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  Diana Athill was born in Norfolk in1917 and educated at home until she was fourteen. She read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and graduated in 1939. She spent the war years working at the BBC Overseas Service in the News Information Department. After the war she met André Deutsch and fell into publishing. She worked as an editor, first at Allan Wingate and then at André Deutsch, until her retirement at the age of 75 in 1993.

Her books include An Unavoidable Delay, a collection of short stories published in 1962 and two 'documentary' books After A Funeral and Make Believe. Stet is a memoir of Diana Athill's fifty-year career in publishing. Granta has also reissued a memoir Instead of a Letter and her only novel Don't Look at Me Like That. She lives in Primrose Hill in London.



Life classes

Writer and editor Diana Athill had a sheltered upbringing but books introduced her to a wider world. She reflects on the lessons learned from a lifetime's reading

Saturday December 10, 2005
The Guardian

Eighty-seven years of living must have taught me something. Yes. But how little! My life started in benign surroundings that afforded a narrow view of the world: hardship and cruelty, for instance, existed only in books, and then only to be overcome or escaped from. But at least there were books. Had there not been - and many households were bookless, or almost so - what would I ever have learned?


My first lessons, coming like everyone's from my immediate family, would have taught me that God was kind and approved of plain living and decent behaviour. I would also have learned how to ride a horse, play tennis, dance, and not to lie unless I absolutely had to. Later, I would have learned how to live with a husband, bring up children, run a house, and probably, since I enjoy using my hands, how to garden and to sew, and almost certainly how to paint: all my aunts did, and a great-grandfather was really good at it. If my husband and I continued to like each other, I would have learned a good deal about whatever job he did, and I would have picked up a fair amount about the world in general as reflected in the Times. In those days that was enough for many young women of my kind, and the only reason why it was not to be enough for me was books.

That includes books read by the rest of my family, not just those I read myself. The painting great-grandfather was master of an Oxford college, so his descendants all read a lot, thus making excursions into the past, into foreign countries, and into other kinds of life led by other kinds of people, and they liked to educate their young. Your reading did not necessarily tempt you far from your own ground, but you were given the chance to see that leaving it was possible. My own first books worked purely as fun, loved because they made me laugh (Doctor Doolittle was a great favourite) or because they fuelled romantic daydreams (fairy stories, or a bit later the novels of Georgette Heyer). Apart from a powerful shot of straight information gained when I was 11 and chanced upon a little instruction manual by Marie Stopes, tucked away in a dark corner, which put a thrilling end to ignorance about the mechanics of sex, books taught me little about real life before I reached my teens.

After that funniness continued to be important - I was an avid fan of PG Wodehouse. But exploration began, and has continued ever since: of the past through Shakespeare, Swift, Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Thackeray; of other countries through Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Flaubert, Maupassant, Proust. Naipaul illuminated the Caribbean, Atwood Canada, Keane Ireland, Dalrymple India; Willa Cather, John Updike, Philip Roth the US. And then there are the letters and diaries: nothing beats Byron's letters; and Boswell in his diaries, so hungrily eager to become good, only to fail and fail again, but how could anyone be considered a failure who so wonderfully preserved such a vast chunk of life? It is not just the learning of facts: it is the breathing of atmospheres, the sharing of experiences, the broadening of one's view of what is possible, of how life works. Let others enjoy fantasy, for me what matters is how it really was, and is. Through Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead I was able to feel what it was like to be a soldier manhandling a gun out of a swamp while under bombardment; through Nabokov's Lolita I knew the desire that can overpower a middle-aged man at the sight of a little girl. And, above all, there is that sense of continuity, of how "Now" has grown out of "Then", and of the infinitely complex network of connections between human beings, whether near or far.

Once learning has been given a push by books, it goes on within the reader's own experience step by little shuffling step. By the time I reached Oxford in 1936 I had taken on the idea that I ought not to dislike or despise foreigners, but had not reached the point of acting on it. At my school there had been only two "foreigners", one French, one Jewish. If they had been pretty and confident, I think they would have been accepted and admired for their exotic charm, but both were plain and shy. We had been told that we must welcome the French girl kindly, so I knew I was doing wrong when, having given her a stony look, I decided she was odd and unattractive and deliberately ignored her: I can still recall the sensation of my own stoniness as I suppressed twinges of guilt. About the Jewish girl our headmistress had sensibly made no preparatory remarks, but that failed to make us see her as just another new girl. I don't remember any discussions of her Jewishness, and certainly no one was positively unkind to her, but a barely tolerated foreign body was what she remained. I have forgotten the appearance of most of my schoolfriends, but the faces of those two girls are still with me. That cold, irrational dislike must have been focused on them with considerable intensity, to engrave them on my memory like that.

Yet guilt had been felt, a small step had been taken. During my first term at Oxford, at a party where people were dancing and there was a very black African among the men, I knew that if he asked me to dance I must accept with good grace. I was relieved that he didn't ask me, but the seed of how I ought to behave had germinated to the point at which I would have acted on it; and when the next day my best friend said that never, never would she be able to touch a black person, I felt genuinely shocked. As for Jewishness, by the time I left Oxford I was noticing it with no more interest than I noticed whether someone had blue eyes or brown. Some years after I was launched into working life, it was a Jewish friend, Mordecai Richler, who advanced my education several quick steps by taking me to a party where nearly everyone was black after which, in a taxi, a black man gave me a casual kiss. That kiss was important because it turned out to be ordinary, certainly not disagreeable but not wildly exciting, just another kiss. I was proud of it, however. It made me feel smugly superior to girls who had not been kissed by a black man. And from there it was only a few more steps - meetings with various people over lunch, in bars, across my desk at the publisher's office where I worked - before I relaxed and began to be able to like or not like black people on their individual merits in the same way as I liked or disliked white people. Not until several years later, when the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord and I got together (where we still are), did I start to be more ready to like blacks than I was to like whites: a flip to the other side of the irrational-prejudice coin which should no doubt be deplored.

I knew during the 1930s that anti-semitism continued to exist, but I didn't take it very seriously, seeing it (I think) as an exceptionally horrid but old-fashioned kind of snobbery which, since I myself had grown away from it, was probably on the way out. And when we began to learn what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, the very extremeness of that vileness served to distance it. Things that happen in another country ... in another city ... even round the corner in another street: it's astounding how little most of us are affected by them.

When, at the end of the second world war, the truth about what had been done at Belsen appeared in our cinemas, for a short time a great many people whose lives that truth had not touched, saw it, and it jolted their whole being. Those images left us in no doubt as to what had been done, and stunned by the question, how? How could any humans have done that to other humans? Words needed to be added to the images. And eventually it was words in one book among the many which have borne witness to the Holocaust - a book published by the firm in which I worked - that brought its nature home to me.

This was Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness, her examination of the life and personality of Franz Stangl, who was commandant of the extermination camp, Treblinka. In Treblinka alone the official German estimate of people gassed is 900,000: a figure questioned by a Polish railway worker who was a member of the underground resistance and therefore made it his job to record what was going on. "I stood there in that station day after day and counted the figures chalked on each truck. I have added them up over and over and over. The number of people killed in Treblinka was 1,200,000, and there is no doubt about it whatever."

Sereny's book, built on a mass of interviews, consists largely of such voices: those of witnesses, and those of people engaged in the extermination process, chiefly of Stangl himself. It is this that makes it different from the majority of Holocaust reports, which are usually by survivors. It is this which brings one up with excruciating directness against the question: how did mostly perfectly ordinary men become able to do these things? How did mostly perfectly ordinary men become able to look at human beings and not see them as such? Because that's what they did. And that - and this is the worst of the horror - came easily, and could come easily to everyone.

Look at genocide wherever it occurs. Look at the slave trade. Look at the rapacities of empire accumulation, at Muslim slaying of innocents, at our slaying of innocents. Look at the BNP. Look, for that matter, at children and what they can do to other children simply for being a bit different. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost anyone can do it.

Many of the lessons I have accumulated from books seem to me to have widened and deepened my love of life, but this one ... What is the good of learning something like that if you don't do anything about it?

That sort of question has always been asked. It has been answered in many ways, ranging from communing with God while perched on a pillar in the wilderness, to setting up as ruler of vast populations with rods of iron, none of which has managed to make human beings measure up consistently to what most of them would agree was the best in themselves.

It is certainly not answered by contemplating day after day the horrors going on in the world: by being bombarded, as we constantly are, with undigested information about which we can do nothing. It seems to me that people (not counting great geniuses, either evil or holy) are effective, and therefore fulfilled, only within the quite small areas in which their actions can make a difference. A local newspaper may be dull, but it tells us what goes on in our own county or city, and if we seriously want to we can react to the news we get from it in a way which may produce results. A national newspaper gives us information about famine in China or a bloody coup in Africa or an outrage against the Kurds in Turkey or an American "pre-emptive strike" in the Middle East ... and what can we do about any of that except be shocked or distressed (or perhaps smug).

Vastly significant events are thus turned into a form of entertainment - even more shockingly so when they are presented as images on a screen. To question the value of the widest possible dissemination of information is, these days, tantamount to blasphemy, but are not populations addicted to information gained in this way being corrupted, their reactions trivialised, becoming appropriate to an evening in the movies rather than real life? And can this be a good thing?

Books are another matter, because they rarely simply report: they weigh, argue, agree, disagree. They are the voices of individuals responding to events or ideas, and they invite their readers to think. Paying attention to them is not incompatible with treating much of the media with distrust, however true the facts it is presenting. But even books, although they can show us what we ought to do, can't make us do it.

There are, of course, people who do actively attempt to remedy events "about which we can do nothing". Whether because they have been taught to help others, or are lucky enough to have been born good, they up and off with field ambulances and so on, and that kind of unselfish impulse fills me with admiration. Nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers: obviously there are some in the caring professions who are not morally fine, but still those are the professions in which people are recognising the reality and importance of their fellow beings in genuinely helpful ways, and I know I would be a better woman if I were one of them. But I am no more able than dear James Boswell to overcome my failings, so I am not.

I am too selfish. At the prospect of close involvement with more than a very few others, I jib. Only when alone can I feel fully alive: a very diluted form of a disposition common among people with an inclination to write or to practise any other form of art. At its most intense it makes monsters of people in their private lives, which probably explains why great artists are usually male, since females are biologically slanted away from the extreme forms of this disposition, and have to devote a good deal of attention to others. I do so myself, and am glad to do it, but I cling more fiercely with every year to what is left over from that necessary domestic and social expenditure. The need eclipses guilt at not being a different kind of person.

So I conclude that it is a waste of an old person's time to worry about not being what one ought to be: chances to change missed are chances to change lost (let the young remember that!). Put as much goodness as you can into the cultivation of your own little garden, enjoy it as much as you can without harming others, and you won't leave the world much uglier than you found it.

That I have reached such a trite conclusion after 87 years of living is mortifying, but I suppose it is some comfort to remember that it has been reached before by better minds than mine, and it does at least enable me to be a good deal more cheerful than, considering the state of the world, I ought to be, and to recognise that even within the narrow limits of my own experience there has been - there is - kindness, courage, generosity, unselfishness, intelligence, and much else that can rightly be valued and enjoyed. And, of course, there are still books.

Diana Athill's Stet: An Editor's Life is published by Granta.


The world of books

Autobiographies of literary figures can be self-important, however Stet by Diana Athill is one written for all who love books

Stephanie Merritt, Deputy Literary Editor

Sunday August 6, 2000

Diana Athill
Granta, £12.99

Memoirs of the literary life, however fascinating to those involved in it, often run the risk of appearing clubby and parochial to anyone outside the book world. All that 'How well I remember my first lunch with dear old Tom Eliot back in 1931 when I was editing The Scratcher ' has a limited appeal, unless the author is someone as flamboyantly public as Martin Amis.

But for those who love books and are curious about the business of writing, the recollections of prominent figures in English letters can offer intimate recent histories of the changes in writing and publishing, and a wealth of anecdotes; one thinks particularly of Karl Miller's Dark Horses, Jeremy Lewis's Kindred Spirits or Claire Tomalin's Several Strangers .

Diana Athill, who spent her life working as an editor with some of the most outstanding writers of the past half-century, claims to have no grand illusions about her memoir, Stet (Granta, £12.99): 'All this book is, is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it.' But her modesty is deceptive - this is a little gem.

Born in 1917, Athill spent the war working for the BBC and then left to help the formidable André Deutsch set up his first publishing company on a shoestring. The book is, in part, a homage to Deutsch, who died earlier this year, and who emerges as a determined, bold, irascible, often insufferable and highly charismatic figure, but it is also a chronicle of a long-vanished age of publishing, before the conglomerates took over, when it was still possible to run a company from one rented room with your ideals of literary quality intact. 'It is sad to think we did not appreciate the luxury of not having to ask ourselves, "Is it commercially viable?" in those happy days before that question set in,' she says, wistfully.

Through all the vicissitudes of trying to keep the company afloat while fending off creditors and the ill-judged and often incapable assortment of people Deutsch employed, Athill and Deutsch built a remarkable list: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mordecai Richler, Simone de Beauvoir, V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, among others. They gained a reputation for courageous publishing when they were served an injunction against publishing Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, after the literary editor of the Sunday Times discovered that it contained a bowdlerised version of the word 'fuck' and wrote an apoplectic article protesting that 'no decent man could leave it where his women or children might happen to see it'.

There is an endearing quaintness to Athill's prose, but a wonderful worldly candour too, and wit, which undoes any notion of her as a prim Miss Marple figure. Sonia Orwell was 'an intellectual snob without having, as far as I could see, a good enough mind to justify it'. Of the Sixties, she remarks: 'Most of the people I knew had been bedding each other for years without calling it a sexual revolution.' In the chapters on 'her' authors, particularly the brilliant, pitiful Jean Rhys, there is a real tenderness and affection.

Stet ('let it stand', a copy-editor's mark) is a nostalgic, funny and valuable record of contemporary writing's childhood, written unashamedly for those who care about books.

Robert McCrum is away


The storms before the calm

Now the grande dame of publishing, Diana Athill looks back on a turbulent life of literature - and love

By Clare Colvin

12 August 2000

Diana Athill's flat, looking onto plane trees on the northern side of Primrose Hill, is wonderfully secluded from London noise. Apart from her poodle scratching at the sitting-room door, nothing disturbs the peace. There is a watercolour of an Edwardian lady contemplating a pastoral scene as she embroiders. The chair I am sitting on is an example of Diana Athill's own embroidery, gros point in deep blue and red.

Athill, wearing a loose linen shirt and trousers, is pleasantly at ease. Because of a cataract operation she no longer has to wear severe spectacles, revealing clear, youthful eyes. She is 82 and the survivor of the partnership of three which created one of the most influential publishing houses of postwar years - Andre Deutsch, whose authors included VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Gitta Sereny and Brian Moore. The calm she lives in now is in contrast with the tempestuous time as director and editor at Deutsch.

I remember those years. I was a secretary at Andre Deutsch for a brief period, in the room next to his office, from which I could often hear sounds of strife. Eventually, one of his editors would emerge, looking brutalised. Nicolas Bentley, the cartoonist and third partner, stayed out of the office altogether apart from attendance at Friday editorial meetings.

Diana Athill's memoir, Stet (Granta, £12.99), is softer about Deutsch's behaviour in retrospect, though readers could be excused for thinking of him as a Hungarian Captain Bligh. His saving grace was his irresistible charm and genius for publishing.

"He was fiendish," remembers Athill. "By the time you got there, we were settled in, and he was quite mellow. We were very prosperous, so that this terrible threat of Doom, that we were on the way to ruin, which he always used as a way of disciplining us, didn't really impress us any more."

Curiously, for someone who was to live and breathe publishing for 50 years, Diana Athill fell into it by chance. Her youthful ideal, growing up in the 1930s, was to fall in love, marry and have children, but a broken engagement at 22 shattered her confidence. She drifted in and out of affairs, and spent the war years working for the BBC. One evening, a fellow employee at the BBC, George Weidenfeld, brought a 26-year-old Hungarian, Andre Deutsch, to a party she and her flatmate were giving.

After a brief affair with Andre, they decided they were better as friends. Andre set up Allan Wingate (he was advised not to use "Deutsch" so soon after the war) and Diana was pulled in as editor, advertising manager and packer. They started with too small a capital, and soon had to search for backers to rescue them. Two of the backers wrested control from Andre, and he left to start another house in 1952 - Andre Deutsch. This time, by selling a serial deal for £30,000, they launched on a sound footing, though this did not end Andre's legendary meanness. Envelopes had to be re-used, lights switched off, and woe betide an editor who paid an advance to a poet.

"Those were the days before the independent publisher lost out to the conglomerate in the battle over buying books. To begin with, Andre could go over to America, find something very exciting and make what appeared in those days to be a huge bid and snatch it from under people's noses. When we got Norman Mailer's An American Dream, Andre swooped on it and paid £25,000, which was a staggering amount for a novel then.

"That side of publishing began to die out on us, and we had to fall back on what else we were known for, which was good books by lesser selling writers. And those got harder and harder to sell."

In the end, someone at the editorial meeting had to ask how many copies a certain novel would sell, and the answer was "about 600". This for a book that would have paid its way a few years earlier. The reason, she thinks, is that other forms of entertainment had become so accessible. People who really adored books went on buying them, but there were not enough of them.

Before the decline of Andre Deutsch as publisher, there were great editorial moments. In the second part of Stet she writes about her relationship with the authors she edited. With Jean Rhys she entered the role almost of carer. Her friendship with Brian Moore foundered when she tentatively criticised the way he dumped his first wife - soon after, Moore dumped Deutsch. V S Naipaul left Deutsch after she suggested alterations to one of his novels. She was surprised at her relief. "I didn't have to like Vidia any more!"

While editing, Athill was unconsciously serving her own apprenticeship as writer. Her first memoir, Instead of a Letter, was written as a therapeutic exercise. She had had a happy childhood in Norfolk, and fell in love, aged 15, with the undergraduate who was her brother's tutor. She went to Oxford and they became engaged. The war intervened, he was posted abroad, and after a silence of two years, came a formal letter asking to be released from the engagement.

"My feeling of inadequacy for years afterwards was entirely and solely because of being jilted. I felt I had failed in the purpose of life for a long time. It was when I started to write for myself, which I enjoyed immensely, that my sense of failure ended... I also got a new and permanent lover." Instead of a Letter struck a chord, and she received many letters from people identifying with it. Two other confessional memoirs followed. Though she valued her permanent relationship, she still fell in love, with some turbulent results.

After a Funeral, re-issued by Granta, is about her friendship with an Egyptian writer in exile, Didi, 10 years younger than her. He moved into her flat, and soon revealed another side beneath his charm and intelligence. He was a gambler, a drunk and a womaniser, he borrowed money and he wrote hurtful jibes about Diana in a diary which he left open for her to read.

Why did she put up with this behaviour? Athill remembers what Ford Madox Ford's mistress had said about Jean Rhys; that she "had never realised the power of a completely helpless person until she had met Jean". And so it was with Didi. "Once you commit yourself to this poor helpless person, you realise that helplessness is a very powerful thing."

Didi killed himself in her flat five years after they had first met. The flat, so peaceful now, was witness to even more extreme scenes when a disciple of Malcolm X, Hakim Jamal - who was published by Andre Deutsch - moved in on her. Again, there was a sexual attraction, a tortured friendship, a transitory affair. The memoir she wrote, Make Believe, has not been reissued. You wonder how this assured, intelligent woman put up with the garbage these nutcases threw at her. Hakim introduced her to his girlfriend, Gail Benson (later murdered in Trinidad), and the pair harangued her through cannabis-laden nights, arguing that Hakim was God on earth.

There is a rawness about these memoirs that makes them painful to read. But Athill says, "There is no point in writing from personal experience unless you try to be as honest as you can. Jean Rhys used to say that in her writing she tried 'to get it as it was'. I write to get to the bottom of things."


Robert Fulford's column about V.S. Naipaul & Diana Athill

(The National Post, January 2, 2001)

V.S. Naipaul, who has written more than 20 books, some brilliantly acerbic and some merely peevish, is now starting to make a contribution to literature of quite another sort. A richly gifted writer, he happens also to be a great subject for other writers. The words written about him by friends and colleagues, many of whom are probably polishing their memories at this moment, could someday add up to a distinct literary sub-genre.

Naipaul is supremely, defiantly odd -- so cross, so contradictory, so audacious, so angry and resentful, so smart about everything except Naipaul. Much of this comes through in print. He's a stern moralist who studies and judges his fellow humans. Most of humanity is clearly beneath his contempt, though not beneath his notice.

He finds many parts of the globe lacking in civilized values and has (so far as his readers know) never found a place on Earth he can honestly describe as worth emulating: He's a preacher who speaks often of Hell but never mentions Heaven. Even so, readers find his tortured and highly dramatic reactions to the world enthralling. Watching his moralistic twisting and writhing has been among the perverse pleasures of literature since the 1960s.

Paul Theroux will always be considered the pioneer explorer of Naipaul as subject. In Theroux's confessional 1989 novel, My Secret History, Naipaul appears as a writer from India, S. Prasad, mentor and guide to Andre Parent, the chronically randy narrator, who closely resembles Theroux. That was written when Naipaul and Theroux were on good terms. Then their relationship soured. In 1998, Theroux presented another version of Naipaul, this one devious, arrogant, selfish and disloyal, in Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, a book that left readers with the firm belief that the author and his subject richly deserved each other.

This season has brought from England Diana Athill's delightful book of memoirs, Stet, written with easy grace and perspicacious wit, somehow naive and sly at the same telling moment. Here again, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul performs a star turn.

The proofreader's term "stet" means "let it stay" -- ignore previous attempts to change or eliminate a passage. Athill means this chronicle to stand permanently as her personal account of the period, starting in the early 1950s, when she was the much-admired, much-discussed editor at the London publishing house of Andre Deutsch; she retired at age 75, eight years ago. Athill was the editor who ushered Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore into the limelight, and with the greatest difficulty, revived the career of the famously drunk and demanding Jean Rhys. One young writer led her to another, and apparently Richler helped her find both Moore and (indirectly) Naipaul. The company published 18 books by Naipaul, building its own reputation as well as his.

Athill discovered that as a colleague Naipaul was prickly, defensive, a man of infinite elbows. He grew up as an Asian in Trinidad, hating the place for its incompetence and provincialism, and hating his mother; then he went to England and hated Oxford. He has never felt at home in Britain, no matter how many of its literary grandees have hymned his praises; and his feelings didn't change in 1990 when the queen made him Sir Vidiadhar. While his novels are acutely sensitive, his travel writing reads like a relentless search for the deplorable: Much of it consists of Naipaul finding various huge geographic areas (India, Africa, the Islamic world) appalling --though sometimes, admittedly, interesting.

For Athill, Naipaul turned out to be the classic case of what editors call a high-maintenance writer. That sometimes means the writing needs a lot of editing in the office (not true for Naipaul) but more often means that the writer requires constant reassurance and indulgence on a scale approaching what we might expect of a full-time psychiatric social worker.

Naipaul seems to have regarded the publication of each of his books as a tragedy: The publishers refused to do their job, the reviewers (usually enthusiastic) failed to understand him, and sales, in his view, were disappointing. Each modest success sent him into another depression, from which Athill had to rescue him. She became the servant of his vagrant moods.

Athill worked with him for months before learning he was married, and then she only occasionally ran into the wife, Pat, Naipaul's long-time helpmate, whom he had married at Oxford. On one of those rare occasions, Athill said something about rarely seeing her. Pat responded with one of the most chilling lines in the history of marriage: "Vidia doesn't like me to come to parties because I'm such a bore." After that, whenever she felt depressed, Athill would remind herself that at least she wasn't married to Naipaul.

As the years passed, he became something of a bore himself, and Athill had to force herself to feel sorry for him, "in order to endure him." She learned that "self-brainwashing" is part of an editor's job, a point few editors ever admit to themselves. "I simply could not allow myself not to like him."

In 1975, she read the manuscript of his eighth work of fiction, Guerrillas, which concerned political psychopaths in Trinidad. She knew something about the people who inspired that story, one of them having briefly been her lover. (Her own extensive erotic life glides quietly through her book, like a black cat in the darkness, never quite clear in its outlines but never absent, either.) Guerrillas seemed to her undeveloped and incoherent. She knew she should have held her tongue, but she committed the sin of telling Naipaul, in a gentle way, that it wasn't up to his best. This was unforgivable.

Immediately, he withdrew the book from Deutsch. Athill's response to his cold and angry departure comes across as one of the most revealing passages ever set down by an editor: "It was as though the sun came out. I didn't have to like Vidia any more." Coming where they do in the book, those eight words are as resounding as "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty I'm free at last!" It sounds extreme. Perhaps only another editor would entirely understand.



April 1, 2001, Sunday



By Evelyn Toynton

A Memoir.
By Diana Athill.
250 pp. New York:
Grove Press. $24.

''I OFTEN wondered whether other businesses above the level of sweated labor imposed on their personnel the degree of discomfort we got away with. The country seemed to teem with people, most of them young women, so eager to work with books that they would endure poverty and pain to do so: a situation which we certainly exploited.'' Thus does Diana Athill, the doyenne of English book editors, characterize the working conditions at André Deutsch, the distinguished publishing house she helped to found shortly after World War II. Athill, now 83 years old, has made a name for herself not only as one of the most discerning editors of the postwar period but also as an almost unnervingly cleareyed memoirist. In books like ''After a Funeral'' (1986) and ''Make Believe'' (1993), she refused to romanticize madness, sex, revolutionary politics or even her own motives. Now, in ''Stet,'' she has written a memoir of her life in publishing.

Despite the reference to sweated labor, anyone gloomy about the current ''market orientation'' of publishers is likely to feel wistful when reading Athill's description of the early, chaotic years with Deutsch: ''Even in those book-hungry days we would have had to go far to find a piece of fiction more obviously unsalable than those stories, yet once I had pronounced them good we didn't think twice about publishing them.'' While she claims to have been wholly unqualified to be a publisher -- all I have ever been able to do with money is spend it; I loathe responsibility and telling people what to do; and above all I am incapable of selling anything to anyone'' -- she had near impeccable editorial judgment. Under her guidance Deutsch was the first to publish V. S. Naipaul, Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler, among others, and the first British publisher of John Updike, Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood. She also played a significant role in the re-emergence of Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, both of whom, after long silence, published new novels in their old age that brought them the acclaim that had earlier been denied them.

But ''Stet'' goes on to tell the depressing, and depressingly familiar, tale of how Deutsch floundered in the 1970's and 80's, when the mounting costs of book production, the dominance of new media and the entry of multinational conglomerates into publishing made it more and more difficult for small independent houses to survive. Deutsch tried the usual solutions. First, shares in the company were sold to Time-Life, which, while humbly refraining from any direct interference, became a constant irritant by firing off endless requests for the kind of information Deutsch could not provide. (Deutsch's long-suffering accountant once wrote to his counterparts at Time-Life, ''What we will be publishing in five years' time depends on what's going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don't know the address of that garret.'') Then Deutsch tried to publish more marketable books to pay for the literary ones it cared about; then management consultants were brought in; finally, the business was sold to a supposedly more hardheaded and businesslike publisher, who -- as often seems to be the case -- proved as spectacularly incompetent at keeping things afloat as any idealist could have been.

The chief character in this saga of Deutsch's rise and fall is André Deutsch himself. A flamboyant, moody Hungarian émigré, he was briefly and rather unenthusiastically Athill's lover (''When I wanted to sleep, he wanted to sit up and read The Times, and what he wanted to do he did, with much uninhibited rustling'') and for decades afterward a hectoring, penny-pinching boss who nevertheless gave her a large degree of editorial freedom. He was also a particularly trying friend who relied on her to see him through his myriad emotional crises.

There were others, too, for whom she performed this nannylike function in varying degrees. Among them were certain of her authors, and chapters on six of them make up the second half of the book. If the earlier parts of ''Stet'' are wryly humorous, the latter section is notable for its extraordinary lucidity. Athill never moralizes, but she observes everything and everyone (including herself) with almost painful honesty. While her portraits of Richler and Keane celebrate their moral virtues -- Richler's kindness, Keane's gallantry -- Moore emerges as deeply charming but finally a monster; the chapter on Naipaul scrupulously describes both his chilly megalomania and cruelty, and how, on a trip to his native Trinidad, Athill began to understand what it was he had escaped and what that must have cost him.

The most memorable chapters here are those on two ''lost souls,'' Jean Rhys and the American writer Alfred Chester. For someone so resolutely brisk and sensible, Athill seems curiously drawn to, and sympathetic with, these tragic figures. Her account of Chester's pitiful descent into madness is beautifully done; her chapter on Rhys, whom she knew better and longer -- and who was, perhaps not incidentally, a much greater writer -- is a miniature masterpiece.

That Rhys was fragile, alcoholic, isolated, poverty-stricken, paranoid, staggeringly impractical; that her life was spent hurtling from one disaster to another, we may already know. But nobody has made the bleak realities of her existence more vivid than Athill, who witnessed them at first hand when Rhys, then in her 70's, was struggling to finish her last novel, ''Wide Sargasso Sea'': ''Jean's was the last in a joined-together row of one-story shacks, crouching gray, makeshift and neglected behind a hedge. . . . The kitchen . . . was about 10 feet by 10. . . . The only heating . . . was an electric heater of the kind . . . which scorches the shins of the person just in front while failing to warm the space as a whole. The small table at which Jean worked and ate, two upright chairs, a cupboard for food and another for utensils were all the furniture, and this was the room in which Jean spent all day, every day.'' Yet Athill also describes Rhys, at almost 90 years old, correcting from memory the proofs of her final collection of stories -- a ''clear glimpse of the central mystery of Jean Rhys: the existence within a person so incompetent and so given to muddle and disaster -- even to destruction -- of an artist as strong as steel.''

It is impossible not to wonder what would have become of Rhys, and of her novel, without Athill to nurse her through the long travail (nine years) of writing ''Wide Sargasso Sea.'' The publishing world may no longer be hospitable to editors like Athill; we have to ask what the loss of the breed is likely to cost the rest of us.

Evelyn Toynton is the author of a novel, ''Modern Art.'' She lives in London.




Stet by Diana Athill (Granta) - Diana Athill was known as "the best editor in London" for nearly 50 years; she worked with, among others, V S Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Brian Moore. She decided to write this memoir, she tells us, not to give us a history of publishing, "but because I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too".

We are lucky; the experiences are rare and readable. Athill, who is in her eighties, is tough, sensible, worldly and fun-loving, a type that hardly exists any more. "Reading," she tells us, "was what one did indoors, as riding was what one did out of doors." After working for the BBC during the war, she teamed up with an early boyfriend, the Hungarian emigre Andre Deutsch, and started work as a publisher.

Athill's Deutsch is a fascinating character - tyrannical and charming in equal parts. Others in the book are described in the same crisp fashion. Brian Moore is a benign, chubby presence; Jean Rhys is incorrigibly muddled and socially inept; V S Naipaul is brilliant but creepy and troubled. "Whenever I wanted to cheer myself up by counting my blessings," she writes, "I used to tell myself 'At least I'm not married to Vidia'." Myra Hindley ("dignified"), Mordecai Richler ("he hardly ever spoke") and the little-known American novelist Alfred Chester ("tormented") all have cameo roles. I whizzed through it.


 A life in writing

Why writers are human beings too

Editor Diana Athill tells Nicholas Wroe about producing her own progeny

Saturday September 1, 2001
The Guardian

Diana Athill was 75 when she retired as editor and director of publishing firm André Deutsch in 1993. Last year she published her memoir, Stet , recounting a career spanning nearly half a century. The word is a copy-editor's mark meaning "let it stand", and the hugely pleasurable book has become an instant classic. Athill initially thought that "people in the trade might be interested, but I didn't think many other people would want to read about publishing". But the subsequent buoyant sales and warm critical reaction have exposed a rare lapse of judgment from someone who says she has been surrounded by books since a 1920s Norfolk childhood which comprised of "riding out of doors and reading indoors".

Her grandparents had been academics, and so "as well as knowing all the children's classics, I'd read things like Meredith's novels before I was 12," she says. "And my grandmother was a wonderful reader aloud of some very old-fashioned books that she liked. She read most of Scott to me, so I knew books like Ivanhoe a long time before most other people. She was so clever in skipping all the boring bits without us noticing."

Athill was educated at home by "very amiable and amateurish" governesses until she was 14, finding when she eventually went to school that the only thing she was good at was composition. But despite her late introduction to formal education, she went on to read English at Oxford, and after university began to look for a job which would involve books. "So I tried to become a librarian, but then the war came along and rather spiked that."

Instead she got a job at the BBC supplying background information to the newsroom, and didn't make her first contact with the literary world until she met the then aspirant publisher André Deutsch at a party in 1943. They had a brief and amicably concluded love affair; a few months after the war ended, Deutsch founded his first publishing firm and Athill joined him as editor, marketing manager and box-packer. Over the next four decades, until Deutsch sold up in 1984, they worked together to publish a stunning list of writers, including V S Naipaul, Philip Roth, John Updike, Jean Rhys, Stevie Smith, Margaret Atwood and Brian Moore.

Athill says that before meeting Deutsch she had never actually met a writer, and so welcomed her initial niche in the firm as "the editor who sat in the attic. At least to begin with, I was shy about meeting writers. I didn't think I'd know what to say to them and that they'd be bored by me. It was only gradually that I discovered that writers were human beings."

Although she worked closely with some of the biggest literary names of the era, she says the most enjoyable part of her editorial life would always be taking on a book "by someone who knew an awful lot about a subject but couldn't write. Making that read well was very satisfying." But she always knew that editors were only midwives. "If we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own."

All the more frustrating, then, that her own early attempts at writing were stifled by a lack of confidence. "I would have liked to write but it struck me as awfully arrogant to imagine that one could. One had been brought up not to show off and so it was a sort of background thing. You're not the only pebble on the beach, and all that. One didn't think one could do awfully clever things, and I thought writers must be very clever and beyond me."

The breakthrough eventually came when she submitted a story to an Observer writing competition under the pseudonym of Mr Watt, the name of that year's Grand National winner. When she later got a call from the literary editor, she assumed it was about a book she had sent for review. Instead he tentatively asked, "Are you Mr Watt? If so, I've got some good news for you." Athill had beaten 2,000 other entries and had won £500. "It was such a tremendous lift, it made me think I would go on writing. And the fact that it had nothing to do with being part of the literary world was a huge satisfaction."

When she began to publish, she shunned material picked up at work in favour of far more personal subject matter. Her first book, Instead of a Letter, was published in 1963. She has described it as a documentary about "a very important and very sad love affair that had apparently wrecked my life". At the time, the affair had given her a great sense of failure. "But having written it, I felt differently. I think it was partly therapeutic." She went on to write two more equally raw "documentaries", After a Funeral and Make Believe, as well as a semi-autobiographical novel, Don't Look at Me Like That.

In Stet, Athill explains that "books worth reading don't come from people saying to each other, 'What a good idea!' They come from someone knowing a great deal about something and having strong feelings about it. Which does not mean a capable hack can't turn out a passable book-like object to a publisher's order; only that when he does so it ends on the remainder shelves in double-quick time."

Which just about pins down Stet 's success. "I wrote it purely for the fun of doing some writing," she says. "And the fact that it has been such a surprisingly successful little book has been one of the biggest satisfactions of my publishing career. It really has done jolly nicely."


Secrets, sins - and cherries

Kate Kellaway talks to Diana Athill about love, sex and wartime tragedy, and reviews her new childhood memoir, Yesterday Morning

Kate Kellaway

Sunday January 13, 2002

I first came across Diana Athill when I was 17. I picked up her memoir, Instead of a Letter (Granta £7.99, pp224), attracted to its title. I was driven on by avid inexperience, sure that I could find out from Athill what life itself was not yet ready to tell me about love, sex and - most impressively - heartbreak. I admired her elegant vigour and control of words in contrast to the freedom with which she wrote about herself. She became, in my reading life, a friend.

Now, at 84, she has produced a companion piece to Instead of a Letter called Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhood (Granta, £12.99, pp161) about her childhood, which has given me a chance to meet her and reply, after a fashion, to Instead of a Letter.

It was a taciturn January day as I walked over Primrose Hill towards Diana Athill's flat. She lives on the top floor and called down the stairs as I came rattling up them. She has a lively, handsome face and was harmoniously dressed, in dark pink, with a bold, oval ring to match. There is something comfortably wicked about her: she has a marvellously indiscreet gleam in her eye. I stayed twice as long as I had meant to in her pretty flat looking out on to black, wintry plane trees. She has this effect: she is someone with whom you feel the conversation is never over.

Yesterday Morning is a captivating book. It is as if she had set out with a butterfly net to catch everything about her early life in an upper-middle-class English family before it - or she - vanished: the beloved grand house in Norfolk, the servants, her unhappily married parents. She tries to look death in the face, too. She aspires to Montaigne, she told me, who recommended that everyone spend half an hour every day thinking about their death. And yet she has a cheerful disposition. 'Animal spirits keep one going,' she notes.

Athill used often to be described as the finest editor in London. She was a founding partner of André Deutsch and has written - in her unfettered way - about working with writers such as VS Naipaul, Brian Moore, Molly Keane and Jean Rhys in Stet, her book about publishing.

Yesterday Morning could not be more different. It is an inward book and memory - subversive, unpredictable - is her editor. She writes beautifully about the way children make up parables. I loved the saga of the cherry stains she and her cousin try to rinse out. The stolen cherries, it emerged, would not have been seen as an unpardonable sin, it was the attempt at concealment that incurred displeasure. Athill learnt then the importance of honesty and of 'trying to write the truth, even if indecent, about oneself'.

She is always rightly praised for her 'honesty' - but this is too simple a compliment. She has rare self-knowledge, a gift for identifying disagreeable truths about herself. She has often said that, whatever happens to her, there is a beady-eyed watcher present.

As a child, she wondered: 'Am I ever going to get away from this awful self-awareness? Am I ever going to just be?' She worried, too, about whether 'knowing that one is being good stops one being good'. She loves moments when self slips and she can be all eyes (looking at paintings or writing). And her only novel, Don't Look at Me Like That (Granta £6.99, pp187), is concerned with visibility and the various ways its heroine finds to efface herself or even vanish from view.

Yesterday Morning describes a different sort of invisibility. Athill's mother's infidelity was something that could not be scrutinised at the time. She writes about it now with a steadfast refusal to disapprove. Once, sorting through old photographs, she and her sister, Patience, found themselves looking at a handsome, mustachioed man. 'Mum, who is this?' they asked. Their mother's answer was a gesture: she snatched the photograph from them. Athill finds family secrets unsatisfactory. 'Do find out!' she urges.

How much has she changed during her life?

'I feel I am essentially the same person.' And, if she might be compared to a wine, what would she say her best age was? She 'settled', she said, at 43, when she had an affair with Barry Reckord, the Jamaican playwright with whom she still lives.

Athill's memoirs tend to centre on men. Instead of a Letter belongs to Paul (his real name was Tony Irvin) to whom she was engaged when she was at Oxford (where she read English at Lady Margaret Hall).

He was a vivid person, who revelled in the present, which was just as well since he was not to have much of a future. He went off to war, as a pilot, and his letters suddenly stopped coming. She believes now that 'the depth and length of silence shows how guilty he was...' When at last he communicated, it was with a formal note asking her to release him from their engagement. Two months after his marriage, he was killed, leaving his new wife pregnant with their son. It took 20 years for Diana Athill to recover from his desertion.

Athill told me how, recently, Tony Irvin's son showed up in her life. He traced her because he was writing a family history and wanted a true picture of his father. Through him, Diana had the vertiginous experience of reading Tony's last letters to his wife: 'It was disconcerting because he was saying the same things to her as he had to me: you're so wonderful, so steady, you're going to make me a better person.' He had also written in a letter to his father: 'If I've wronged her [Diana], no doubt I'll suffer. I know her well enough to know I haven't spoilt her chances.' This was wounding to read, she admitted, even now.

Reading about Tony's death in his son's account, she was filled with sadness 'not because he was my young man' but because he was one of so many young men killed during the war and 'so full of promise and energy'. At the time of his actual death she recalls (a typical example of her 'indecent' truth) feeling 'a sort of satisfaction that his death ended it'.

Love was never sedate for Athill. After a Funeral (Granta £6.99, pp158) describes her complicated (almost platonic) relationship with an Egyptian novelist, Waguih Ghali. He was charming, impossible, with no talent for survival. He moved into her flat and, on Boxing Day 1968, committed suicide in the spare room next to the one in which we were sitting. Her superb book about him was written as 'therapy', she said.

As I went down the stairs, I observed that the rails and banisters were black and white, like a stiff zebra, and remembered from the book that Waguih Ghali painted them when he was hard up (as he always was). Diana says lightly now that the walls are in poor shape. She calculates cheerfully that she will 'crumble' before her house does. More - much more - than stairs will survive her.


In the editorial hot seat
Timothy Mo 

By Diana Athill
Granta, £12.99, pp.256,


'I've got a beady eye'

From Philip Roth to Norman Mailer, Diana Athill edited some of the most sought-after writers in literature. Then, in her eighties, she became one of them herself.

Emma Brockes
Wednesday December 22, 2004
The Guardian











Post aus London

Zum Tee bei Diana Athill 12.03.2004

Diana Athill ist 86 Jahre alt, fährt gern schnell und ist die berühmteste Lektorin Großbritanniens.

Read these articles, here                                    



Literary Review



Carole Angier

Cool Clear Burn


Somewhere Towards the End

By Diana Athill (Granta Books 192pp)

Read the review of this book here                                            





Extract from





Finders, keepers

Read it, here                   


The unrivalled Diana Athill

A bestseller at 91, she forged the modern memoir


Ian Jack

Saturday 31 October 2009


In the early 1980s, the publisher André Deutsch had an idea for a book I could write about the partition of India. I didn't take it up, which I regret now because I was wrong to imagine, as I told him, that "everything" had already been written about the subject. Instead, I proposed a thought of my own: a book about Indian railways, part travel account, part technical history and part family memoir. Too many parts, clearly, but Deutsch liked the idea and a few weeks later I went to his office, where he took out a fountain pen and ceremonially wrote a cheque, saying words to the effect that this was his happiest moment since the day he thought he'd signed up George Orwell (as I guess he told many writers of first books) and then stealing a cigarette from my packet to smoke in celebration.

I went to India for a year and did too much research. Soon after I came home to London, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi, which meant there was further postponement as I turned back to journalism. Then one day the phone rang and it was Deutsch, wondering how the book was "coming along". The truth was that it wasn't coming along, but I wrote two short chapters in a panic and sent them in as evidence that his money hadn't gone completely to waste. His response was to invite me to his office for lunch. It was there that I met a brisk woman in glasses, who told me that what I had written was very good and then read a page or two of it aloud to us: to Deutsch, because he had perhaps never bothered to read it himself (the thought occurred to me only later), and perhaps to persuade me that what I'd written was as good as she said, and the book worth persevering with.

She had a fine voice, precise and low, of the kind many more people had then than now, though even in 1984 her kind of accent had lost its claim to be the English that the nicest and best people spoke. "Patrician", "RP" and "Oxbridge" would be the easy adjectives, though what it reminded me of was listening to the BBC's Home Service as a boy and watching British films of the same period, where pretty well everyone spoke like this other than junior policemen and Cockney chars in pinafores. No matter. She read aloud – a few hundred words about an old-fashioned grocer's shop in an Indian railway town – and the fact was that her voice's elegance and intelligence seemed to elevate what I'd written, just as words scribbled in ballpoint seem profoundly transformed when set in 12-point Baskerville. There may have been an almost maternal element to her encouragement. She certainly had something of the kindly schoolmistress or university tutor about her: her thick-framed glasses, her enthusiasm, her opinion that I simply had to go on with it otherwise I'd be letting myself down. As life turned out, I didn't go on with it; I went back to newspapers and returned Deutsch's advance, and therefore as an illustration of Diana Athill's persuasive editorial technique my story is unsatisfactory, showing nothing more than how my torpor, fear and the need to make money could defeat one of the finest minds in British publishing. All I know is that if anyone could have drawn that book out of me it would have been her.

Athill would have been 66 then. She had been Deutsch's right-hand woman for nearly 40 years and went on serving the company that bore his name, even after he had left it, for another eight. Deutsch was the entrepreneurial spirit behind the enterprise, but it was mainly Athill who developed its reputation for good books by finding and fostering writers such as Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. The story of her long professional life as an editor is brilliantly told in Stet, and there's no need to add to it here. What I didn't know when I met her was that she was also a writer; or rather had been a writer, because her most recent book had been published nearly 20 years before. Few people remembered her novel (Don't Look at Me Like That, 1967) or her story collection (An Unavoidable Delay, 1962), which found a publisher in the United States but none in Britain. It was the middle book of her small 1960s oeuvre that knowledgeable readers, particularly women, mentioned when I said that I'd met her. "Oh, but you must read Instead of a Letter," they said. The book wasn't easy to find. It had been republished a few times since it first appeared in 1962 and was probably more often in print than out of it, but by the early 80s Instead of a Letter was more of a cult than the popular classic it deserved to be. The times weren't right. Literary taste was still largely dictated by male sensibilities and, while feminist publishing in Britain had begun to thrive, Athill didn't quite fit its political agenda. As to the book's form, "memoir" had yet to be established as a successful category in bookshops. Writers wrote them, of course, but rarely did they become known for the memoir alone (JR Ackerley and Laurie Lee may be two exceptions). Publishers and readers thought instead of "autobiographies", in which intimate personal disclosure took a back seat to records of achievement. The boundary between the two forms is blurred and bridgeable: VS Pritchett's wonderful account of his early life, A Cab at the Door, was described as "autobiography" when it first appeared in 1968, whereas now it would have "memoir" written all over it. Gore Vidal explained the difference in this way: "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." His statement is arguable, but it has the virtue of simplicity. More important, by stressing subjective, unverified memory it permits the memoirist to misremember and, unconsciously or otherwise, to embroider and invent – an indulgence, it has to be said, that Athill has never been interested to take.

At any rate, I got Instead of a Letter from the library. It told Athill's story from birth to the age of 42, a life begun idyllically in the English countryside, a life rich with privilege and promise – horses, sailing, books, an Oxford education – until aged 22 she's jilted by her fiancé and her dreams of a future as an RAF pilot's wife turn to dust. Happiness vanishes for the next 20 years. Rejection destroys her confidence, especially in her relationships with men, and she regains it fully only in early middle age, not through the once hoped-for avenues of marriage and children but when she begins to write and has a story published in a newspaper. Put like that it seems an ordinary enough progression – happy, then unhappy, then happy enough – and perhaps an advertisement for a creative-writing school ("Miserable? Jilted? Then learn to write the Miss Lonelyhearts way!"). But at that time I had never read a book like it, and to my mind only a few memoirs have equalled it since.

The most memorable and pleasing aspect of memoirs often comes from the picture they offer of a character or a period. We remember Pritchett's rackety father besotted by Christian Science and mistresses, or John McGahern's loving mother walking her son through the lanes of County Leitrim, or Blake Morrison's father bluffing his Yorkshire way out of and into trouble. The writer attends as a witness, but his own selfhood – what he was like – is present at most as an interlocutor of the character of others. Direct self-description is one of the hardest tasks a writer can undertake, because self-knowledge is so difficult and because the risks of self-indulgence, self-dramatisation and falsity of all kinds are so great (and easily spotted and mocked). Athill's book was certainly about herself, and the core of it about the severe disappointment that altered, and for a long time deadened, the course of her life. In other hands, it could have been a long wallow with an unconvincingly bright little salvation at the end. Many books are now constructed on this principle: look, I was an addict; behold, my suffering when I was abused. Often the authors say their motive is to give consolation and hope to others in the same position. Instead of a Letter certainly had this effect. About a hundred readers (99 of them women) wrote to her after the book was first published to share their experience and say how much comfort the book had provided – a large response to an unknown writer when authorship was much less publicised than it is now, and when communication involved the trouble of taking out pen and paper and buying a stamp. To be jilted, to have one's engagement broken off, left a public as well as a private scar (I remember the hush around the subject when in the 50s it happened to an older cousin of mine). The distress caused by rejection may well be a historical constant in human beings, but at least since 1962 our more open and casual attitudes towards sex and marriage mean that the humiliation is no longer so deep. "Guilt never caused me any serious distress, but humiliation did," Athill writes in Yesterday Morning. "Humiliation . . . was the sharpest misery I knew."

An instructive story of self-help wasn't, however, what she intended by Instead of a Letter, nor is it by any means the book's most important attraction. Like thousands of other readers before and since, what held me about the writing was its candour. The quality has since become an Athill trademark, though in itself candour is no guarantee of literary pleasure or interest: frank books aren't always good books and can often be tedious by boasting of their frankness. Athill's way of being candid is more subtle and its effect more persuasive. The reader feels that what he is reading is as true a portrait of the writer and her experience as any words on paper can achieve. Part of this comes from her considerable gift as a maker of sentences, which are so lucid and direct; some of it is owed to the breaking of taboos that then surrounded female sexual behaviour; most of it, though, stems from her triumphant struggle to "get it right", a lesson she learned from two of the writers she edited. Rhys told her that the trick of good writing was "to get it as it was, as it really was". Naipaul said that "provided you really get it right, the reader will understand".

All feeling and experience occur inside specific contexts – a room, a field, a conversation, a country house, a crowded pub – and by getting these things "right", as a good novelist might, Athill opened up what could have been a narrow story of injury and self-absorption into a book that takes pleasure in the world. Also, the harder thing, she got herself right by letting us see how she appeared to others. A chilling moment comes in Instead of a Letter when, soon after her engagement has been broken off, she reads a passage in her younger sister's diary. Her sister had a boyfriend who would hold her hand but refused to kiss her, though she was "dizzy with expectation" that he might. This, remember, was early 1940. Athill read the diary entry: "He told me that he was not going to kiss me though he wanted to. He said that I was going to be a fascinating woman but that I mustn't begin that sort of thing too soon or it would spoil me. Look at Di, he said, you don't want to be like her. And of course I don't." More than 20 years later, Athill wrote that "the shrivelling sensation of reading those words is something I still flinch from recalling". She saw with a "shameful, accepting humility . . . that I was diseased in other people's eyes: that unhappiness was not a misfortune but a taint. In the depths of my being I must have wanted to kill my sister for it, but all I recognised was a shuddering acknowledgment that out of the mouths of babes . . ." She then decided that she would be a model sister to her sibling, rejoicing at her triumphs and fretting over her sorrows. "But there was a streak of falsity in it: I was over-compensating for my resentment at the scar she had left with her innocent, idle thrust."

In a first-person narrative, someone else's diary can offer a useful change in the point of view. Another diary crops up in Athill's second memoir, After a Funeral, which was published in 1986. The book – Athill preferred to call it a "documentary" – recounts the tragic story of "Didi", a promising writer from Egypt who went to stay with Athill as her lodger after she befriended him as his publisher ("Didi" was in fact Waguih Ghali, whose novel Beer in the Snooker Club was published by Deutsch in 1964.) Their relationship becomes difficult and, on his part, bitter. Sex isn't the issue. Diana has a partner, called Luke in the book, and though she begins by wanting Didi she has sex with him only once, when both of them are drunk. One evening she goes into Didi's room and finds that he's left his diary open on his desk. She reads:

"I have started to detest her. I find her unbearable . . . my reactions to Diana are sparked by my physical antipathy to Diana. I find it impossible to live in the same flat as someone whose physical body seems to provoke mine to cringe. This has led me to detest everything she does, says or writes . . . I'd be sitting in my room watching a stupid thing on telly and annoyed with myself for not switching it off and working . . . In her sitting-room her typewriter would go tick tick tick tick tick. 'Christ,' I'd tell myself, 'there she is, hammering away at that bloody mediocre muck – dishing out one tedious stupid sentence after another, and thinking – no, pretending it is writing."

To quote such a passage about oneself in a book by oneself takes . . . what? Courage certainly, but also an unusually strong sense of duty towards the truth and the usefulness of truth to literature. In Yesterday Morning she writes that the damage lies do – the context is the anti-Catholic prejudices of her grandfather – may be "the central reason for trying to write the truth, even if indecent, about oneself". That may be the moral reason, but there is also a literary one: Rhys's "to get it as it was, as it really was". She exposes for all to see her pragmatic code of personal behaviour. Private diaries left lying around invite themselves to be read; married men can be fucked so long as nobody finds out (or worse, confesses) and the harmony of the marital home is kept intact. This is the way she was – as probably many of us are and will go on being. The consequence is that Athill in her books doesn't always come across as the most likeable of women. When Didi in his diary notes that she pronounces "spritzer" as "SpritzA!" – Colonel Blimp speaking – the reader may feel a certain sympathy with his antagonism, even though accents are harmless accidents of birth. But if she were more likeable, would she be more sympathetic – or as believable?

The qualities that come with being a writer of Athill's sort aren't always attractive. After she and Didi have their drunken sex, Didi comes into the kitchen the next day and pleads with her not to tell her lover.

"'Promise me one thing. Promise that this is one thing you'll never tell Luke about.'

'Of course I won't, I promise.' (I was already mulling in my head the written account, as exact as possible, which I was going to show Luke one day.)"

Graham Greene's famous dictum about the "chip of ice" that lurks in every writer's heart has never had a better illustration. It would be hopelessly wrong, however, to think of Athill as all ice: a cold-eyed writing machine. The reason that we can read Didi's diaries and letters is that he left them to her in a letter in which he described her as the person he loved most. Then he killed himself, despite her enormous kindness to him, in his rent-free room in the flat where more than 40 years later, as I write this, she still lives.

Recently I went to see her there. The flat has the top floor of the last house in a Victorian cul-de-sac that ends in the green open spaces of Primrose Hill and a fine view south across central London. Her cousin, the journalist Barbara Smith, owns the house and keeps an apartment on the ground floor; they have had this arrangement for half Athill's life, but when I visited her, in March 2009, Athill was making plans to move into a residential home for old people while she still had all her wits about her and could save friends and relations the trouble of making decisions on her behalf. Three months before, she had turned 91. When a person is that age the present tense is safest deployed with fingers crossed, though there are very few signs of serious failing. She has a hearing aid and walks with the aid of a handsome silver-topped stick and uses a stair-lift to take her up (but not down) the four flights to her flat, but she still drives her little car and her conversation is as witty and direct as ever. She looks majestic.

Nearly 20 years after I failed to become a writer for Athill there came an odd but pleasing reversal in our roles. As the editor of Granta I also became the editor of her three last books. Very little needs to be said about that. The typescript arrived, a few suggestions for changes were made, she absorbed them with her quick editorial brain, and a slightly amended typescript was soon in the post. Editing her was pure pleasure because I loved reading her; it was like having someone speak into your ear, someone humane and self-amused and wise that you wanted to hear. "Good writing" is difficult to define, and definitions differ according to taste, but you know it when you see it, which is rarer than publishing companies would have you suppose. I remember my excitement when I read the first few pages of the typescript that became Somewhere Towards the End (Athill's choice of title and a good one, as her titles always are). The book arose out of a brief conversation and the exchange of a postcard or two: it seemed to me that while the memoir genre abounded in accounts of youth – the "coming-of-age narrative" is a literary cliché of our times – very few books have let us know about life at the other end of the road. In fact, other than self-help guides (take a cod-liver oil capsule every day) and apart from the late novels of Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth, I could think of none. There are, of course, books about the process of dying by victims of cruel and slow terminal disease, but writers have been shy of the subject of just being old, as if shame and indignity had replaced wisdom and experience as the best-known qualities of great age. Our conversation hardly amounted to an editorial briefing and I had no word of progress for a couple of years. Then a few early pages arrived and with them the first vivid sense of what it is like to become old, like reports from another country that we shall all, if spared earlier elimination, shortly be moving to.

In different hands, the book could have been filled with a sentimental longing for the past, brittle cheer towards the present, or the religious consolation of the future. None of those things could ever have appealed to Athill. Instead, Somewhere Towards the End is a beautifully turned series of episodes, none of them sermonic, in which the author reveals how she has come to terms (or not) with what she calls "falling away" and the unavoidable fact of death. It was, wrote the late Simon Gray – no stranger himself to intimations of mortality – both "exhilarating and comforting" in its good sense, candour and lively spirit. Every passage is rooted in specifics. On the second page, she describes her new tree fern (£18 from the Thompson & Morgan plant catalogue) and her doubts that she will live long enough to see it reach mature height: a small thought, but it immediately takes us inside the mind of someone going on for 90. She has "got it right", and continues to get it right throughout the book, in the sense that we utterly believe that this is how life is and was for her. She describes her final lover, Sam:

"We rarely did anything together except make ourselves a pleasant little supper and go to bed, because we had very little in common apart from liking sex . . . We also shared painful feet, which was almost as important as liking sex, because when you start feeling your age it is comforting to be with someone in the same condition. You recognise it in each other, but there is no need to go on about it. We never mentioned our feet, just kicked our shoes off as soon as we could."

Stet, Yesterday Morning, Somewhere Towards the End: they may not be her last books – fingers crossed again – but they represent the late flowering of a writing career previously conducted in sporadic bursts. All were written when she was in her 80s and all are memoirs. Sometimes they overlap; they weren't planned as a sequence. A few places and people in them wear a light disguise; when Athill began to write, it wasn't done to name names in intimate personal histories. Now it seems reasonable to name two of them, because of the important part they played in shaping her life.

The first is a place. "Beckton", the country house and estate where Athill spent so much of her childhood, is in fact Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, just across the river Waveney from Suffolk. Her mother's grandfather, a Yorkshire doctor enriched by railway shares and a good marriage, bought it in the 1890s. A cousin of hers still lives there. (Athill herself is far from well off. Publishing never paid her much, partly owing to her indifference about asking for more, which she came to see "as foolish, if not reprehensible", and she had no inheritance. Having no money, she finds it easy to talk about. The royalties from her greatest success, Somewhere Towards the End will pay for her stay in the old people's home, somewhere closer towards the end.)

The second is a person. "Paul", the young pilot who broke her heart, was Tony Irvine. As squadron leader AT Irvine he died in the late afternoon of April 13, Easter Sunday, 1941, when his Blenheim bomber crashed into a mountain near the village of Vigla in northern Greece. Germany had just begun its invasion of Greece and a squadron of seven Blenheims set out to bomb troop formations before they poured south through the Monastir Gap. German fighters attacked the Blenheims ("dreadful, clumsy planes" in Athill's recollection) and six were shot down in the space of four minutes. Irvine's plane was last seen climbing into the mist that surrounded the mountainside, possibly trying to escape. The following day its wreckage was found 84 feet below the peak. Irvine had married by that time and his wife was pregnant with a son. When Irvine's father died, long after, this son found a letter from Athill among his possessions and got in touch with her. They met one or twice. He must now be a man in his late 60s.

"Just say," I said to Athill, "that Paul hadn't jilted you, that you'd married him. Would you have written a book?"

Her reply was quick but thoughtful. "If I'd been an air-force wife, I probably wouldn't have written a book. If I'd been an air force widow, I might have done."

In any event, a long time passed before she started out on the book that became Instead of a Letter. She said she had no intention of writing it, no premeditation, no structure, no model presented by the books of other writers. "That book happened to me," she said, meaning that it had somehow taken charge of her and couldn't be stopped. She had written nine stories for her collection and begun a 10th. "It was going to be about my grandmother but it fizzled out and I put it away. Then I took it out again and it simply went on. I couldn't stop. I wrote it even in the office in any spare moment. There was no plan and it's remained for me a very baffling book, but it worked as a piece of therapy to a quite extraordinary extent."

She realised she could write, and that she was best at it when not covering reality with the polite wallpaper of fiction but by recounting experience as it really had been, as honestly as she could evoke it to her own satisfaction: "I've never actually planned a book," she said. "I've never thought of readers." In the 47 years since, only six books have followed, which brings her total to eight. She said: "I've never written anything unless I've wanted to. I really am an amateur."

I thought of her self-description "amateur" as I went down the stairs and began to walk across Primrose Hill. Really, we should have more of them. More people who write only when they feel they have something to tell us; more writers driven by the scrupulous need to make us see clearly and exactly what they have witnessed and felt.

I walked on over the rise. London was now spread all across the horizon in its familiar jumble of offices and monuments. I thought of how Athill was born somewhere off to the right in Kensington during a Zeppelin raid (21 December 1917) and of how she had seen this city in so many different ages and moods. In Instead of a Letter, she and Paul take a ride in London's last hansom cab – before the war and before her humiliating rejection. Before the Fall, you might say sadly, until you remember how Athill rose from it to find her singular voice. If anyone in future wants to know how an intelligent Englishwoman led her life in the 20th century, her inner and outer life, from birth to a very old age, hers are books that will need to be read. As for now, they can simply be enjoyed.