Archives for posts with tag: LRB

The first instalment of Jenny Diski’s reflections on her recent cancer diagnosis has appeared in The London Review of Books (

It is essential reading.

I have always loved Diski’s writing (Skating to Antartica particularly). I read the current article – ‘A Diagnosis’ – with sadness, but also with joy. It is vitally Diski – funny, brave and real – and I am grateful that when faced with the challenge of dealing with her recent cancer diagnosis, she decided to share her experience.

She asks the question:

‘A fucking cancer diary? Another fucking cancer diary… Can there possibly be anything new to add?’

Yes. Diaries afford the possibility of witnessing the experiences of others, and although experiences may overlap and share some similarities, each individual one is unique and invaluable as a direct result of its very subjectivity. Thus, each personal experience is by definition original and irreproducible. The value of reporting such experiences is that, although we cannot truly share them, as invited readers we can listen, witness and hopefully affirm the living of another. Michael Palin speaks of diaries as the antidote of hindsight. Which they are, and as the nearest expression we can get to the possibility of understanding what it might be to exist in someone else’s shoes, they can be the most invaluable and authentic of literary forms.

Especially from Jenny Diski’s pen.

‘The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future.’

The ‘Onc Doc’ slipped in at the outset that the goal was ‘to treat, not to cure’. It is salutary to consider both what is often said and what is mostly unspoken during this most critical of person-to-person interactions. Raymond Carver’s poem on the same topic of cancer diagnosis comes to mind:

What The Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them…

… and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not  wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong


Diski also reflects on the doctor/patient relationship:

‘It’s quite hard to rapidly absorb the notion that someone forecasting your fairly imminent death might not be your enemy.’

‘Sullen rudeness is a possible option handed to us cancerees.’

She considers the language used. When given a prognosis of ‘two-to-three-years’, what is actually being said? Is ‘Onc Doc’ favouring 2, or 3, with the extra year tagged on as a hopeful gesture? What does this timeframe meaningfully equate to in terms of how we normally live our lives:

‘Will the battery on the TV remote run out first?’

Suddenly thrown into another sphere, that of the ‘Cancer World’, Diski contemplates the role she may now be forced to play:

‘I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script’.

‘Now I was faced with the prospect of a rather lengthy (in one view) public/private performance by which to be excruciated.’

She rejects metaphors of attack, and refuses to personify the cancer cells in her body:

‘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.’

In the face of her diagnosis and all its inherent challenges, Diski answers her own question ‘why another cancer diary’. She is a writer. It is what she does.

‘So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.’




I was intrigued by this alternative view on Alice Munro in the London Review of Books recently (

The author of the piece, Christian Lorentzen, claims to be confused by the consensus that surrounds the acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro, and how critics assert ‘her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness’ on the one hand, while at the same time encouraging us to see as virtues in her writing that which might otherwise be viewed as shortcomings:

‘So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels.’

‘She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental.’

‘She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people…’

Lorentzen has not enjoyed reading Munro’s work:

‘Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life.’

‘I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder.’

‘I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia…’

I have always been drawn to stories that feel realistic and believable. True, these narratives are often ‘pathos-delivering’, as Lorentzen describes Munro’s latest collection Dear Life. But, the tales that I can relate to and connect with do not make me feel sad, or sadder, or despondent. Rather, they reassure me that out there somewhere is a story and an experience that I can connect with, on some level. Such connection makes the world a less solitary place.

There is a bigger question here too, which is why do we read. Each of us brings our own agendas and individual needs to the page, be it escapism, a need to connect, or whatever. It is good that we are all such different readers and writers.

Ultimately, my experience reading Munro’s stories has been vastly different to that of Lorentzens. Take for example the story ‘Gravel’ from Dear Life, about which Lorentzen says little, apart from the three words ‘a child drowns’, which seem heavily weighted with his negativity towards Munro’s ‘pathos-delivering tales’.

I, on the other hand, remember something quite different from the same story:

‘”The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”’