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Submitted Literature

Then Again

By Jenny Diski

Review

Jenny Diski’s Then Again (1990) is a difficult, puzzling, double-layered novel that explores a fantastic liminality between sanity and madness, dream and reality as the main character, the artist Esther, battles her own mental fragmentation, the strange, intrusive dream-life identity of Esther/ Elizabeth, a persecuted Jew living in the fourteenth century, and that of her psychotic daughter Katya who suffers religious delusions and auditory hallucinations.  The fourteenth-century Esther has a displaced identity as she is kidnapped after her parents are slaughtered for being Jewish and bought up as a Christian with the name Elizabeth. As she begins to discover her ‘true’ identity through asking existential questions to the priest Father Anselm she is unwittingly led to an altogether darker world of sexual exploitation by the priest before being burned at the stake for heresy during the Inquisition.  The modern-day Esther finds herself similarly exploited by her psychotherapist lover Ben whose manipulative sexuality and seeming betrayal of trust around the care and treatment of Katya mirrors that of Anselm – Anselm supplying a letter to the Inquisition and Ben sending one that results in her daughter being sent to the mental hospital.  As much as the novel is about the fine line between sanity and madness it is also about the need to question existence, to ask ‘What for?’  In this, Esther, Esther/ Elizabeth the Jewess, Katya who is raped by Kit, and her homeless soul-mate Sam, share this characteristic.  Across the borderline between sanity and madness, and midst the doubling of names and permeable identities, these characters engage in their own search for answers that seem to retreat as they are approached.  This attempt to make patterns and bring some coherence to existence is neatly captured in the creative effort of Esther who begins painting plates with patchwork, fragmented designs that have black lines separating different colours.  These painted plates are both highly representative of her own state of mind and an attempt to manage fear, anxiety and confusion through creative art.  The plate design shifts to a purer form of fragmentation following the actual breakage of a plate and its reconstitution as a design of broken colours without the earlier black boundaries which are now replaced by the real ‘breakage lines’.  This brings the design to a new level in symbolising the drawing together or totalising of the non-totalisable of existence, the tension between art and reality, and the commitment to makings and patterns that might be unpopular, as with the figure of the mad person, and fall foul out of favour with the buying public:  ‘Esther knew that the new design was disturbing.  It was not comfortable and made no sense without the earlier designs in the series.  But she also knew that this new plate must stand alone, without reference to the others... A cock-eyed pattern, a slippage between colour and design.  It didn’t matter what people thought, or what erroneous origin they gave it.,,, With each change of colour she had to wait for the adjacent colour to dry enough not to bleed when she applied the new one.  It was getting towards dawn by the time she had finished.  These plates would be expensive, if she priced them according to the time she took to make them.  Then it struck her with absolute certainty that no one would buy them anyway.  She could hear the ringing, confident voices of the women who owned the shops she sold her designs to. ‘Well, it’s just not – commercial.  It’s such a – mess.  You know?  I don’t mean to be rude, but your fruit and flowers designs are much more, well, they sell.  This just wouldn’t look well on the table.’ ... Esther stared at the finished but not quite dry, plate.  She didn’t mind.  This pattern was hers, anyway.  She wondered what to call it.  Then Again, she thought, but knew that she would not, in fact, give this particular pattern any name at all.’ (211).  Here, Diski cleverly maximises the levels for interpretation and metafictional fallout in relation to her own creative act in writing the novel, Then Again, and the possible reception and achievement of a literary ‘mess’ – a cock-eyed and labyrinthine story that takes us everywhere and nowhere all at once.  We may ask whether her novel looks well on the ‘table’ but there can be no answer to such a question and Diski knows it.

Key Themes:

  • Creativity and Madness

Reference: Jenny, Diski. 1990. Then Again. Vintage, 1991

Reviewer

Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Sunday 3rd May 2009