Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley spent a night telling ghost stories at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland.
Consider an author, alone in the snow. Vladimir Nabokov has frozen still, caught out between the past and present as he drifts back into the memory of a childhood winter, its distant sleigh bells ringing in his ears. “What am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland?” he asks. “How did I get here?” Suddenly no longer the small child with the puppyish gaze who spent “snow-muffled rides” hallucinating a role in “all the famous duels a Russian boy knew so well” but the impish old man of writerly legend, he rediscovers himself aged in his New England exile. (He and Vera have not yet left America to live at the foot of the snow-capped Alps in Montreux.) The memories are immaterial; “the snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” So much is condensed in this handful of snow, now solid, now melting: a whole collection of memories and wonders. But what is the material supposed to mean? Perhaps you have to develop what Wallace Stevens calls, at the start of his poem “The Snow Man” (1921), “a mind of winter” to know. Snow, like so many other materials, keeps its own special area in our thinking, and has its own blizzard of effects on our minds.
Diski, as she makes vitally clear in her new memoir, “In Gratitude,” spent her every moment on earth beating the projections of authority figures. She overcame abusive and neglectful parents, foster homes, suicide attempts, repeated hospitalizations and the persistently gloomy conviction of relatives, caregivers, teachers, doctors and occasionally herself that she would fail at whatever she attempted.
Diski did not fail. Over the past 30 years, Diski published 17 books of fiction and nonfiction and became a writer who commanded descriptions from reviewers like “individual” and “wildly various”; her books — such as her 1997 “so-called travel book,” “Skating to Antarctica” (which she described as being about “Icebergs, mothers. That sort of thing”) — all proof, as Giles Harvey wrote in a 2015 New York Times Magazine profile, of her “spectacular originality.”
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