Reading: “Apology for the Woman writing” by Jenny Diski

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Her father’s library in Gournay was the place of escape from her present and from her preordained future. She slipped through the dark panelled door at every possible moment of the day and night, whenever she could avoid being tutored on how to be someone’s wife, some house’s keeper, some child’s mother.

‘I’m not ill, Maman,’ she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. ‘It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.’
There was a gasp from the three other women, each of whom instantly reassessed their usual picture of Marie in the library.
‘His books … the ones Uncle Louis gave me … they are … extraordinary … I’ve never imagined … they are … remarkable. No, remarkable is too small a word. Nothing, nothing, in all my life I’ve read nothing like these essays.’

Already she was using his name to boost her own work. A devotion to Montaigne’s work would replace the husband she would never have, the quality work she would never produce, and the restricted life she must inevitably lead. So there was something in it for her, as well as for him and his memory. He decided to speak to Francoise about it, and ask her to send a farewell letter to La Demoiselle as if dictated by him. And yes, he knew how close this thought was to a crime against her. A further crime. He would have liked to think that he was not a dishonest man. But he was, after all, a man like any other.

I first heard about Jenny Diski when I read her obituary in the Guardian (read it here). Diski – a passionate smoker – was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014. She wrote about her diagnosis as well as her life with cancer in the London Review of Books (find it here). Jenny Diski died on April 28, 2016. This may sound a bit morbid but her obituary made me want to find out more about this interesting and headstrong woman. After reading some of her contributions in the LBR, I decided to get some of her books, which was not as easy as I thought. I don’t know why – maybe Diski isn’t mainstream enough, maybe it’s not the right time for odes on smoking in trains and the like – but some of her works were hard to find. In the end I settled for two fictional works, the short story collection The Vanishing Princess and the book I will discuss here, Apology for the Woman writing.

Diski’s main protagonist, Marie de Gournay, is a stubborn, passionate, and at times aloof woman, who is in no way interested in following the well-worn paths of her mother and the women of her times and instead devotes her life and existence to the work and (later) legacy of Michel de Montaigne and his Essays. Setting out to become a writer and philosopher herself – something unthinkable for a woman in the French upper-class of those days (sixteenth/seventeenth century) – she eventually moves to Paris (first with her family, years later on her own) to try her luck. Diski portrays Marie as an ambitious scholar, an autodidact who tries to sharpen her intellect with the works she finds in her late father’s library and whatever books her uncle shares with her, but also as a woman with a lack of not only female looks but also features. In this instance, Marie at times seems like a caricature, though later in the book it becomes clear that she is indeed savvy enough to organize her house on a tight budget, so she is at least a bit practical, albeit maybe not in the typical and expected female way of those days.

But back to the first third of the book. After reading Montaigne’s Essays, Marie seems to have found her true calling, namely being one of history’s first “groupies” (in some way) and existing only to promote and support Montaigne’s genius, even though he does not even know her. After falsely believing that he is dead and finding out he is not, she writes him a passionate letter while residing in Paris with her family. He, after reading her flaming words and realizing they are both in Paris right now, imagines a beautiful and devoted young woman and decides that he wants to meet her. So Michel de Montaigne pays Marie a courtesy visit and from then on things go awry, in some way. Marie is not the beautiful young woman Montaigne imagined, still she overwhelmes him with her passion and devotion, pinching herself with her hair pin to demonstrate to him how strong her “love” for him is. After refusing to adopt her and instead offering her the title of”fille d’alliance”, a “daughter of his intellect”, Marie invites Montaigne to stay at her family’s home, the Chateau de Gournay, whenever he feels like it – while Montaigne tries to get away from her as fast as possible.

After suffering from a heavy bout of gout on his way home from Paris he is forced to accept her invitation to Chateau de Gournay. Staying for several weeks, Marie and Montaigne revise his Essays and it is then that she experiences her biggest triumph, seeing how he includes a paragraph appreciating her and her work in his writing. This is what will keep her going to the end of her days. This is what will make her vulnerable and at times ridiculous, even though she does not see it. Apart from the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll part, she is the perfect groupie and I can only imagine what would have happened had she ever had the chance to meet the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Justin Bieber (and forgive me for mentioning Bieber in one line with Jackson and the Beatles, this is referring to fan devotion, NOT musical genius/importance) …

She also works on her own books and writings as well, though Diski does not focus on this part of Marie’s life and work as much as her fangirling concerning Montaigne (her work is still quite impressive for a woman of her times, writing for nobility and receiving an allowance by Queen Margo, thereby being able to support herself). But everything that is remarkable about Marie as a person – her stubbornness, her ability to teach herself and learn from others and their writing (styles) – makes her work average and uninspired, at least according to Montaigne and Diski. Which may be the reason that Diski never really focuses on Marie’s writing apart from what happened in direct relation to Michel de Montaigne.

After Montaigne’s death, Marie’s wrong (asymmetrical?) self-assessment climaxes when she revises the final edition of his Essays – even though Montaigne’s wife, complying with his last will, simply asks her to find a printer in Paris to keep his memory alive – to her favor. Montaigne’s widow makes it quite clear that she does not appreciate Marie’s additions and revisions and that she furthermore wants her out of her life. From then on, Marie realizes that she indeed overestimated her position in Montaigne’s life and work and that she has to create her own life, if one might say so. Now we get to know Marie apart from Montaigne, Marie on her own, Marie with Jamyn, her maid and one more woman who is capable of so much more than she truly shows. Also, Diski adds an interesting twist to the relationship of the two women, which at times seems like a bit of an uninspired cliché, but more importantly adds an important and interesting layer to Marie’s character.

In the “Author’s note” Jenny Diski calls her work a ‘historical novel’ and explains her fictional Marie and why she chose a certain direction over another. Apart from the main characters and most of their works, this is fictional and not factual, something one should never forget when reading books like that. This is even more important when the author regularly uses a sort of factual, distanced prose that may create the illusion of reading a biography, not a novel. But this is Diski’s strength, and I loved the book for the distance she creates while narrating artificial and longed for intimacy between the various characters. Marie can be annoying at times, her fangirling and the way she never sees how her beloved philosopher at times simply uses her, can be exhausting. But I don’t have to love my main character every single page to appreciate and like a book.
Therefore, even though this book might not be for you, go out there, take a look at her oeuvre and maybe you find some other Diski that is right for you.