Leonard Quart: Two writers face prospect of death
NEW YORK >> Two books written by writers facing terminal cancer recently aroused my interest because of how differently the authors faced their own imminent death.
Although the books have almost identical titles, two gifted, but very dissimilar, writers wrote them. Both were born in England, both were Jewish, but they had utterly disparate sensibilities and careers.
One was Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and empathetic author of such books as "Awakenings" (1973) and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" (1985). In the months before his death at 82, he wrote a series of moving essays entitled "Gratitude" (Knopf).
Sacks' small, eloquent volume was written in the voice of a man who has finally made peace with himself and accepted the fact of his imminent death. The genial Sacks had struggled with despair for a long time, and It wasn't until he was 75 that he found love with writer and photographer Bill Hayes.
Sacks writes of turning 80 as a time he was "freed to explore everything I wish and to bind the thoughts of a lifetime together." And when he is told he has terminal cancer he responds: "I have to live in the richest, most productive way I can" in the months that are left. So Sacks desires to focus on what is essential — "myself, my work, and my friends." As a result, he chooses "detachment" from the problems of the world like global warming and the Mideast conflict, leaving the public world to future generations to deal with.
Sacks is not devoid of fear or anxiety, but much of what he writes here is life-affirming: "I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and an adventure." In addition, he writes that he has always dealt with loss by "turning to the non-human" — like taking comfort in the elements of the periodic table.
Seemingly free of regret, self-pity, anger, or a belief in the spiritual, Sacks faces death serenely, his thoughts centering on "what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life." He has written a tender book that consoles rather than disturbs, skirting over the painful medical details of his cancer, and avoiding a journey into his inner being.
Jenny Diski is much less linear and predictable. She is a much franker, more intense, and personally revelatory writer than Sacks. ("I start with me, and often enough end with me.") In fact, she keeps little of herself hidden in the 10 novels, four books of travel and memoir, two volumes of essays and collection of short stories she has written. For example her travel book about going to Antarctica turned into a memoir about her mother ("Skating to Antarctica," 1997).
Diski is a renowned English writer whose "In Gratitude" (Bloomsbury) is both a cancer diary, and a sometimes angry exploration of her very difficult and psychologically complex "adoptive" relationship with Doris Lessing. A Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Lessing took Diski, a rebellious adolescent, to live with her when Jenny escaped her fractured, pathological working class family.
The diary begins in the early stages of cancer. She writes concretely and starkly that the terror "settles on my solar plexus directly beneath my rib cage like a rat, its razor sharp claws digging into that interior organ where all the dreaded things come to scrape and gnaw and live in me." She describes undergoing "chemo" — "I've never felt so not in charge" of my life. She even lacks the energy to find out everything about what she is going through.
For Diski "it isn't what you write but how you do it that's crucial." Though Diski was aware that in writing a cancer diary it might be "impossible writing in it anything other than what has already been written. Same story, same ending." Still, her prose is extremely vivid, the feelings she expresses are direct and raw, and she is always wary of behaving in the prescribed role of victim. And that's what makes this clear-eyed, unsentimental book distinct from other cancer memoirs.
Diski is someone conscious of the abyss we all must live with, and writes that she is comforted by a quote from Vladimir Nabokov in "Speak Memory": "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack between two eternities of darkness"). Consequently she writes, "We are all just a breath away from the end of our lives."
"In Gratitude" is a book that offers neither solace nor uplift. Diski asserts, "Negativity is my inclination." This is not a book for those seeking saccharine bromides and clichés about facing mortal illness, or those looking for displays of stoicism. However, the forceful Diski, who can be harshly judgmental, even "truculent," and is no humane healer like Sacks, can for a moment drop her sardonic façade, exposing tears while disclosing that the hardest thing for her to deal with is that she won't see her grandchildren grow up.
Diski's book is a powerful reminder that few of us die serenely. Though Diski can display a mordant sense of humor, the book never moves away from the pain and despair she must live with.
Still, her diary is far from a long wail about her fate, but rather a deeply self-aware, tough-minded depiction of living with a range of treatments for an illness that she knew was terminal from the start. Diski's voice is a singular and memorable one.
The only thing I can add about the subject of dying is Woody Allen's line: "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens."
A regular Eagle contributor, Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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