Diski, born in London, started hard. Sexually abused by her parents, she
entered the foster-care system. After meeting the son of the writer
Doris Lessing in school, she was invited to live in the Lessing
household. Under Lessing’s care she received, in addition to food and a
roof and her first years of comparative stability, an apprenticeship in
the art of the mold-breaking female writer. Her relationship with
Lessing was both formative and prickly, though perhaps this was more the
usual way with Lessing than a mark of unique chemistry
between the two.

And yet, nothing of feminist note feels more renegade—more brave—than
Diski’s ability, in her final book, “On Gratitude,” to confess to both
the debt she owes Lessing and the emotional perplexity that, once she
became a mother herself, she feels toward Lessing’s life choices.
(Lessing left two small children in her native South Africa to move to
London and become a writer.) Diski never judges Lessing, and perhaps
this quality is what most identifies Diski as a writer—her capacity to
accept people and fictional characters and even animals whose lives make
no emotional sense to her, but whose existence is no less valuable and
compelling and worthy of a good grapple. “I knew the difference as
difference,” she writes in “What I Don’t Know About Animals,” “but
difference wasn’t a barrier.”

The same pragmatic open-mindedness is on display in “The Vanishing
Princess.” The title story reads like a cheekier, more bitingly urbane
take on one of Angela Carter’s stories from “The Bloody Chamber,” as
does the story “Shit and Gold,” a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in which
the miller’s daughter critiques, with wry bemusement, the multiply
trapped situation in which she finds herself: “Now, it has probably
crossed your mind that it’s a damn strange thing for a girl to become a
wife purely on the grounds of being able to spin straw into gold. She
could become your banker, yes, but why a wife? . . . That’s how it goes
in this corner of the narrative world: the prize for doing the
impossible is to become the wife of a king.”

“Leaper” starts on a frank, smart-alecky Grace Paley note before
stealthily shifting into oblique emotional territory (I’d say more about
this story, but I don’t want to ruin anything). “Bath Time” tracks a
woman’s lifelong dream to have a perfect bath, and balances the absurd
with the penny-pinching real, in a way that might recall the beguiling
absurd-real balance in Lessing’s “The Fifth Child.” “Housewife,” in its
cueing of the bawdy, mainstream smut of the seventies—Judith Krantz’s
“Scruples,” for example—follows a woman who discovers her sexual self
beyond the strictures of the expected female existence, experiencing
many extramarital orgasms while realizing, with equal shock, that she is
“without the faintest remnants of a conscience.”

Then there are the more typically realist stories that explore
contemporary womanhood from less of a slant. These stories start with
lines that appear well behaved: “It was Lillian’s habit to take a walk
every lunchtime,” or “The thought came to Ellen in the middle of the
night.” But such opening sentences are not staid pacesetters; instead,
they are launchpads. Both Lillian and Ellen athletically muse as a means
to analyze, unpack, and cover miles of intellectual and emotional
ground. Lillian starts thinking about ducks and ends up deconstructing
her romantic relationship with a man named Charlie, whom she fears is a
cheat. Ellen muses about the existence of Mount Rushmore and soon
arrives at far bigger questions of empathy and uncertainty.

What binds these stories, thus, is their interrogative nature, which is
a mark of their feminism. Most forward-thinkingly feminist is Diski’s
rattling of words and categories typically used to pathologize actively
intelligent women—words and categories like “insane” and “neurotic.” “It
was insane,” Lillian thinks, “—well, neurotic—to give time and energy to
suspicions that made no sense in the light of what was actually
happening.” Lillian’s maybe-cheating mate, Charlie, is “remarkably patient
with what he called ‘L.M.,’ which stood for Lillian’s Madness.”
(Basically, he’s patient with her for being actively engaged in the
mysteries of her life, himself being chief among them.) Diski calls
attention to the ways in which women are taught to doubt their cognitive
journeying through quotidian space, while also authentically
investigating how personally restricting, in the end, such involuted
mental spirallings might be. Diski’s strength is her ability to critique
her own critique, but from a position of self-awareness: “One problem,”
Diski archly writes, “was that Lillian was not mystified about why she
was like she was.”

For me, however, what most distinguishes Diski as a thinker and writer
is that she is kind, and it is her abundant kindness that marks her as
one of the bravest writers I’ve read. Kindness, in women thinkers in
particular, is a risky gambit; the products of their intellects can
appear (to idiots) accommodating or soft, and as a result can be treated
with less seriousness. The Diski I’ve read so far doesn’t get hung up in
this mess. She does not equate critical gravity with dismissiveness or
hard-line bloviating. She does not perform knee-jerk disembowellings as
a means to plant the sword of her own intellectual identity. She is not
intimidated by or made to feel insecure by difference, and so does not
respond to otherness with ruthlessness and obstinance. In her stories,
her female protagonists respond with engagement, and via that engagement
they often come to understand that they, too, are a bit wanting; they
see themselves differently through investigating the difference of
others. Ellen, for example, confused by an inane younger student named
Tracy, forces herself to inhabit Tracy’s mind. “That it had never
crossed her mind that Tracy (and others, certainly) did not know where
the eighteenth century was in relation to the present day, seemed to
Ellen a level of ignorance close to Tracy’s.”

So I am sad that Jenny Diski is no longer around to direct us toward the
places we are not yet ready to inhabit. More than ever, it feels like we
need a person ahead of her time, at least when it comes to the critical
challenge of engaging, with openhearted ferocity, things and people that
make no immediate sense to us. Read Diski for the pleasures of Diski,
but also read Diski to learn what we may think, in the future, about
how, were we possessed by foresight, we might have better performed our
humanity in the now.

This piece was drawn from the introduction to “The Vanishing Princess,”
by Jenny Diski, which is out now from Ecco.