A kind of joy

Icebreaker Akademik Sergey Vavilov (photo: http://www.cruisemapper.com/ships/Akademik-Sergey-Vavilov-icebreaker-1761)

Jenny Diski: Skating to Antarctica
Granta Books 1998 (1997)

The notion of skating al fresco always brings to my mind the worry of thin ice, and in some ways the feel of this memoir is of ice at times so thin that it might be possible to fall through. Skating to Antarctica therefore has a fragility to it, but it’s a fragility told by a writer who’s managed to weather many storms and isn’t going to give up just yet.

Superficially the memoir’s about the author taking a cruise in a converted icebreaker to the southern continent; but under the guise of a travelogue this account focuses on a journey of a different kind. Jenny Diski, as is well known by now,* had a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional and abusive family, becoming estranged from her parents to the extent of not even knowing whether her mother was alive or dead. It’s the questions over her mother’s life and death that forms a counterpoint to the physical trip and makes this piece of creative non-fiction so readable.

Born in 1947, Jennifer (as she was then) had parents who were not what they at first seemed; so middleclass respectability gradually gave way to a portrait of a professional conman perpetually at war with his increasingly disturbed wife. As the marriage fell apart and living conditions worsened their only child went to a variety of schools and then in and out of psychiatric institutions, losing contact with her mother after her father died. A brief time of stability came when she was in the care of Doris Lessing (whom she refers to here only as “the woman I lived with”) but her mother’s erratic behaviour and suicide attempts led to Jenny breaking permanently with her. People would wonder if her mother was alive or dead but Jenny would say she neither knew nor cared.

It wasn’t till her own daughter Chloe began asking questions and doing her own bit of detective work that Jenny was persuaded to confront this aspect of her past. Her accounts of the conversations she has with former neighbours in the block of flats where she used to live as a child are by turns wryly amusing and starkly revealing. Then she takes it into her head that the clinical whiteness of Antarctica is what she is most in need of, eventually leading to her 1996 voyage aboard the cruise ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov, sailing from South America to the Antarctic via South Georgia. 

As with most trips, it doesn’t always pan out as expected. Her fellow passengers intrigue her, and she gives fascinating pen portraits of some of them. She muses on the paradox of seeking solitude and whiteness in South Georgia while cameras click amid penguins and elephant seals. She revels in being alone in her cabin when “feeling rotten”, enjoying the sensations of the moving ship, watching icebergs float by. And in between we are given reminiscences of incidents she experienced half a world away. The metaphor of skating on ice, allied with an actual voyage by icebreaker to Antarctica, therefore ties in quite naturally with the idea of Diski ploughing through the icy barrier that had built up between her mother and herself. We don’t hear about the return journey but we find out what awaited her when she came back home.

Her reluctant quest is quietly told, matter-of-fact with no histrionics. There’s no getting away from the abuse and the depression she unsurprisingly suffered from, but she recounts it all without no attempt to play up the misery.

I found it was possible after a time, to achieve a kind of joy totally disconnected from the world. I wanted to be unavailable and in that place without the pain. I still want it. It is coloured white and filled with a singing silence. It is an endless ice-rink. It is Antarctic.

I liked this book. I liked its honesty, its discursive narrative, its descriptive prose.  Diski was born a year before me, and whilst her life followed a very different course than mine did I nevertheless sensed a familiarity with the times she grew up in, with the same retrospective awareness of the strangeness of family life, and with a nagging need for solitude. Despite its inherent melancholy I felt better for having read this, and you can’t ask more of a book than that it makes you grateful for what you have.


* I have Lizzie Ross to thank for introducing me to Jenny Diski via my review of Doris Lessing’s 1988 novel The Fifth Child. She referenced the London Review of Books — which published Diski’s final memoir in instalments (this one discusses her first meeting with Lessing) — and intrigued me enough to seek out not only Skating to Antarctica but also In Gratitude, published in full just before her untimely death in late April 2016. Diski’s WordPress blog This and That Continued is still available online, the poignant last post written three months before she died. You can if you want read the first chapter of Skating to Antarctica online here.

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8 thoughts on “A kind of joy

  1. I’m glad to know you enjoyed Diski’s book so much, Chris. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on the infamous TBR list. Her sense of Antarctica as a clean, white space — almost stimulus-free — for some reason makes me think of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The world is too much with us” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45564/the-world-is-too-much-with-us). Not because Diski had a Romantic appreciation of Nature, but because her busy and oppressive world was something she needed to escape. But whereas the Romantics found relief in stark mountains and green valleys, Diski headed for the coldest place on earth. Unusual choice.

    At the North Cape this summer, with nothing but ice and water between the North Pole and me, I felt I was the first human to breath that air, and it was like Balm of Gilead — a cure for whatever ailed me. So I suspect that, even from the comfort of her cruise ship, Diski must have felt the chill wind and heard the creak of ice on water, taken deep breaths, and gotten ease.

    PS: You note Diski’s birth year as “1967”, but I’m sure you mean “1947”.

    1. Thanks, Lizzie, I’ve now corrected tbe date!

      I remember the sonnet from schooldays, but back then I had no inkling what he was on about — probably thought it was old (or at least olden-day) people nodding heads wisely. Now I’m one of them …

      Diski’s attraction to the Arctic was as much from the whiteness reminding her of the clinical environment she found a retreat whenever things became too much, where she was able to still her mind. It’s that stillness, I think, that the book is a paean of joy to.

      Maybe like your experience at the North Cape. Certainly like the clear clean mountain stillness that I remember from times spent skiing (or rather not skiing) in the Alps, when the snowboarders and skiers had set off downhill at speed.

  2. Thank you for this. I followed Jenny Diski’s brave blog through her illness and read her take on Doris Lessing with interest because I am a huge DL fan. Diski helped moderate my adulation a bit, which was a good thing. I look forward to reading Skating to Antarctica.

    1. I hope you find the Antarctica memoir of interest, Josna. I’ve bought the collected blog writings (In Gratitude with its ambiguous title!) which I may or may not get round to reading before too long — but I might tackle DL’s Mara and Dann before that having through some quirk read its sequel first.

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