The reluctant traveller

On Trying to Keep Still

Jenny Diski <em>Little, Brown, 307pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0316725250

Jenny Diski isn't a natural travel writer. The issue is not so much the writing as the travelling. The cover of her latest collection of essays captures the problem. It's not a very clear shot. The hunched sleigh driver, silhouetted against a snowy landscape, could be just about anyone. But the uncertain posture gives her away. This is Diski in transit in Lapland, and movement just isn't her thing. "Nothing will persuade me," she writes, "that the mere fact of being in a place is enough in itself to justify the effort of getting out of bed."

Diski writes in a tradition of reluctant baggage-carriers. Although her acknowledged influences range from Montaigne to St Augustine, her closest ally is someone who never went anywhere at all. As she muses on ways to get out of getting out, Diski has much in common with the fantastically lazy hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans's fin de siècle classic Against Nature, who preferred to spend his time in an English theme pub than cross the Channel. Diski, like Jean des Esseintes, prefers her travel ersatz. Reflecting on a missed tourist opportunity, she considers what "would have been the difference if I had actually gone . . . Only the fact that I had physically been there."

Given all this, it's odd to find Diski repeatedly on the road. The essays follow her from New Zealand to Somerset to Lapland, and show her brooding on her childhood, bungee jumping, walking, the relationship between mind and body, the longing for the sofa, and constantly searching for the point of it all. Like her previous memoirs, Skating to Antarctica and Stranger on a Train, this is a brilliantly contrary book. It can also be cutting. On visiting a post-Peter Jackson New Zealand, she is initially surprised that the inhabitants should have been so proud of their reassignment to Middle Earth, only to conclude that "there can't be a population in the world who so consciously feel themselves to be peripheral. My guess is that they would welcome being in Middle Anywhere."

Her account of the Maori greeting ceremony that marked the beginning of a literary festival is equally frank. "A twenty-minute choreographed assault by young men in loincloths making testosteronic gestures, offering violence against you . . . 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." But the thing that Diski is most blunt about is her own idleness. "I am sloth-like in my nature," she writes. "Inertia is my thing . . . I am obdurate in this, not merely passive."

While much of the collection revolves around Diski's attempts to exercise her stupor to its fullest degree, there is noth-ing lazy about her writing. Combining philosophy with travelogue and personal memoir - in particular, memories of her difficult childhood - On Trying to Keep Still is unflaggingly engaging. It is also very funny. The comedy comes, in part, from Diski's joking conviction of her own singularity. As she recalls being surrounded by offers from lovers, agents and editors, she talks about her desire for an out-clause. The "very warmth and pleasure of the relationship seemed to deafen me . . . I wanted to be alone," she says of her affair with the poet Ian Patterson. Elsewhere Diski writes about her dislike of going for walks because "fresh air" and "nature in its season . . . make me shrink in my chair". Despite all this, she repeatedly ends up in the company of others. It's all a bit ludicrous, as her attempt to play Garbo in Lapland, accompanied by an Observer photo-grapher and five locals, clearly shows.

And though Diski may think she is odd, there is much in this book that seems familiar. It would be hard to find a reader who does not identify with the urge to hibernate among the soft furnish-ings - after all, most people read travel literature so that they don't have to bother to move. The form of On Trying to Keep Still, too, is very much of its time. In recent years there have been increas- ing numbers of books filled, like this one, with lists, journal entries, fragments of fiction and photos - works that, as Diski puts it, seem to be "snatching at the here and now", struggling to come to terms with the idea of the self and the world.

Perhaps it's a post-millennial anxiety, perhaps it's the zeitgeist's new wave of confessionalism. Diski's latest book distinguishes itself through its humour, its honesty and the way it captures the anxiety that brings reading and travelling together - the anxiety constantly "to be experiencing something".

Sophie Ratcliffe is a lecturer in English at Jesus College, Oxford

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