The Vanishing Princess: Stories

The Vanishing Princess: Stories

by Jenny Diski


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“Caustically funny and ebullient stories. . . . Diski’s is the kind of voice of which we need more, of which we now have one fewer. But she has paved a subversive path through the forest for others to follow.” — Vanity Fair

*Named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2017*


The only story collection from the beloved Jenny Diski—darkly funny, subversive, sexy, and eccentric tales from one of the most original and intelligent voices of our time.

Jenny Diski’s prose is as sharp and steely as her imagination is wild and wondrous. When she died of cancer in April 2016, after chronicling her illness in strikingly honest essays in the London Review of Books, readers, admirers, and critics around the world mourned the loss. In a cool and unflinching tone that came to define her singular voice, she explored the subjects of sex, power, domesticity, femininity, hysteria, and loneliness with humor and honesty,

The stories in The Vanishing Princess showcase a rarely seen side of this beloved writer, channeling both the piercing social examination of her nonfiction and the vivid, dreamlike landscapes of her novels. In a Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale turned on its head, a miller’s daughter rises to power and wealth to rule over her kingdom and outwit the title villain. “Bathtime” tells the story of a woman’s life through her attempts to build the perfect bathtub, chasing an elusive moment of peace. In “Short Curcuit,” the author mines her own bouts in and out of mental institutions outside London to question whether those we think are mad are really the sanest among us.

Longtime fans of Diski and those who have discovered her since her death will find much to treasure here, in her only short story collection, released in the US for the very first time. The Vanishing Princess is another vital stop on Jenny Diski’s journey for meaning and beauty in her prolific writing, one that feels as fresh and necessary as if it were brand-new.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

I came to Jenny Diski late. In that, I am not unlike Heidi Julavits, who in her Foreword to Diski's collection of fractured fairy tales, The Vanishing Princess, acknowledges, "My Diski gateway was her nonfiction and when it came to her fiction, I began with her short stories." Indeed, I might take this a little further, which is to say that what has drawn me most to Diski is her disregard of genre lines. Take In Gratitude, her memoir of dying, published just days before her death in 2016. There, Diski eclipses the boundary between two forms: the cancer memoir, which she doesn't want to write ("Embarrassment at first," she grumbles, "to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness") and the coming-of-age saga, which in her case involves not only the usual familial indignities but also a stint in a psychiatric hospital and a few years as (yes) Doris Lessing's ward. It's the stuff, in other words, of fiction, or it could be -- although it also resists being rendered as a coherent single narrative. The genius of the book, as well as, say, Skating to Antarctica or The Sixties, which cover some of the same material, is that Diski is too smart to try.

Something similar is at work in The Vanishing Princess, which was published in England in 1995 but is only now being issued in the United States. Gathering a dozen stories, some of which first appeared in New Statesman and the London Review of Books, it seems to be a book of updated myths or legends before revealing its true, and more subversive, intent. "There was once a princess who lived in a tower," Diski begins the first story, "The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism." The competing titles, and the tension or disconnection between them, offers a hint of what she had in mind. Diski makes this clear as the opening paragraph continues: "It is hard to say precisely if she was imprisoned there. Certainly, she had always been there, and she had never left the circular room at the top of the long winding staircase. But since she had never tried to leave it, it wouldn't be quite accurate to say that she was imprisoned." Yes, she is saying, we are in the territory of the folk tale, but the outcome, the movement of the narrative, will not necessarily unfold as we might expect.

That's because Diski is less interested in the conventions of the fairy tale than she is in exploding them, reframing them as part of a more recognizable world. Let's stay with that introductory story for a moment, which seeks, actively, to discomfort us but makes the archetypal human in some complicated ways. "She had never thought of herself as known in the outside world," Diski writes of her protagonist, "and felt a strange distress at the idea of existing in someone's mind as something to be found." What we are observing is the onset of agency, self-awareness in the most challenging, and contradictory, sense. I think of Judith Butler, her ideas on addressability and how we are exposed in another's gaze. This is the experience Diski is tracking, both for us and for her character.

At the heart of this endeavor is a kind of power: that of consciousness, yes, but also of intention. The women Diski evokes in these pages are adrift but not, or perhaps it's more accurate to say they are in a process of becoming. Take "Shit and Gold" (what a terrific title), which turns the tables on the Rumpelstiltskin story, giving power to the princess rather than to the troll. "I've got a better idea," the princess insists when he says he will return her newborn if she can correctly guess his name. "More interesting for both of us. Why don't you give me three days to make you forget your name?" That the mechanism of this forgetting is the princess's sexual prowess is perhaps another cliché -- or it could be, but Diski refuses to leave it there. Instead, sexuality yields to power, which means Rumpelstiltskin is not only fucked out but also dominated, made to do the princess's bidding while she takes over the running of the kingdom from her husband, who is revealed to be a charlatan, stupefied and neutered by his greed.

There's a knowing aspect to this writing; "[I]t has probably crossed your mind," the princess confides, "that it's a damn strange thing for a girl to become a wife purely on the grounds of being able to spin straw into gold . . . That's how it goes in this corner of the narrative world . . . we have no choice, characters such as we." And yet, this knowing is the point. What such a story has to offer is not merely its own narrative but a critique that questions every assumption of the form. This emerges also in The Vanishing Princess's more naturalistic efforts, which share a certain restlessness, a dissatisfaction, with the ways such stories have been told. "Everything about human transactions, on the other hand, was devious, including attempts at openness," Diski writes in "Short Circuit," about a woman who wants her lover to be unfaithful -- so the relationship will work. "Housewife," on the other hand, imagines a woman who is herself unfaithful to her loving husband -- or so it appears until the final paragraphs, when Diski reveals a dynamic between the couple that is more nuanced and complex. Nothing is what we think it is, not even narrative itself. This is vividly articulated in "Strictempo," which revisits (or pre-visits) the territory of In Gratitude and Skating to Antarctica to tell the story of a teenager committed to a psych ward, although the experience is less a cause of damage than relief. "So," Diski writes, in a line that could come from one of her memoirs, "at fifteen, in the year the Beatles recorded 'Love Me Do,' she danced her old-fashioned dance and closed down the part of her mind that wrestled with the future." Neurosis, in other words, as protective mechanism, the only rational response to the irrationality of her world.

What this suggests is the consistency of Diski's vision, the coherence of her sensibility. It is that I miss most about her, that articulated worldview. It centers her writing like a compass or wayfinder, less a matter of predictability than one of inquiry. "It was not," she writes, "so much that time repeated itself, round and round, and over and over again, but that it almost did."

David L. Ulin is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he spent ten years as book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Reviewer: David L. Ulin

Publishers Weekly

The dozen stories of this excellent posthumous collection look at isolation, anxiety, sex, the roles women play, and the attempts of men to define those roles, all from a female perspective. Three stories feature fairy tale heroines: two princesses confined to towers, one miller’s daughter tasked with spinning straw into gold. The title story’s vanishing princess never asks about the world outside her tower. As the narrator explains, no one told the princess curiosity was a quality worth cultivating. A passing soldier brings food, and then another soldier brings a mirror. Etching the princess’s likeness onto the mirror, the soldiers create what Diski (1947–2016) calls the earliest example of cubist art. In “Leaper,” two women meet after another woman throws herself under a train. The budding relationship ends when one of the two women, a writer suffering doubts about her own writing skill, has reservations about her newfound friend. Some stories depict growing up in a disjointed, unloving family. In “My Brother Stanley,” a girl knows her dead half-brother only from photographs and a portrait. “Strictempo” shows a teenager expelled from school, abandoned by her parents, living in a mental health facility where dancing offers respite from thinking. Diski’s protagonists include ordinary women with unusual interior lives. In “Housewife,” Susan Donohoe indulges in wild sex fantasies during her affair with an English lecturer. One protagonist imagines the perfect bath; another obsesses over whether Mount Rushmore exists. Diski displays hard-edged humor, incisive perceptions, and a lively imagination. (Dec.)

Vanity Fair

Caustically funny and ebullient stories. . . . Diski’s is the kind of voice of which we need more, of which we now have one fewer. But she has paved a subversive path through the forest for others to follow.

Nickolas Butler

Wonderful... Holds riches for all. Longtime fans will celebrate the very fact of more Diski and thrill to familiar preoccupations in new settings and shapes... Those who read Diski for the first time are in for the delight of discovery.


If you don’t know Jenny Diski’s impressive body of work—six travel memoirs and two volumes of essays—read the British writer’s brilliant posthumous collection...gorgeous, unruly.

New York Review of Books

Sharp, funny, clever...There’s much to admire in the book—the energy of the prose, the playfulness with which Diski approaches her stories.

the Oprah Magazine O

Rich with caustic wit and playful invention.

New York magazine

It’s hard for me to imagine a reader exposed to Jenny Diski’s writing who wouldn’t be hooked... Her prose conveys the illusion of a spontaneous monologue, a mind mainlined onto the page... Her life was material. She was her writing, the sum of it a masterpiece.

Washington Post

[Shows] that whether writing nonfiction or fiction, Diski remained witty, subversive and determined to tell her truth even when it was difficult.

Alexandra Kleeman

Mysterious, beguiling, and quietly radical, readers everywhere are lucky to live in a moment when they can discover, or rediscover, her eccentric charm.”

Washington Post

[Shows] that whether writing nonfiction or fiction, Diski remained witty, subversive and determined to tell her truth even when it was difficult.

O: the Oprah Magazine

Rich with caustic wit and playful invention.

Boston Globe

Wonderful... Holds riches for all. Longtime fans will celebrate the very fact of more Diski and thrill to familiar preoccupations in new settings and shapes... Those who read Diski for the first time are in for the delight of discovery.

Library Journal

Feminist writing lost a provocative, stylistic voice with the death of Diski (Nothing Natural) last year. She wrote not only several novels and varied works of nonfiction and memoir but also a regular column for the London Review of Books. This is her only collection of short fiction, originally published in Great Britain in 1995. The varied stories include some fairy tales in which the heroine remains passively trapped or consciously bucks the genre trope. Other pieces are less allegorical. A rebellious teenage girl is deposited in a mental institution during the swinging 1960s. An unadventurous housewife discovers her contempt for her husband while on a Caribbean vacation. Another figure achieves her life goal: the perfect, uninterrupted bath. A mom rationally introduces her teenage daughter to a discussion of drugs and sex. In the most memorable work, a competent hausfrau in the midst of a kinky affair with a college professor thoughtfully analyzes the ethics of betraying both her husband and her lover's wife. VERDICT Each story is told in Diski's clear, authoritative voice and explores how women strain (or not) against the bounds of a confining world. A great introduction to Diski's works. [See Prepub Alert, 6/26/17.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2017-09-19
This short story collection from a beloved British author, published in the U.K. in 1995 but only now receiving a U.S. release, glimmers like found treasure—or a mirage.The princess in this insightful, imaginative, and wryly clever collection's title story, "The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism," may or may not be imprisoned in the circular tower room in which she lives in solitude, spending her time (of which she has no sense) placidly reading books on her bed, generally unaware of and remarkably incurious about the world outside, which she can glimpse from her small window. It is only after one soldier and then another turn up to pierce and fragment the innocent solitude of her existence—bringing food, a mirror, and a calendar, to satisfy their own pleasure—that she comes to perceive time and disappointment, to see herself as they do and consequently to disappear. Among the ideas percolating in this quirky, disquieting fairy tale is the way a sense of loss can attend the moment of being found. Readers just discovering Diski (In Gratitude, 2016, etc.), who died from cancer in 2016, through the dozen stories in this collection may perceive this acutely—the searing sense of finding her funny, flinty voice just as it has disappeared. Yet for Diski devotees existing and new, the far-ranging work the author has left behind here is something to savor. In "Shit and Gold," she offers a bold and naughty reimagining of "Rumpelstiltskin" in which the upwardly mobile miller's daughter takes action to create a far more fulfilling fate for herself and the strangely named fellow with the helpful ability to spin straw into precious metal. (The miller's daughter, it so happens, has her talents, too.) In "Housewife," she steams things up with the story of two people swept up in, but not away by, a ravenous extramarital affair. In "Bath Time," she brings us a woman in determined pursuit of the perfect bath. Yes, only that. But in Diski's able hands the modest plot yields riches, shedding glinty light on dreams deferred, pleasures denied, the way we can, if we are single-minded enough, take the straw of everyday life and turn it into gold.Regal, raunchy, revealing—the stories in this collection leave a lasting impression.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062685711
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/05/2017
Series: Art of the Story
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,220,887
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

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