THE VANISHING PRINCESS: Stories, by Jenny Diski. Ecco, 188 pp., $15.99 paper.
Jenny Diski’s “The Vanishing Princess” opens with a fairy tale — the first of several in her droll and bawdy story collection, published in the U.K. in 1995 and now being released in the United States.
“The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism” opens with an obligatory princess in a tower. But Diski’s version, like all of her stories, makes no bones about confronting what it means to be female. It satirizes the idea that only men can save women. This princess lacks curiosity, sense of time or even a sense of herself until men arrive to tell her that she should want those things. “Having had no way of seeing herself,” Diski writes, “she had no precise notion that she existed at all. And having no way to mark the passage of time, she lacked any sense of expectation.” Her rescuers give her hope, a mirror and a calendar, but they promptly prey upon her disappointment and trust.
Diski is perhaps best (and most recently) known for her memoir, “In Gratitude,” published in 2016 just before she died of cancer. Critics celebrated her fierce commitment to writing about her illness. “The most essential aspect of ‘In Gratitude,’ critic David Ulin wrote on the website Literary Hub, “is that Diski never once averts her gaze.” What we see in Diski’s collected stories is the same scrutiny applied to the domestic and marital spheres, and to the nature of rational thought.
The tales range from legendary to modern: everything from a single mother’s search for the perfect, daylong bath to a young girl’s refuge from her divided family in an asylum. The writer unfolds each with careful awareness of the short story form. Readers new to Diski will find a wide range of topics and styles, but always her singular social critique.
Once a defiant and complicated teen adopted by the writer Doris Lessing in the early 1960s, Diski writes of women “determined to be bad,” like the girl locked up in “Strictempo,” and other women who assert their agency by embracing their faults. The main character in “Leaper,” a writer, explains: “There is no alternative to the panic and the fear, because it is the panic and fear — and the isolation — that are the writing. The desperation created the necessity that made me write. I fed on it.”
Anyone familiar with Diski’s work will wonder how much her own life bled into these tales. But whether or not the work is autobiographical is beside the point. In this age when women are coming forward, claiming #metoo and reclaiming their space in artistic milieux, Diski’s stories of women choosing their own narratives sound a particularly resonant note.
“Wild Blue Yonder” applies a dreamy, Chopin-esque sensibility to the contemporary story of a family on vacation. A mother’s awakening happens while buoyed on the waves. “Housewife” dips into the carnal fantasies of a not-unhappy housewife who has yet to indulge in her basest yearnings. “My Brother Stanley” asks just how much meaning we attribute to photographs and paintings, when we sometimes embrace the memories we create around them to the exclusion of reality. Diski understands that delicious pleasure — both actual and literary — is found in discovery and anticipation.
“I knew my way around stories of this kind,” a fairy-tale heroine writes in Diski’s version of the Miller’s Daughter (better known as “Rumpelstiltskin”), “being of them as well as in them.” Diski knows her way around them, too. It’s hard not to read these tales and lament the writer’s passing, again. But “The Vanishing Princess” is another radiant facet of her legacy.