Book Review of “On Trying to Keep Still” by Jenny Diski.
I was saddened to hear that Jenny Diski was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and even more saddened when she passed away. Interestingly enough, the first thought that went through my head was “why haven’t I read more of her works?” I knew that I loved her writing, and frankly, I felt ashamed that I’d only read two of her books. While Diski wrote many works of fiction, I’ve only read her non-fiction “travel” books. (I put the word ‘travel’ in quotation marks because these are more memoirs through the places she visits, than books about the travel itself.)
The first book of hers I read was “Skating to Antarctica.” The title of this book makes it obvious where she went, but what you find inside as the book unfolds is nothing expected. Although I read this sometime in the mid-90s, there are passages that I can recall the essence of, to this very day. That’s what I call effective writing. Several years later, I read her “Stranger on a Train” book about traveling by train across the US combined with her smoking habits. Here too, Diski instilled the places she visited with touching personal observances of her own personality.
This book too, was something of a form of self-analysis. Diski explains how she prefers to not have to go places and be with people; that being on her own and doing what most people would call wasting time, is something that brings her joy and peace. Having to get up, get out of bed, dress to go places and be with people often fills her with dread. Knowing that most people do not consider this “normal” behavior is the negative motivation for Diski to face the world. Of course, knowing she’s committed to writing about some of her travels is the positive motivation for her. What’s more, Diski really likes the idea of these adventures and seeing new places. She just doesn’t want to go there and be there, physically!
Even so, as Diski suffers through having to be around other people (which apparently is far more tolerable than she seems to admit), while looking for a quiet place to be on her own and vegetate, she delights us with her observances together with some quite funny self-denigration. For example, she describes going for her first walk in New Zealand (to keep the farmer from worrying about her reclusiveness), and being accompanied by their over-enthusiastic, but inept sheep dog, which is hysterical. I also adored her descriptions of her extreme lack of direction, and the problems she gets into because of that, even in her own home country. However, she imbues her visit to Lapland with such a sense of awe and wonder, we think that maybe this aversion to being around humanity might be wearing thin.
Still, this quest for solitude and desire for inertia is the theme that runs underneath all of these tales. At one point, she even thinks it is a shame that travel writers have to leave their homes in order experience new places to write about them. However, there’s a little treat in this book for those who read it, in the guise of a short story she wrote, in which she comes up with a clever solution to this conundrum. All of this makes me realize what a huge loss the literary world has suffered with her passing. Then again, I remember that this book, like the others I’ve read, is truly delightful in every way, and we are so very lucky that she left us with such a beautiful legacy. This is why I am strongly recommending it, with a full five out of five stars.