Jenny Diski on '...the Woman Writing'
Novelist and memoir-writer Jenny Diski visited the Centre in mid-November, as her well-received novel Apology for the Woman Writing was published. As she explained, the book is named after an essay by Marie de Gournay, the 16th century Frenchwoman who became philosopher Montaigne's surrogate daughter and, ultimately, his editor.
Diski's first reading came from early in the book, when the young Marie is first aware of ambitions to become something other than a wife and mother. A passionate reader, she furtively spends her days in her father's library, enjoying the sensations of the books as objects before their individual voices and meanings begin to take shape.
After a second passage set several years later, when the protagonist discovers Montaigne's work through a gift from a benevolent uncle, event chair Kaye Mitchell opened a discussion of the novel and its writing.
The author expressed doubt about whether one could simultaneously be successful as both a reader and a writer, saying that she was only ever one or the other. She saw Marie as an example of an excellent reader, who understood Montaigne's intentions completely, but whose passion to become a writer wasn't matched by her ability.
Diski hadn't found it difficult to write about someone who was disappointing in her chosen endeavour however, as she found that disappointment added excitement and motivation to life - and the chasm between hopes and achievements could be fascinating.
Asked how difficult it was to fictionalise a person who had really lived, she pointed out that even biographers must invent many unknowable aspects of their subjects' characters; and said that the development of a more anonymous character like a servant, with whom one has free rein, can be a helpful device. Speaking more generally she described her introduction to books (via Victorian standards) and motivation to write, as she pursues the idea of a 'perfect book' which is always just beyond her reach.
She concluded the event with a final reading from Montaigne's point of view, as he approaches death four years after Marie's first contact with him. The theme of disappointment is apparent in his musings, his mother considering him a wastrel and his wife - five of her six children dead in infancy - complaining of neglect, yet as death looms he is able to treasure his solitude and take pleasure in life's individual moments.