On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

With a shard of the devil's mirror stuck in her eye
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The Independent Culture

What an unruly thing the mind is, muses Diski in this extraordinary book; you try to keep it still and it darts from subject to subject, meanders through memories, without heed of order, of linearity, of the present moment. Diski likewise eschews literary boundaries in this beguiling hybrid of travel writing, memoir and philosophy. Her previous two works of non-fiction, Stranger on a Train and Skating to Antarctica venture through the US and the world's forbidding glacial terrains, but her journeys are twofold, woven with voyages into Diski's dark, horrific past of sexual, mental and physical abuse, psychiatric hospitals, suicide attempts, a mad mother, an absent conman father, a pervasive emptiness.

Jenny Diski's urge to travel is paradoxical, since she is happiest at home. Here, she explores this strange impulse to move against stasis in the broadest sense, inspired by Montaigne, who, intent on leaving his mind in "total idleness" in a French tower finds instead that it "bolted off like a runaway horse". Diski likewise leaves her Cambridge home desirous of absolute stillness and solitude, and records her recalcitrant mind in motion as she travels through New Zealand, Somerset and the Arctic Circle.

This book's power lies in its depictions of everyday life, the overabundance of details that clutter the surface of the mind, lulling the reader into a false sense of security. We are with a middle-class writer who enjoys writers' retreats in New Zealand, and travel expeditions to the land of reindeers. And then suddenly, without warning for the reader or for Diski, the narrative will take a vertiginous plunge into the starkly contrasting memories spilling from her mind, snuffing out the present moment. This can be triggered, for example, by the act of vomiting. Sick one night in a hotel, Diski muses on why it is that she so loathes vomiting, and this leads into graphic descriptions of an eight- or nine-year-old Jenny watching her mother retching into the toilet bowl in "huge heavings, terrible noises", after her father hit her, Jenny hearing her mother's head crack against the wall before she slides to the ground like a "rag-doll". Or maybe, muses Diski, "maybe it doesn't have anything to do with my mother." It is this refusal of fixity, this ceaseless probing and mental agility, which creates the writing's great energy and vitality.

Diski's childhood response to trauma was to withdraw deep inside herself and "hang out in the great empty playground" she had forged, where no-one could get her, where she could verify her own worth, and her adult search for stillness is also a search for emptiness, a wish for whiteout. For Diski, "all the complexity of my outer person appears to be covering up is an inherent lack of an inner person," a view giving birth to her perennial themes of extreme isolation and a profoundly fragmented or non-existent sense of self.

This dangerous kind of emptiness, though, is a breeding ground for anxiety, depression, for "mad, skittering nothingness", and for spiders - "at four in the morning they emerge from the corners of my mind and take up all the space available," Diski writes in prose so vivid it makes the skin crawl. Her troubled inner world is powerfully juxtaposed with descriptions of beauty in the natural world which belie the suicidal drive for annihilation: "even I, with a shard of the devil's mirror in my eye making my view of the world so cold and cynical, looked at this world and saw glory in it."

We come back to the book's paradox: for all her attempts at physical and psychological stasis, she is compelled to move, not least in the action at the core of herself, "the kind of doing that is writing", the movement of fingers over keyboard, the scratching of pen on paper; which is an "inability to come to terms with emptiness", an attempt to escape it, to "turn emptiness into substance". Diski travels through her dark emotional places, through extreme pain, via crisp, unsentimental sentences, via lucid, shocking images which carry tremendous force.

The boundaries of the self have always been unstable for Diski, allowing for acute observations on inner and outer worlds born from detachment. This hazy grip on who she is, on where she ends and the world begins - combined with her exceptional skill at moving words around on the page until they spark - allows her access to the furthest reaches of human consciousness in this remarkable, original, often funny, truly moving, journey.

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