Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Tom Lubbock’

Jenny Diski–In Gratitude

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 20, 2016 at 6:44 am

Cancer is everywhere. It’s like a parallel universe. If you don’t believe it, take yourself off to the Cancer Centre at Edinburgh’s Western General. There’s an entire city of pain there.

And cancer diaries are now a major literary genre. In Gratitude is partly the late Jenny Diski’s examination of this. She took the time, while dying, to discuss the ins and outs of the kind of book she was writing: should it be written at all? What are the merits, the uses of this sort of book? Do such memoirs comfort the writer, or the reader?

Diski, who died of lung cancer last month, was uncertain about joining the ranks of those who go public with a terminal illness. She even felt some sympathy for Clive James, who magisterially announced his cancer with some very effective poetry, and who, thanks to medicine, now seems to be doing better.

She talks about cancer books a little disquietingly, as if writing them is a contest. She wonders which cancer-stricken authors will get the most press. She mentions Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, by the art critic Tom Lubbock (reviewed in these pages four years ago). That was a vivid book about the writer’s unhappiness at having to leave the world, all the more poignant in that the increasingly muted form of the book mirrored his day-to-day losses as his brain tumour grew. Diski doesn’t mention one of the best, but perhaps least known of the genre, My Diary by Mio Matsumoto, a surprisingly beautiful, wrenching graphic novel about cancer of the tongue.

Diski is opposed to characterizing having cancer as a ‘battle’, as was the late John Diamond, who wrote persuasively on the subject; she also despises the popularity of the word ‘journey’ in its many modern touchy-feely contexts. Good for her.

Lots of things in this world were ranged against Jenny Diski. Much of that was her own doing. One comes away from this book thinking that the real illness being discussed is not cellular but mental: she suffered from a backbreaking amount of depression all her life and never got any real help for it. A doctor she hated told her she had an addictive personality and put in her notes that she would have a terrible life and a lonely death.

She also constantly compared herself to others. This wasn’t good for her. A writer needs a bit of emotional home turf, and this she never got. She wasn’t one of those writers who feeds solely on disquiet, although she may have wanted to be.

Another thing that never helped her, as becomes plain here, was her relationship, as daughter or step-daughter or adopted daughter, with Doris Lessing. This was unhealthy, no matter how much good Lessing thought she was doing in ‘rescuing’ this classically screwed-up literary waif.

Lessing put a lot of her own trauma, and aspirations, on Diski, fitting her with a diaphragm at the age of fifteen and introducing her to a lot of men too old for her, as if deciding, after taking this troubled girl into her home, that the only thing to do was to force her to become an adult as soon as possible so she could get rid of her. This is distasteful and troubling. Did Diski survive Doris? It’s too close to call.

In Gratitude reads as though it’s not the book Jenny Diski wanted to write. On several levels of course this must be true: she didn’t want to have cancer, nor find herself writing a book about her cancer, and she must have found it immensely frustrating that this was the only book she could write. Particularly in the section on chemotherapy the reader will grasp how difficult it was to get anything written in the midst of this full-scale derangement of body and mind. And it was a close-run thing, but by all accounts Jenny Diski got to hold In Gratitude in her hand: it was sped to her straight from the printers by her agent and publisher. This book she never wanted to write.

‘You’re not the only fish; not the only one with cancer’, Diski says ruefully. She’s good on rueful. ‘The world has its timetables and rhythms. It was precisely for weeks like this that our parents were supposed to have taught us to put aside childish notions of instant gratification for the more mature deferred sort. As we all know, come cancer scans and silent lovers, it doesn’t work.’



This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

Until Further Notice, I Am Alive – Tom Lubbock

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm

There are short works that are such intense distillations of human experience that once read they can never be forgotten, let alone left out of one’s house – A Sentimental Journey, Hiroshima, A Voyage Around My Room – and now Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.

The art critic Tom Lubbock died of a brain tumour last year. He was 53. This is a curt, passionate description of that experience, his farewell to the world he lived in, to his wife and little boy.

It is a frank book about dying, but it isn’t what you might think. The medical aspects of what had befallen him didn’t interest Lubbock much. He knew what the outcome was going to be, and wanted to get on with writing and living: “The news was death. And it wasn’t going to be maybe good luck and getting through it. It was definitely death…” He found, to his surprise, certain freedoms granted him in the process of leaving the world: “I can’t be required to look more than a few weeks ahead, and now being relieved of it, see what a pressure future-mindedness (albeit coming to nothing mostly) usually exerts.”

He gives us his “three annoying sympathisers”, like characters out of Swift: “1 Those who come only wanting to have their minds put at rest. 2 Those who know someone who had exactly what you’ve got, and she’s absolutely fine now. 3 Those who want you to know they realise just how awful it is for you – and the little one!”

There’s a ghastly, inspired riff on corpses: “A cadaver on stage or screen is often a comic turn. It’s something that’s got to be concealed. It must be lugged about with great difficulty. It has to be temporarily passed off as a living body … it keeps falling into lifelike postures and gestures.” And he is exasperatedly bemused about what he calls “nuts and berries” cure-yourself cancer books. (He quickly tired of the “trendiness” of the idea of accepting death.)

Cancer tales, he wrote, are of two kinds. You die or you get better. But the glioblastoma he was suffering from, though assuredly fatal, wasn’t going to give him an easy story option. Tom Lubbock produced a small masterpiece on suffering; that is, on being alive. It ought to be one of life’s required manuals. This is a great book because it deranges you to read it; it makes you think you’re going to die. And you are.


The Herald, April 1, 2012