it – but it also floats free from it, like a calving iceberg. Bizarrely, the most beautiful section of the book feels like it could have come from any book; it needn’t have been this one. It moves beyond memoir, in other words, into the realm of philosophy.

To talk in the reductive terms of narrative theory, the hero has come back from her quest with knowledge useful to the tribe, and though she could not have discovered that knowledge without undergoing the trials particular to her (“Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you” – Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’), the knowledge is not intrinsically linked to it. It is born of it, but transcends it. It is useful to the whole village, whether or not they have had shitty childhoods and terrible parents, whether or not their mental health has suffered, whether or not they feel the need to take themselves to the coldest, most remote corner of earth because that’s the place they feel most at home.

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