Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

On Trying to Keep Still

To open our week of Anniversary celebrations, we reprint the very first review on our brand shiny new collective blog – Trilby’s review of Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still – published on the 18th of October 2007.


So it seems I have the dubious honour of posting the first review. Shame, then, to have to open with a caveat: this is not a new book, nor is it one that I read all that recently. The review itself appeared in a Belgian magazine a few months ago. That said, On Trying To Keep Still is a book that I continue to foist on everyone I know. Including you, dear reader.

Having enjoyed Jenny Diski’s essays in the London Review of Books for some time now, I only began to take notice of her properly in recent months. In particular, her wry piece on online “virtual worlds” captured my attention, and it was a happy coincidence that a few weeks later, a friend sent me the link to her blog ( Diski’s subtly scathing entry on Bloomsbury’s reaction to the imminent demise of the Harry Potter franchise (“I wonder if much of their Harry Potter profit has gone on literary fiction, on keeping books in print rather than dumping them as soon as the sales drop, on developing new authors who will not be writing best sellers…”) clinched it for me. I promptly hopped onto Amazon and ordered On Trying To Keep Still.

In addition to her journalistic work, Diski has an impressive eight novels, two travel memoirs, two collections of essays and a volume of short stories to her name. On Trying To Keep Still is inspired by Montaigne’s observation, made in 1580, that “it seemed the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness.”

Diski’s attempt to achieve perfect idleness resulted, interestingly, in a year of travel. From a few weeks in New Zealand to two months in an isolated Somerset cottage and finally to the Arctic Circle, where she meets the Sámi people of Lapland, Diski peppers her book with digressions on spiders, fundamentalism and her childhood desire for ‘a condition’, as well as ruminations on ageing, a sore foot and her troubled relationship with her mother. She is by turns endearingly grumpy, vulnerable and amusing. I laughed out loud at her account of what it is to find oneself at the centre of a Maori greeting ceremony:

A twenty-minute choreographed assault by young men in loincloths making testosteronic gestures, offering violence against you… [while] behind them, women do much the same thing, though you sense that their presence has more to do with equal rights within the ethnic group than authentic Maori warrior behaviour. And we white international authors, properly liberal, stood in our best or least creased party clothes, smiling gratefully for the assault… Heritage, of course, but if a group of young men behaved like that to me anywhere else in the world, I’d have been inclined to tell them to fuck off and stamp on their bare feet.

On a gentler note, I sympathized with her almost comical dread of going out:

The weight of the thing-that-is-going-to-happen sits on my heart and crushes the present into non-existence. My ability to live in the here and now depends on not having any plans, on there being no expected interruption.

Despite the occasional reference to Nietzsche and Camus, On Trying To Keep Still is a wonderfully engaging read: a book to be savoured on those days when getting out of bed seems unduly overrated.

Little, Brown, 2006, 304 pp.ISBN: 978-1-84408-016-8

4 comments on “On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

  1. Kate
    October 15, 2012

    I’ve been enjoying JD’s essays in the LRB for years too, sometimes they’re the only thing worth reading in that irritating pompous rag, but it has never ocurred to me to read her for real. And now I shall.

  2. Martine Frampton
    October 15, 2012

    She appears to have moved her blog here
    hope that helps
    the library have a copy so I am off to find it.
    thanks for sharing

  3. Moira
    October 15, 2012

    Thank you very much indeed Martine – I’ll go in and update the link!

  4. Christine Harding
    October 15, 2012

    I’ve never read any of her books, but this sounds interesting.

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