Writers & Company

Jenny Diski on the Bible's most dysfunctional family

The author of Skating to Antarctica spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about her two biblically themed novels, and why God needed to learn how to be human. (Originally broadcast in 2005.)
Jenny Diski, who died in April, was known for her honest and open writing. (Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures)
Listen to the full episode53:47

No subject was taboo for famously candid English author Jenny Diski, who died in April at the age of 68. Over the course of her career, she wrote frankly on the topics of, as she put it, "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." This was especially true when it came to her own troubled childhood and young adulthood, which included foster care after her father left and her mother suffered a breakdown, and a stint in a psychiatric hospital after Diski overdosed at 15.

Diagnosed with inoperable cancer two years before her death, Diski defied genre. From literary criticism in the London Review of Books to memoir-cum-travel writing in Skating to Antarctica and Stranger on a Train, she wrote across a variety of platforms. In the years leading up to her death, Diski also wrote about her own illness. But when she joined Writers & Company in this interview from 2005, she discussed two of her recent novels. 

Published in 2000 and 2004 respectively, Only Human and After These Things were inspired by the Book of Genesis and follow the story of Abraham and his dysfunctional family. Diski spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in the CBC's London studio. 

THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE

I didn't exactly look to it for my fiction, it's just that I decided to read the Bible. Instead of in bits and pieces, I thought I'd read it all the way through, and I was utterly gripped by it. I was also surprised by the story of Genesis — essentially by the story of Abraham. I read the King James version, and it was like sitting in the theatre watching Shakespeare: it's just full of quotes and it's as if you've read it already. So I read a couple of different versions. I just wanted to see what it was like as a narrative, because I'd never started at the beginning and carried on, like I would with a novel. I was intrigued by the idea of the different narrators. It was a mixture of both the narrative of the Bible and the way it was put together that seemed to me a perfect fiction that I would like to play around with. 

FAMILY PSYCHOLOGY

They're obviously founding stories, but they're also founding stories of families. They seemed remarkably familiar and laden with the psychology of families as I understand them, which is very much to do with guilt and jealousy and anger, and I daresay love as well, in a complicated sort of way. They seemed to me a template for any kind of writing about family. And in addition to that, there was the whole thrust of the Book of Genesis, which is about procreation: the need for something after death, which we of course think of as an afterlife. What shocked me about reading Genesis was that there's no mention of an afterlife at all. It's entirely to do with leaving generations behind. That's the impulse for immortality, and I found that fascinating as well, since death is another subject, as well as families, that interests me.

CRAFTING A GODLY NARRATOR

The God of the early part of Genesis is a sort of childlike character who wanders around the Garden of Eden and says "Where are you?" to Adam and Eve. He's lonely and sad. Later on he becomes petulant and demanding, and is quite remarkably like an angry child. He's inclined to stamp his foot and shout and make promises and not keep them. He behaves very badly, and to me the thrust of the narrative was God learning about what it was like to be human. In some sense he's brought up by Abraham and Sarah, who teach him what human beings are about, which is mostly not wanting to be lonely. God, sitting there in eternity, couldn't possibly understand that until humanity teaches it to him.

Jenny Diski's comments have been edited and condensed.  

Music to close this episode: "Dreams Today" composed by Peter Broderick, performed by Efterklang, from the album Piramida.