(1917 - )
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'I've got a
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.
Wednesday December 22, 2004
Diana Athill's career is based on a great sanity which allows her, on the publication of a new book, to say airily, "I don't quite like the idea of people reading it." Make Believe was first published 10 years ago, a slim volume of memoir recounting her relationship with a man who thought he was God. "Of course there's embarrassing stuff in it," she says, on the eve of its reissue. "But there you are. I did it, I wrote it, I let them publish it; so what can one do?" She stares through the window of her London flat with large, unblinking eyes of startling blue.
At 87, Athill has for several years, and to her great surprise, found herself in demand as a literary celebrity. This is partly due to the success of her memoir, Stet, about her life in publishing, and partly to do with her manner of speech, which is instantly and agreeably at odds with the general blather of media punditry. She speaks as she writes, in accordance with the principle, "What is the point of doing anything unless you get it right?", and by that she means short and to the point. In her early memoirs she detailed with terrible honesty the pain of broken love affairs. In Make Believe she turns the same unflinching eye on her friendship and brief affair with Hakim Jamal, one of the authors she published at Andre Deutsch, a charismatic disciple of Malcom X whose awful childhood eventually caught up with and corrupted his mental health. The episode ends, incredibly, with both him and his girlfriend of the time being murdered.
"It was terribly interesting," says Athill of Jamal's strenuous but failed attempts to convert her to his lunatic teachings. "I could probably put [my failure to convert] down to the fact that there is something very cold-blooded in me. Beady-eyed; I've got a beady eye." She cuts her eyes into two beady points. "I was very, very interested, and I was attracted, but I was never really involved. That's not very nice really. It's rather cold." She has fond memories of Jamal. But nevertheless, she says, "he was a psychopath. People who think they're God generally are. It's rather dangerous."
Athill's facility with memoir didn't become apparent until well into her career as an editor and partner at Andre Deutsch, when she tried, as a cathartic exercise, to transcribe the details of her childhood and young adulthood as the daughter of a well-to do army officer and his wife. Instead of a Letter details the awful manner in which she was jilted by her fiance (after a two-year silence he sent her a formal note ask ing her to release him from their engagement; he wanted to marry someone else) in such clear and unhysterical terms that it remains startling. Her "beady eye" as she puts it, stems very much from that first, epic disappointment.
"It's extraordinary," she says, "how one in the end ... I was talking to a friend of mine about the awful things that had happened to us when we were young, to her too, and we were both feeling quite moved, remembering how awful it was. And then we looked at each other and said, 'and now it doesn't matter at all!' And it's quite true. I mean, sometimes, people are permanently damaged, but on the whole one gets away from it, other things happen, and now, much more than that awfulness, I remember the good times with Tony."
Of all the authors she edited at Andre Deutsch, among them V S Naipaul and Norman Mailer, the one whose approach Athill sought to apply to her own writing was that of Jean Rhys. "She had very simple rules about writing. You must get it right; you mustn't waste an unnecessary word." Athill thinks rather too many words are wasted, these days. Of course, she says, it's all well and good that formerly taboo subjects are more openly talked about. But she is not convinced we are necessarily better, or less hypocritical people because of it. She has no time for the Blunkett witch-hunt. "I mean, all the man did was really a very sort of ordinary kind of thing. You've a girlfriend, she wants her nanny, you help her. But then this outrage! I mean, not one of [his detractors] wouldn't have done the same sort of thing if they were in that same situation. Practically all of them have probably had affairs outside their marriages; it's all so ridiculous." She thinks for a moment. "I must say, he's an awfully unattractive man. And she ... well, not an affair one has much sympathy with."
Athill's own partner Barry is ill in bed while we talk. For many years, she says, her mother rather quaintly referred to him as "your lodger" or "someone in the house", which was "absurd, of course, but rather effective. There's something to be said for it." She characterises the era of her parents' troubled but unbroken marriage as one in which "one understood quite clearly what goodness was". On the whole she is glad of the way things have turned out for her. If her engagement to Tony hadn't broken off, Athill would have wound up a "schoolmaster's wife, which I'm sure I would've hated". Nevertheless, the blow of losing him was so great that for decades afterwards, despite her successful career, Athill considered her life to be largely a failure.
"Because I always thought that what I really wanted was to get married and have children. Well, not children, even; to get married. And I'd not managed it; and it had seemed to me that no one had ever loved me enough." She starts laughing. "And then I wrote that book [Instead of a Letter] and I got completely rid of that feeling; it was extraordinary. It's like starting a new life. And I've never felt like that again since."
Professionally, one of her biggest regrets was losing Philip Roth, whose first book, Goodbye Columbus, was in 1959 published in the UK by Andre Deutsch. When his second novel, Letting Go, arrived on Athill's desk, she thought it "tremendously good, but too long. But he was a valuable property from the moment he began; everyone wanted him. And he was a bit moody. And we agreed that if we started tinkering with this book, he would leave us. So we'd better just lump it. So we published it, and it didn't do very well. Years later I was talking with him about Letting Go, and he said, it's far too long - I could've murdered him.
"Anyhow, that made us cautious." They offered a modest advance for the next book, When She Was Good, which Athill thought "a pretty dreary novel" and he turned them down and went to another publisher. "And the next book was Portnoy's Complaint. Oh. That was awful!"
The phone rings and Athill gets up to answer. It is someone selling holidays. She politely but firmly informs them she isn't interested and hangs up. "I hate being nasty to them, because after all no one would do that job unless they were frantic. But, oh," she says crisply, "they are ghastly."
Athill does not think she has any more books in her. She still writes articles and book reviews and reads - mainly non-fiction now. "A novel has to be tremendously good for me to really want to read it." With awe and affection, she recalls her mother's last words: "She said, 'It was absolutely divine.' Isn't that wonderful? It was absolutely divine."
In the editorial hot seat
Granta, £12.99, pp.256,
Diana Athill waved her wand and turned me from a frog into
a prince, or at least from an aspirant writer into a published novelist. It was
May 1977. I had hand-delivered the manuscript of The Monkey King to 105 Great
Russell Street. I was 26, Diana was 60.
She sent me a letter I still find touching and asked me to phone for an appointment. Looking back on our first meeting, it was vintage Diana: high intelligence, 100 per cent sincerity, pessimism about the prospects of literature in the marketplace amounting to defeatism, and great vagueness. When I phoned a month later to ask if my book had been accepted she said, ‘Oh, yes, didn’t you realise it? We’d better send you a contract.’
Reading this memoir of her professional life is like having her in front of me. Some writers’ authorial voices are quite unlike them; Diana’s is a distillation of herself. She doesn’t write well, she writes wonderfully well, rather better than most of her writers, if they were using the same material. It wasn’t for nothing she won the Observer short story competition the year after Muriel Spark — the prize going on new curtains. In all honesty, however, this memoir can only be of interest to a coterie of insiders. Athill’s reputation will rest on Instead of a Letter and After a Funeral, which are minor classics.
Even without her ability as a writer, Diana would have been remarkable for her record as a talent-spotter. With the help of Francis Wyndham and Esther Whitby, she performed the same favour for Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore and V. S. Naipaul as she would two decades later for me. And though she respected good writing she was a great puncturer of pretension, always refusing to call her friend Brian Moore ‘Bree-ahn’ and acidly insisting on Bryan. Her rediscovery of Jean Rhys in the Sixties launched the greatest literary comeback of the century and she would do the same again for Molly Keane in the Eighties. As I remember it, though it is not described in Stet, Molly submitted Good Behaviour first to Collins, who wanted an editorial change, and, when the author proved in Diana’s words ‘justifiably arrogant’, Deutsch snapped the novel up.
Everybody makes mistakes and Diana is honest about hers, including letting go of Philip Roth just before he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. She mentions another misjudgment but refuses to reveal it. I remember this was, like several other publishers, rejecting Lord of the Flies, though in fairness I’d have done it myself as I have no time for pat endings and mechanical tricks with the point of view. So far as commissioning went, Diana’s great frustration was never being able to get Jean Rhys to write or say anything about her affair with Ford Maddox Ford in Paris in the Twenties.
One of the things the book has done is make me rethink my opinion of André. I never took to him. He didn’t speak to me for several years, only standing on the landing glowering like some Mephistolean dentist from Hell rather than Wimpole Street (my dentist of the day, the late Walter Reif, bore a facial resemblance to André and was also a Jewish refugee from Central Europe). André first spoke to me when he summoned me to a luncheon with some Chinese party hacks. ‘That’s very sweet of you,’ he said, ‘we must revise your contract.’ There was nothing in the least effete about this domineering little man, even shorter than me. He just felt it incumbent to camp it up as he was a publisher. Needless to say, the contract remained unrevised and one of the Chinese vomited after the cheese.
Here in Diana’s pages André’s flair, acumen, and energy in the early years are revealed and, of course, the final act of financial atonement after years of undervaluation when he bought her an annuity after a disaster with her company pension that was neither her fault nor his.
In general, lovers tended to use Diana (André was one for a week or so just after the war). Her formidable, astringent, but non-conceptual and unacademic intellect (e.g the British empire was founded on buying cheap and selling dear) was always undermined by her kindness of heart. She nannied the impossible Jean Rhys (nicknamed Johnny Rotten) and though she never had to dry me out she less obviously (but tellingly to anyone who is an author of any kind) photocopied three sets of my first manuscript for free: ‘Don’t tell André. Agents charge for this, you know’.
The final impression one has — paradoxical to say it of a brilliant and sensitive 83-year-old woman who led the fullest of lives — is of great innocence and ingenuousness, especially where wiles or men are concerned. Anyone who thinks less of her for it is crazy.
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
Die Londoner Verleger und pflegten, bis Deutsch im Jahr 2000 starb, seit den Jahren des Zweiten Weltkrieges eine Freundschaft, zu deren Ritualen es gehörte, dass sich der gebürtige Budapester und der gebürtige Wiener einmal im Jahr zum gemeinsamen Frühstück trafen. "George", würde Andre Deutsch sagen, "Du bist Verleger, ich bin Verleger. Wir kennen uns so lange. Da ist es doch Unsinn, dass wir getrennte Wege gehen." - "Du hast völlig recht, Andre", würde George Weidenfeld entgegen, "wir könnten ja zumindest unsere Lager zusammenführen." - "Eine hervorragende Idee", würde Deutsch sagen, "wie wollen wir das Unternehmen nennen?" "Na, Weidenfeld & Deutsch natürlich", würde Weidenfeld vorschlagen. "Nein, natürlich Deutsch & Weidenfeld", würde Deutsch widersprechen. Und über diese Frage würde die Angelegenheit vertagt werden, bis zum nächsten Frühstück.
erzählt die Anekdote mit Verve, lächelt und schüttelt den Kopf über die beiden Männer, die sie in London kennen lernte, als deutsche Bomben auf die Metropole fielen. Das ist über sechzig Jahre her. Von Anfang an war sie bei Deutschs Verlag dabei, Als sie sich Anfang der neunziger Jahre mit 75 Jahren Ruhe setzte, stand sie in dem Ruf, die Lektorin Londons zu sein und eine zu Unrecht wenig beachtete Autorin. Heute ist sie 86. Sie lebt seit Jahrzehnten in einer kleinen Dachwohnung eines großen Reihenhauses aus viktorianischen Zeiten, in Primrose Hill im Nordon Londons. Von dort hat man an diesem Wintertag einen grau-verhangenen Blick auf die Innenstadt. Es flackert ein künstliches, aber wärmendes Kaminfeuer, und es gibt Tee mit Keksen.
Als "alte Frau" habe sie sich erst in ihren Achtzigern gefühlt, sagt sie, und so ganz glaubt man ihr selbst das nicht. Sie scheint überhaupt kein Alter zu haben, ist eine eindrucksvolle Erscheinung, wach und lebendig. Athill erzählt mit viel englischem understatement, Wärme, und ohne Sentimentalität. Sie ist nach wie vor im Geschäft, schreibt Buchkritiken, Zeitungsartikel und eine gelegentliche in der Tageszeitung The Guardian. Sie hasst es, mit Banken zu telefonieren, weil dort immer junge Frauen mit hellen Stimmen am anderen Ende der Leitung sind, die sie nicht gut verstehen kann. Oder mit der Polizei, die ihr regelmäßig Strafmandate ins Haus schickt - wegen zu schnellen Fahrens.
Seit 2000 sind fünf Bücher von ihr erschienen, alle im kleinen -Verlag: Der Roman "Don't Look at Me Like That", "Yesterday Morning" über ihre Kindheit im England der 1920er Jahren, und die dokumentarischen Bücher "Instead of a Letter" und "After a Funeral"; im ersten geht es um eine frühe Liebe und deren Verlust, im zweiten um den Selbstmord eines talentierten, im Exil lebenden Schriftstellers. Am meisten Aufsehen haben ihre Erinnerungen mit dem Titel erregt, die ihr Leben als Lektorin und die Londoner Verlagswelt der Nachkriegszeit beschreiben - ein kleines erzählerisches Meisterwerk, schlicht, elegant, ehrlich, unterhaltsam. (Hier ein .) "Stet" ist eine Anweisung eines Lektors an den Drucker und heißt soviel wie "kann so stehen bleiben".
In die Verlagswelt ist durch "puren Zufall" geraten: Aufgewachsen in der ostenglischen Grafschaft Norfolk, las sie seit ihrer Kindheit gern. Sie studierte Englisch in Oxford und fand nach Kriegsbeginn eine Anstellung in der Informationsabteilung des Auslandsdienstes der BBC. Sie wohnte mit einer Freundin zusammen, die eine Affäre mit einem jungen Nachbarn hatte: George Weidenfeld. Bei einer Party brachte Weidenfeld "einen kleinen Freund" namens Andre Deutsch mit, in den sich wiederum Diana Athill verliebte. Die beiden hatten eine kurze Affäre, die in Freundschaft mündete. Als Deutsch seinen ersten Verlag gründete, war Athill dabei, ohne vorher lange nachzudenken, was ihre genauen Aufgaben sein würden.
Aus der Reihe der vielen Hitler-Flüchtlinge, die in der britischen Nachkriegsliteratur eine bemerkenswert prominente Rolle spielen, fällt etwas heraus. Anders als zum Beispiel George Weidenfeld ( ), Bela Horowitz ( ) oder Walter und Eva Neurath ( ) war er mehr oder weniger zufällig in Großbritannien, als die Wehrmacht in Polen einmarschierte, und wurde, wie viele deutschsprachige Exilanten, in einer ersten Panikreaktion der britischen Regierung als "feindlicher Ausländer" auf der Isle of Man interniert. Als Deutsch nach kurzer Zeit wieder entlassen wurde, gab ihm ein Mithäftling ein Empfehlungsschreiben mit, durch das er den Direktor eines kleinen Verlages kennenlernte, nach Athills Worten "ein freundlicher, fauler, eher versoffener Mann", der froh war, den jungen Ungarn als Vertreter einstellen zu können. "Andre merkte auf der Stelle, dass die Welt der Bücher sein Metier war", erinnert sich Diana Athill. Auch sie merkte schnell, in der Zusammenarbeit mit Deutsch, dass sie den Beruf eines "editor" liebte und so gut ausfüllte wie nur wenige.
Den ersten Verlag gründete Deutsch, der fürchtete, sein eigener Name würde kurz nach dem Krieg nicht gut ankommen, Ende 1945 unter dem Namen "Allan Wingate", mit 3.000 zusammengeliehenen Pfund, obwohl 15.000 Pfund damals als absolutes Minimum an Startkapital galten. Beinahe wäre der Verlag mit einem Klassiker der Weltliteratur gestartet: Der Journalist und Autor konnte keinen Verleger für seine antistalinistische Fabel "Farm der Tiere" finden und bot seinem Bekannten Deutsch, von dem er wusste, dass er sich selbstständig machen wollte, das Manuskript an. Deutsch lehnte ab, obwohl er das Buch für brillant hielt. Er wollte Orwell nicht einem solchen Risiko aussetzen. Als das Buch immer berühmter wurde (am Ende war es bei Secker & Warburg erschienen), so erinnert sich Diana Athill, habe Deutsch nie über das verlorene Geschäft gejammert, sondern sei stolz gewesen, dass er das Buch von Anfang an unterstützt hatte.
Deutsch war ein großer Verleger. "Er las Bücher. Er jagte Bücher. Er erfand Bücher", schreibt Diana Athill in "Stet". Während der unsicheren, frühen Jahre, als der Verlag oft am finanziellen Abgrund stand und sich alle fragten, wie nur die vielen offenen Rechnungen bezahlt werden sollten, hatte Deutsch stets eine andere Sicht der Dinge: "Diese idiotischen Drucker und Binder versuchen mich davon abzuhalten, wichtige Bücher zu veröffentlichen, die die Welt braucht, und die am Ende genug Geld einbringen werden, um alles zu bezahlen." Aber Deutsch war nicht immer ein einfacher Mensch. Er führte ein rigoroses Sparregime ein, knipste hinter allen das Licht aus und verlangte das Wiederbenutzen alter Briefumschläge. "Verschwendung" brachte ihn in Rage, die Klage, dass der Untergang kurz bevorstehe, behielt er bei, als der Verlag längst erfolgreich und etabliert war. Ungerechtigkeiten, beispielsweise beim Gehalt, blieben: Die Verlagswelt wurde damals von vielen schlecht bezahlten Frauen am Laufen gehalten, und wenigen, weit besser bezahlten Männern, sagt Diana Athill. Als Cheflektorin und Mit-Direktorin von Deutschs Verlag verdiente sie immer weniger als männliche Kollegen. "Eitelkeit" und das "geringe Selbstbewusstsein" einer Frau, die vor dem Zeitalter der Emanzipation lebte, macht sie heute dafür verantwortlich, dass sie sich darüber nie beschwerte.
Die erste Lektion, die ein guter Lektor lernen muss, ist laut Diana Athill, "nie Dank zu erwarten". Und: Bei Erfolg oder Misserfolg eines Buches spielt Zufall eine Rolle. Das galt gerade in den frühen Jahren des Verlags. Zu den ersten Büchern, die sie herausbrachten, gehörte "Die Nackten und die Toten". Das Manuskript galt als schwierig, denn die Wörter "fuck" und "fucking" kamen so häufig darin vor, dass ein Ersatz durch "f-" die Dialoge wie Fischnetze hätte aussehen lassen. Man einigte sich schließlich auf "fug" und "fugging". Der Zufall wollte es, dass ein Vorabexemplar für den Literaturredakteur der Sunday Times zufällig dem Chefredakteur in die Hände fiel. Der ältere Herr war nach der Lektüre von nur einer Seite so schockiert, dass er sich zu einem warnenden Artikel berufen fühlte, in dem er erklärte, das Buch sei so übel, dass "kein anständiger Mann es herumliegen lassen könne, wo Frau und Kinder es sehen". Deutsch und Athill fürchteten schon das Aus für ihren Verlag und merkten erst, als sich am Tag nach dem Artikel Vorbestellung auf Vorbestellung häufte, dass sie nicht ruiniert waren - im Gegenteil.
Von Teilhabern aus dem Verlag gedrängt, gründete Andre Deutsch 1952 ein neues Unternehmen, nun unter eigenem Namen. Für einen Aufsehen erregenden Start sorgten die Memoiren Franz von Papens, Reichskanzler der Untergangsjahre der Weimarer Republik und Steigbügelhalter Hitlers ( ). Die Vorabdrucksrechte verkaufte Deutsch für die damals atemberaubende Summe von 30.000 Pfund an eine britische Sonntagszeitung. Der Verlag wuchs schnell. Zu Mailer gesellten sich Schriftsteller wie Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, V.S. Naipaul und Jean Rhys, Poeten wie , Elisabeth Jennings und oder Sachbuchautorinnen wie , und . Bei Deutsch wurde kein Unterschied zwischen "editor" und "copy-editor" gemacht: Texte zu redigieren war ebenso Athills Aufgabe wie Autoren bei Laune zu halten und dieses oder jenes Projekt anzuregen. In ihren Autoren-Portraits wird deutlich, was das im Einzelnen bedeuten konnte. zum Beispiel, Literaturnobelpreisträger von 2001, wollte den Verlag verlassen, der ihn berühmt gemacht hatte, als Diana Athill ein Manuskript milde kritisierte. Dass den modernen Klassiker "Wide Sargasso Sea" zu Ende brachte, war nicht zuletzt Athills Talenten als Kindermädchen zu verdanken. (Ein Artikel Athills über Jean Rhys )
Wenn sie zurückblickt, so empfindet Diana Athill als den größten Unterschied, dass das Verlagsgeschäft früher ein Gewerbe ("a trade") war, während heute, gerade in Großbritannien, von "Industrie" die Rede ist. Bezeichnend ist das Schicksal des Verlags Andre Deutsch, der heute eine "Marke" oder "imprint" im Publikationsarm des britischen Medien-Riesen Carlton ist. Ihr Beruf scheint allmählich auszusterben. Die Arbeit des "editors" übernehmen heute vielfach Literatur-Agenturen, und ein wachsender Teil von Büchern wird kaum noch oder überhaupt nicht mehr lektoriert. Dennoch macht sie sich über die Zukunft des Buchs keine Sorgen: "Gute Literatur setzt sich am Ende immer durch."
Man kann nur hoffen, dass das stimmt. Vielleicht gibt es gute Literatur aber auch nur so lange, wie es Menschen wie Diana Athill gibt.
'Getting things right'
Recalling her life as one of the 20th century's most acclaimed editors, Diana Athill, who has just turned 90, was a pioneer of the confessional memoir. Her new book is about ageing
Saturday January 5, 2008
Diana Athill's flat, at the top of a house overlooking the less-visited slopes of Primrose Hill, is a snug eyrie of books and paintings, dark wood furniture and her own deeply coloured embroidery. The only sound is an electric fire, ticking and popping against the chill. "If you're an old woman, it's amazing what a little bit of makeup does," she says, returning with two cups of tea. "You put it on, and suddenly feel all put together." It's a point she makes early in Somewhere Towards the End, her new book about the losses, indignities and compensations of old age: how important appearance still is, if only to oneself; not to risk, say, scarlet lipstick, which will run into mouth wrinkles and make a woman look, as she observes of an old friend with not-quite-cruel accuracy, like a "vampire bat disturbed mid-dinner".
Days short of her 90th birthday - the phone keeps ringing, with friends organising lunches to celebrate - she could not seem further from any kind of blurring. There is something absolutely present about her. Her voice is poised between precise pre-war tones and grammar and an unforced modernity - a tension that exists in her work, too. She began writing at 43, with short stories, before discovering that she was a memoirist, and that even dressing up memoir as fiction was not for her. Her work is always described as honest (generally preceded by words like "painful", "terrible", "deplorable", "breathtaking"). Pain, fear and shame, happiness and unhappiness are faced up to and anatomised- not dismissed, but not allowed to rule, either. She calls it getting things right.
She is helped by a vivid memory. Her parents were not particularly happy (her mother had an affair and her father, a colonel in the British Army, was often away), but Yesterday Morning, Athill's account of growing up on her grandmother's Georgian estate in Norfolk, written when she was 85, is full of happiness. She and her siblings and cousins had the run of the grounds, eating moorhen's eggs, feeding pigs, damming streams. "Everything important in my life seemed to be a property of that place: the house and the gardens, the fields, woods and waters belonging to it. Beauty belonged to it, and the underlying fierceness which must be accepted with beauty . . . safety belonged to it, and so did my knowledge of good and evil, and my wobbly preference for good." Indoors, every teatime, their grandmother read to them: Ivanhoe, The Jungle Book, Jackanapes
This was the calm before the second world war, when, if you were young and didn't look too closely, the superiority of being upper class seemed as though it might last forever. Though Athill eventually rejected the "wicked nonsense" of these assumptions, she knows it was also an invaluable source of self-confidence. And she fell in love, at 15, with Tony Irvin, her brother's tutor; they went dancing ("mine was the first generation of country-house girls allowed to go to dances unchaperoned"), went sailing on the Broads, and became engaged when she was 19. The arrival of war changed everything. Irvin (called Paul in her expiatory memoir Instead of a Letter) was a bomber pilot stationed in Egypt, where she was to join him; when war was declared he was posted to Transjordan, and silence. Two years later, he wrote asking to be released from the engagement because he was going to marry someone else; not long afterwards, he was killed. It is the central wound in her life, and it took nearly 20 years to heal.
"My soul shrank to the size of a pea," she later wrote. "It had never been very large or succulent . . . but now it had almost shrivelled away. I became artful at avoiding pain . . . because what else could one do when one had understood that, as far as one's personal life was concerned, one was a failure, doomed to be alone because one did not merit anything else?" She slept as much as possible, slipped into meaningless affairs and one-night stands, often with married men who could not demand too much of her; she worked as a clerk in the Admiralty, then as a researcher at the BBC.
The most important thing was always her value as a woman, her erotic life, and that now was punctured and debased; a career was a distasteful adjunct, to earn a living - so it was a profound bit of luck that led her to Andre Deutsch at a party. Their affair was brief, but for nearly 50 years they were friends and colleagues at the two publishing houses she helped him found, and she was to become, accidentally, among the most acclaimed editors of the 20th century.
They published - then lost - Philip Roth (he found their advance for When She Was Good too small), and were served an injunction against publishing Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. They were the first to publish VS Naipaul, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore; Athill edited John Updike, Stevie Smith, Margaret Atwood. She refuses to be unduly nostalgic about any so-called golden age of publishing, though she accepts she coincided with an unusual window when "we were all thrilled at getting our hands on people from different places. We had a sort of feeling of an extraordinary world - at that time it was easier to get your book published if you came in from Nigeria or somewhere than if you were a young English writer. There was a sort of romantic thing about it."
Generally briskly unsentimental, she nevertheless had a kind of maternal weakness for the lost, the helpless, the unstable: she published and befriended "Didi", an Egyptian writer (and gambler, womaniser and depressive), for example, who moved into her home for five years and killed himself; and Hakim Jamal, a disciple of Malcom X who was murdered (this latter subject was the indirect reason for Naipaul's departure from Andre Deutsch: she felt his novel about it, Guerrillas, did not ring true, and told him so).
However, lack of confidence meant that for years she didn't attempt to write herself. "I always thought how lovely it would be to write, because of course I was living among writers. You see I'd always thought they were writers. I was someone who was sort of a handmaiden to writers." When writing came - one day in 1958, when she was 41, as a short story, fully formed, and then another and another - it was like a visitation. "And then I thought, I wonder whether anyone would like to read them? I didn't ever, at any point, sit down and think 'I'm now going to write something to be read'." Then one of them won an Observer short story competition. Which "gave me confidence, of course."
She had, however, been serving a kind of unconscious apprenticeship, through reading (the Cambridge critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, for instance, and his championing of anglo-saxon words over latinate), and through editing - from Naipaul, for example, she learned how to be funny. But above all, she learned from Jean Rhys, whom Athill helped to rediscover in 1957, when Rhys had not yet finished Wide Sargasso Sea - a book which would very likely not have been published without Athill's perseverance and nursing, astute advice and friendship. Rhys would say, "'cut, cut, cut. Keep it down as much possible.' She used to overdo it, even."
Brevity, accuracy, lucidity - "the writing shouldn't come between the reader and what's being described. It should be as transparent as possible" - these virtues Athill applied to "Instead of a Letter", which she wrote in an intense rush when she was 43. In writing it she found her voice. In attempting to "get to the bottom of things, so I understood them better", in thinking bravely and unself-pityingly about premarital sex, and abortion, and depression, she inadvertently pioneered a kind of confessional memoir that would not, properly, take hold for another 30 years, and even then often would not match her.
In his introduction to Make Believe, Patrick French argues for Instead of a Letter as "an eminently realistic feminist text, which has aged better than its contemporaries such as The Golden Notebook and The L-Shaped Room." Certainly, she has little time for feminists such as Marilyn French, whom she also edited. "Marilyn French and her agent, two militant - and very charming - women. How they drove me mad."
"I think, on the whole, alas, it isn't just conditioning - I think that actually the difference between men and women basically is visible. Women actually have children and men don't. You cannot get away from that. So that when it comes to a sexual relationship, it has to be something different for a woman. Every time she fucks she could be completely changing her life. . . . Which is unfair - but it's life. And I think the good old die-hard women's lib sort of person did refuse to admit that."
Instead of a Letter was like late spring rain: it banished winter, and failure, and she bloomed. The book ends on a note of cautious happiness: she had met Barry Reckord, a Jamaican playwright. Eventually he left his wife (though not because of her, Athill insists); after eight years with Athill he had an affair with a young actress in her 20s, but by this time his relationship with Athill was no longer sexual, and the older woman invited the younger one to live with them. For two years, until the actress moved on to marriage and motherhood with another man, they lived a ménage a trois which Athill describes as among the happiest periods of her life.
The therapeutic instinct led her to write two more books, After a Funeral (1986) about Didi's death, and Make Believe (1993), about the Hakim Jamal incident, and that, she thought, was that - until Ian Jack, then editor of Granta, suggested she write about her time in publishing. Stet appeared in 2000, eight years after she had retired, and was another late blooming, giving her a measure of fame and acclaim. Yesterday Morning followed, and now there is her book about age, which is suffused by a striking contentment, even though it describes Reckord sinking further and further into illness, and her spending much time nursing. This has changed since the book went to press. He had a heart-attack, "and the heart-hospital said no, they wouldn't operate, because he would die. And I was really getting desperate. Because I am too old to cope with nursing."
She was unaware that a Jamaican niece and brother had been discussing what to do, and one day they descended and he went home with them. "I hope that he's happy - I'm afraid he's not. I've written and talked on the telephone and told him over and over again about how I really can't cope. He just says, 'When can I come back?' It's awful, really."
And yet, honesty compels her to say, the relief at a burden lifted outweighs the sadness, and satisfaction with her late success staves off fear and rage. Though "I do get worried from time to time, about how I'm going to deal with it when I can't manage any more. When I can't drive. I think what I probably might have to do, eventually is get myself into a sheltered home. I've got a wonderfully kind neighbour across the road, and I've got these darling nephews, but you can't depend entirely on others. And maybe when I reach that stage I'll get cross about life." She laughs, comfortably. "But at the moment, it's all right."
January 6, 2008
Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Reviewed by Jenny Diski
SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END by Diana Athill
Granta £12.99 pp192
I think it was a character in a Stanley Middleton novel who said he was too old to risk buying unripe bananas. Publisher and writer Diana Athill had the same thought about a tree fern she ordered that arrived with just four tiny leaves sprouting disappointingly from a three-inch pot. No chance, she thought, of seeing it as it was pictured in the catalogue, in its full-grown glory. She was almost 90 when she wrote that, in this series of short (not taking any chances) essays about old age. Such a book is in itself a rare enough thing, but a book about old age written by a woman with a cold eye for reality and no time for sentimental lies is as rare as – well, as rare as a thoughtful discussion about a woman’s sexuality after the age of 60.
Athill’s desire for sex did peter out, but not until her late sixties. At the time of writing this book, she was living with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, and had done since she was 43, although after some years the passion died. They remained together companionably while he had other relationships, but when she was approaching 60 she met Sam. Reckord had given her a taste for “black men”, Athill explains, and in this final affair, what she had to offer Sam was “sex that suited him”, as well as “being white and well bred”, while she took pleasure in his desire for her and the differences between them. By the time that last passion died there were no regrets either way. When the wish for sex goes, Athill says cheeringly, there is space at last to gain a glimpse of who you really are apart from erotic desire.
Candid stuff, though she has already declared in a previous chapter the non-existence of God and the untroubled conviction that death is the blank end of existence. Certainly, she shudders when she has to identify a dead body in the mortuary, but “it is simply a matter of flesh shuddering because flesh rots”. She has remained childless without it being a matter of great sorrow, although when she was accidentally pregnant at 43 she found herself putting off her usual termination because she realised she really wanted the child. Even so, when she miscarried, she claims that she felt no more than a proper degree of sadness and, perhaps, a certain relief. It is not Athill’s aim to offer comfort or acceptable emotion to her readers, only to describe, and avoid lying as much as possible. She gets very close to saying the truly unsayable when she calmly announces, “Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine”, choosing instead clarity of thought over mindless fidelity. She doesn’t do platitudes.
When she examines her regrets, she finds just two, each of which to some extent accounts for the boldness of her book: she has a “nub of selfishness” that has made her disinclined to get fully involved with other people, and a laziness that has meant she failed to adventure far out of her life’s way. Finally, Athill accuses herself of contentment – of having the kind of positive attitude to existence that comes from a generally fortunate life and the accident of being born with the right sort of genes that incline her towards positive thinking. She recognises it as the “tribal smugness” of class and race, and socially wicked, but nevertheless a gift of wellbeing that will last a lifetime. She apologises for this to the poor, the sick, the ill-educated, the miserably employed or unemployed, and those who had unsatisfactory parents. Still, she is quite pleased with life, especially since she began a belated writing career and was praised for what she produced. Her notable career in publishing continued until she was 75, and then she tried painting classes at night school (unforgivably, no longer freely available), but gave them up when she decided she would never be better than a good illustrator. Now she reads, gardens with pleasure, and refuses to give up driving because of the sense it gives the old of “you’re back to normal” when the body won’t let you walk without difficulty and pain.
Underlying her forthrightness, there is something that I am not quite comfortable with calling sadness, but which feels like the inescapable difficulty of being old, or perhaps just being human. At the time of writing, she is still looking after Reckord, who has withdrawn into himself after years of ill health. She doesn’t like it, but is dutiful. Better to be the carer than the cared-for, she thinks. And when she acknowledges the easy-seeming deaths of her grandmother and mother, assisted by daughters, she recognises she has no child of her own to be there when her time comes. A life in publishing has not given her the financial security not to fear where she might end up if she becomes physically or mentally unable to cope, though this is really an indictment of our society rather than her childlessness.
In lieu of an afterlife, Athill suggests that whatever each human has done in life continues to exist for better or worse, whether we have “taught or tortured, built or bombed”. It is this thought, perhaps, that allows her to take delight in the several inches that the tree fern has grown during the writing of the book. “I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern.”
Somewhere Towards the End
Growing old gracefully
Wednesday, 2nd January 2008
Ninety may be the new 70, but it is also seriously old, and no picnic. In her short, sharp, disconcerting new book, Diana Athill, the renowned editor turned writer who has just reached her 90th birthday, does not try to pretend otherwise; pretending is not, and never has been, her style. Here, she contemplates her own experience of growing older, compares it with some others, and offers a few tips to the rest of us, as we, or people we love, advance towards the minefield.
In many ways, she acknowledges, she has been, and still is, lucky. Born into a confident upper-middle-class family, imbued with what she now regards as ‘tribal smugness,’ she went to Oxford before the war and soon found the work she loved. She takes after her female relations, who have tended to remain healthy and retain their marbles. She still lives independently, in a flat at the top of a cousin’s house in north London, and drives herself up and down to Norfolk, her childhood home, despite a narrow miss on the motorway recently (not her fault, she points out). She takes full advantage of the fact that old women nowadays can wear nice clothes and flattering makeup, though she urges caution; too much red lipstick produces the effect of ‘a vampire bat disturbed in mid dinner.’
Nevertheless, getting old has meant giving up many pleasures, most of all sex. Diana Athill has touched on this deprivation before, but here she goes into more detail about her sexual history, and how (with regret) and when (in her mid-sixties) she realised that it had come to an end. After being painfully jilted before she was 20, she discovered that women, as well as men, could be ‘cheered up by sex without love’ and had a series of affairs, several of them with married men, before settling down, in her forties, with Barry, a West Indian playwright who has shared her life ever since. When their sex life faded, she accepted his need for other partners, and embarked on an enjoyable last fling. She discusses her attraction to, and for, black men with unusual, and admirable, candour.
With equal candour, she writes about the nastier, and these days far more taboo, subject of illness and physical deterioration. Having rather congratulated herself on having avoided the drearier duties of being a wife, she found herself, in her late eighties, having to deal with a bedridden, diabetic, depressed man with prostate trouble and heart failure; Barry’s illnessess, and her own unwelcome but kindly discharged obligations, are described in excruciating detail. She describes, too, her mother’s deathbed and her own first sight of a corpse in a mortuary. Diana Athill, as she explains, began writing in order to come to terms with painful experience; here, once again, it is as if by the act of writing down her shocking encounters with the horrors of decline and death she can master them.
Not everything in this book is so grim. She writes with delight about the realisation, after she retired from publishing at the age of 75, that she could produce a different kind of book (Stet, 2002) and enjoy the ‘absolutely delicious’ success it brought her; and she is bracing and encouraging about the pleasure to be had from reading, gardening, sewing and painting — activities, she concludes, can be almost as vital as relationships to the old. As for the prospect of her own death, she sensibly dwells on it as little as possible, while admitting that she dreads the geriatric ward and hopes to live long enough to see her new tree fern flourish. Meanwhile, she keeps an eye on the white vans which she has learned to recognise around the streets as those despatched to collect the bodies of the dead and deliver them to the undertakers. Her eye is as unflinching, her prose as clear and graceful as ever; her honesty is inspiring. But be careful about giving this book to your ageing relations.
Carmen Callil reviews Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
Diana Athill is not just old, she is very old, in her 89th year as she wrote this, her fifth autobiographical book.
We have very few accounts written from a perspective such as hers: deaf now, feet and legs making moving difficult, caring - at a time when she should be caring for herself - for her ailing and mostly bedridden companion, the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckford. She can tell us better than almost anyone what will be left to us as we approach dying, and death.
She is a product of the liberal English upper-middle classes, and her attitudes and language retain both their felicities and pomposities.
Despite kicking over so many traces, there is a sense of jolly hockey sticks about Athill and she seems to have carried with her, into every aspect of her unusual life, all the qualities and values instilled into a girl born into comfort in 1917, when most countries on any map of the world were coloured pink.
A child of the British Empire, then, she grew up to do as she was told, but in her early twenties was sent on a different course from the marriage and motherhood expected for her, by a broken engagement and a broken heart.
All this is recounted in her first and best memoir, Instead of a Letter - a book which, with Rosamond Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets, was a handbook on hopeless romantic love for women of my generation, one 20 years junior to hers.
For Athill, like Jean Rhys - whom she so brilliantly edited - has ever been an avid dabbler in female masochism, very often choosing a man, an employer or a partner who would treat her badly.
She took this frailty into a relationship - on occasion, sexual - with the frightening black militant Hakim Jamal. I was an indignant and terrified witness to this relationship, working - as I did in 1971 - at Andre Deutsch, the publishing company where Athill spent 50 distinguished years. She was the publisher of Jamal's book; I, its hapless publicist.
Jamal was the first author I ever dealt with who would say good morning by ferociously clutching my private parts. This was not pleasant, and we all thought badly of Athill for it. Before old age, events such as this were part of Athill's life as a woman, for sex, she writes, "had always seemed central to my existence".
Readers of her past memoirs have acclaimed the forthrightness and honesty of her accounts of sexual hunger and how she satisfied it (often in guiltless relationships with married men).
Reading of her lying in bed, in her sixties, giving someone "sex that suited him", despite the fact that her lover and she "had very little in common apart from liking sex", is exceptional in a woman and in a writer of her generation whose every carefully chosen word is so redolent of English propriety.
Such candour has, it seems to me, provided her with a safety curtain: if she is so honest about sex, it is thought, she must be clear-eyed about everything else. This cannot be the case - and such clever manipulation of the reader can give the impression of smugness, and a certain sense that not all truths are being told.
But Athill's remarkable intelligence always saves her from becoming tedious, as does the easy elegance of her prose. Moreover, with such honesty as she can truthfully lay claim to, she disarms the reader by admitting to such faults herself.
Athill presents the joys she has found in an old age sustained by the language of the Bible and the classics, by relationships, good behaviour, love of art and music, gardening and embroidery. She finds most happiness in reading and writing, and in savouring the fame as a writer which has come to her so justly, and so late in life.
God and religion are not her comforts. For Diana Athill there is no afterlife; cross fingers that the last months or days will not be too "disagreeable".
"Whatever happens," she writes, "I will get through it somehow, so why fuss?"
All the messages she sends us in her 90-year-old bottle are similarly robust: sex and hair will go, as will easy physical movement. Pain will come in various parts of the body, energy will dwindle and death will come.
Until then, her key to facing it well can be traced back to the nasty words instilled into her as a child: "Do Not Think Yourself Important."
Each of her memoirs rebuts that ridiculous dictum. In this one, illuminated by her love of life and language, boldly and successfully she states: I am.
January 12, 2008
As Diana Athill points out in her first chapter, book after book has been written on being young and many more on procreation, but there are few on what she calls "falling away". Far from the carefree advertising image of grey power Saga holidays, this is the process of approaching the end, with all its grisly possibilities. Athill, at least, has reached the age of 90 with precious few regrets about her life. As editor and director of the turbulent publisher Andre Deutsch, she worked with writers such as VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys – whose career she revived after discovering the destitute novelist in Cornwall. She herself has written a series of highly regarded memoirs about her life and times.
Her sex life has been eventful. She never married, after her first love ended in rejection, but there was a series of amicable affairs, brief or sustained, until she met the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord at 43. Her memoir is divided into sections, from religion (she is not a believer), health and mobility to sex. Her main regret, we learn, is that she can no longer do what she once so enjoyed: make love, listen to music (because of the distortion of deaf aids), go for walks. As she enjoyed an active sex life until she was 70, she has had less time to regret its passing than most women of her generation.
The way into old age was eased both for her and Reckord by final flings – he with Sally, a young woman who moved in with them and remained a friend after she married another man. Though Athill had no children of her own, through Sally she now has people who fulfil the role of daughter and grandchildren. Her own final affair, with Grenadan-born Sam, brought into the beginning of her old age "something belonging to younger days."
In discussing old age, "you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it". But a considerable part of her own old time, as for many, is taken up by the depressing task of helping people less resistant to age than herself. There is a harrowing chapter on her tussles with the NHS over Reckord's illness from diabetes and prostrate trouble. In her seventies, half her week was taken up travelling to Norfolk to care for her mother, who died at 95. Athill herself, now approaching the same age, and without the money to pay for carers for Barry, let alone herself, finds her worry is less about death than about living with the body's failures. If she hasn't the luck to fall down dead while still able-bodied, she notes, it will be the geriatric ward for her.
She takes heart from the fact that good fortune comes not only from outside, but is also built into one genetically "and the greatest good luck of all is built-in resilience". She is inspired by an interview with Alice Herz-Sommer, a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 103, has never lost her radiant optimism. Athill, too, feels blessed with a happy nature, and admits that she has been warned by a friend about sounding complacent. But that, she says, is how she began life, and many lives seem to return to the starting point. After this honest, clear-sighted book, one can only wish that Diana Athill's resilience continues to sustain her and that there may be another memoir, though not, with luck, from the geriatric ward.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Arrow
Michael Dirda on 'Somewhere Towards the End'
A 91-year-old woman reflects on the meager pleasures of life after sex.
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 4, 2009; BW10
SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END
By Diana Athill
Norton. 183 pp. $24.95
Thirty years ago the literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley brought out a memoir called The View from 80. It was, as you might guess, a slender volume about old age, much of it emphasizing the "grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be" approach to the advancing years. I had to assign the book for review and, after some thought, called up the distinguished and elderly scholar Douglas Bush, long a fixture of the English department at Harvard. I had every reason to expect Professor Bush to confirm an image of old age as a time of retirement and happy retrospection, of favorite volumes reread before the fireplace, of glasses of brandy shared with friends while reminiscing over the good times, a period, in other words, of serene pleasures and quiet satisfactions.
Bush's piece was an angry cry of rage at these familiar clichés. Old age was cruel and bitter, a time of ashes, not warming fires. He wrote that he could hardly read anymore, and when he could, even favorite books seemed stale and unprofitable. His doctors had cut out drink; his diet was restricted; his body gave him nothing but trouble and misery. A once formidable memory was going, and with it the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a lifetime of scholarship. Those rosy images of a cultivated and leisurely Otium were all mirages. The so-called sunset years were at best tedious and at worst an ordeal.
Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill's account of growing old, lacks Bush's passion but does underscore that, on the whole, the later years are a time of making do with less of everything except aches and pain. Only writing -- a talent that the now 91-year-old Athill discovered relatively late in life -- affords some modest pleasure to this former editor for the English publisher André Deutsch. To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well.
She opens by zeroing in on the true essentials of almost any contemporary human life: Physical attractiveness and sexuality. "Appearance," she writes, "is important to old women, not because we suppose that it will impress other people, but because of what we ourselves see when we look in a mirror. It is unlikely that anyone else will notice that the nose on an old face is red and shiny or the broken veins on its cheeks are visible, but its owner certainly will." The development of modern cosmetics has been a godsend to the elderly, she writes, helping to soothe and disguise some of time's ravages.
Nonetheless, says Athill, "the most obvious thing about moving into my seventies was the disappearance of what used to be the most important thing in life: I might not look, or even feel, all that old, but I had ceased to be a sexual being." Readers of Athill's Instead of a Letter and her other memoirs know that she once enjoyed an adventurous erotic life: Her heart was broken several times, she refused multiple offers of marriage, and she rapidly came to prefer black men to all others.
In her late 50s, though, she discovered that her sexual re sponses to a longtime, and somewhat younger, lover were dwindling: "Familiarity had made the touch of his hand feel so like the touch of my own hand that it no longer conveyed a thrill." When the man fell into bed with a "succulent blonde in her mid-twenties," Athill admits to a sorrowful night. But she is nothing if not candid about her feelings: "What I mourned . . . was not the loss of my loving old friend . . . but the loss of youth: 'What she has, god rot her, I no longer have and will never, never have again.' " A bitter pill, and yet she swallows it, while also recognizing another, no-nonsense truth: "You know quite well that you have stopped wanting him in your bed," she tells herself. "It's months since you enjoyed it, so what are you moaning about? Of course you have lost youth, you have moved on and stopped wanting what youth wants."
With the ebbing of sex, other aspects of life soon grew more important to Athill: She took up gardening and enrolled in art classes, came to value the connection with youth represented by a daughter-like friend and her grandchildren, enjoyed being able to continue driving. She explains that to the elderly "your car begins to represent life. You hobble towards it, you ease your unwieldy body laboriously into the driver's seat -- and lo! you are back to normal. Off you whizz just like everyone else, restored to freedom, restored (almost) to youth." While Athill still finds pleasure in reading, she confesses to having "gone off novels," partly because "I no longer feel the need to ponder human relationships -- particularly not love affairs." Instead, she prefers "to be fed facts, to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander." She mentions enjoying recent biographies of 18th-century industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, scientist Charles Darwin and wood-engraver Thomas Bewick. All, she says, provided her with the often underestimated gift of "good company."
Inevitably, Athill also writes about mortality and religion (she lacks all belief, including the hope of an afterlife). She devotes one of her longest chapters to the hardships of caring not only for herself but also for her former lover, the one who took up with the blonde and with whom she has continued to live for decades. He is now ill with diabetes, heart disease and a vague, listless anomie. From her description their life together seems alternately boring and wearying. Still, Athill does enjoy two unexpected gifts from old age: One is that late-blossoming talent for writing; the other is a wonderful sense of freedom, of lightness that she feels because nothing matters very much any more. Only after she had retired (at 75 -- she couldn't afford to quit working earlier) did Athill finally shed her pronounced shyness and simply stop caring what other people thought of her.
Towards the end of the brilliantly titled Somewhere Towards the End, Athill confesses to regrets over a certain coldness in her personality and laziness in her career. But neither fault torments her. She does think about her own approaching death and concludes, reasonably, "What dies is not a life's value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self's awareness of itself: away that goes into nothingness, with everyone else's." What we do with our lives does matter, then, even if we all eventually arrive at the same common end.
A refusal to sugar-coat and a commitment to utter frankness, coupled with an engaging style, make Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End unusually appealing, despite its inherently cheerless subject. Certainly no amount of mendacity or whining will change the facts: The end of life is hard. With luck and adequate health, you might be able to enjoy a few simple pleasures for a while longer. But that's about it. And be grateful for even the smallest of such favors. Time is not on your side. ·
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Somewhere Towards the End
By Diana Athill
Norton; $24.95; 183 pages
There is something terrifically comforting about a nonagenarian writing with clarity, wit and verve about getting old and facing death - as Diana Athill does in her new memoir, "Somewhere Towards the End." By writing with refreshing frankness about such unmentionables as the relative ease of letting go of sex compared with giving up driving, or the tedium of taking care of an ailing partner, 91-year-old Athill reassures us that there's still a life force despite the diminutions of old age.
Athill, longtime editor of V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys at André Deutsch Publishing - an experience she chronicled in an earlier memoir, "Stet" (2000) - evokes another grande dame of British letters in her uninhibited lifestyle and no-holds-barred, clarion voice: last year's Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing.
But unlike Lessing, Athill discovered her literary gift relatively late in life. In order to write, she had to overcome her upbringing's stern injunctions against self-importance.
Lucky us that she has. As Athill notes, there are no shortage of books about personal growth, but not many about what she calls "falling away": "So here I go, into advanced old age, towards my inevitable and no longer distant end, without the 'support' of religion and having to face the prospect ahead in all its bald reality."
Sound depressing? It isn't an entirely cheery picture, but it sure is bracing.
For Athill, an early harbinger of old age was the waning of sexual desire - once so central to her existence - in her 50s. Even so, she continued to feel "within hailing distance of middle age" all through her 60s. Never married, the Oxford graduate is as frank about her affairs - often with married men - as she is about everything else.
In 1960, when she was 43, she met Barry Reckford, a Cambridge-educated Jamaican playwright eight years her junior. When their sex life went "off the boil" after eight years, they continued to live together in her London flat - even through other relationships. Athill says she values kindness and consideration far more than loyalty in relationships.
Regarding her childlessness, she mainly regrets not having a daughter to take care of her the way she looked after her mother in her last years. Like the other women in her family, her mother lived well into her 90s, sharp until the end.
Athill takes comfort that she has "inherited a good chance of going fairly easily, and I have found it easy to think myself into a reasonable attitude towards death. It is not surprising, therefore, that I spend no time worrying about it. When I worry, it is about living with the body's failures."
More specifically, she worries about having no money to pay for private care, but then adds with typical sanguinity - which may well be a secret to her longevity - "Fortunately, if a prospect is bleak enough the mind jibs at dwelling on it. ... Whatever happens, I will get through it somehow, so why fuss?"
Although difficulty walking is her main handicap, Athill has had to cope, none too happily, with her companion Barry's physical collapse. She writes, with brutal honesty, that this is "far from enjoyable" and that their confined life is "both sad and boring." One can't help wondering whether he read her manuscript before moving back to Jamaica recently to be looked after by his niece.
Athill survives via "escapes and compensations" such as sewing classes, gardening, reading, reviewing and writing books. Her prose, conversational but never rambling, is intelligent and crisply elegant. For example, she notes that after decades of editing fiction, she now prefers nonfiction: novels "seemed to develop a slow puncture, so that gradually they went flat on me."
While most memoirs written in old age are filled with nostalgic reminiscence, in "Somewhere Towards the End" Athill concentrates on "how to get oneself through the present." Combing her long life for possible regrets, she digs up a few but concludes, "regrets are useless, so forget them."
Although Athill insists she has "no solutions to offer" to what is admittedly "a downhill journey," we know better: her positive but never Pollyanna-ish attitude sets a tremendous example.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Chronicle, Newsday and other publications.
By Sameer Rahim, Assistant Books Editor
Last Updated: 6:19PM GMT 06 Jan 2009
Diana Athill has been part of the publishing industry for more than 50 years. While working as an editor at André Deutsch, she helped into print (among others) Jean Rhys, Philip Roth and VS Naipaul. Although she had written some fiction of her own it was only after her retirement, at the age of 83, that she found success with her autobiography, Stet: an Editor's Life. (The word stet means "let it stand" in Latin – and is the proof mark that means your change should be undone.)
Seven years later Athill published Somewhere Towards the End, which has just won the Costa Prize for biography. It is a remarkable memoir that recalls Athill's youthful love affairs, her time in publishing and her current passions, gardening and drawing; most of all, though, it is an account of ageing and what it means to be old in modern Britain. While in her Sixties, Athill still felt she was "in hailing distance of middle age"; it was only when she turned seventy that she began to realise that she was "old".
One of the delights of this book is that the author is clear-headed about ageing and never complains. In fact she feels grateful that these days a woman of her age has more freedom in the way she dresses than her mother did. Nevertheless she is quick to spot the indignities that age can bring. In her cool, editor's prose, she describes how an old friend's scarlet lipstick runs into the wrinkles round the edge of her lips, "making her look like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner".
Rather splendidly, Athill is still driving. She finds it difficult to walk, but when she gets in her car "off you whiz just like everyone else, restored to freedom, restored (almost to youth)." She has had a few scrapes in the past year or so – one the result of "being an overtired old person flustered by her own silliness". It is to her credit that she both carries on driving and can admit her own mistakes.
Diana Athill's prize is richly deserved and in no sense a special favour. Her writing has wit, bite and honesty. Such qualities are rare enough in any memoir and so are especially worthwhile in one that deals with the lives of the elderly – people we often either patronise or ignore.
By Maureen Cleave
Last Updated: 1:31AM GMT 07 Jan 2009
Diana Athill lives alone in London, very near Primrose Hill. “The only sound”, she said, “is people talking to their dogs.” There are books everywhere. She was a publisher all her working life, then took to writing herself: five volumes of memoirs that included some rather steamy affairs. They all made a splash, none more so than the latest, Somewhere Towards the End, which is about old age and approaching death and this week won the 2008 Costa prize for biography. “Reviews all over the place, including one in the Morning Star which ended: 'It is sad to think that the secret of a spry and contented old age is selfishness.’ I was rather put in my place.
“At first I thought there wasn’t much to say about growing older except that it’s bloody. Seventy is the beginning of being old, I felt really old when I was 80 and really really old when I was 90.” What she calls the ebbing of sex comes in the late sixties. “Rather a relief, not going to bed with anyone any more. One has the chance to enjoy men for other reasons.”
If she had one piece of advice it would be to get up in the morning. “What you must do is defy the languid movement, get out of bed and make yourself do something.” She gets up, she gardens, she sews, she writes, sometimes she reads till 3am; often she drives to Norfolk at weekends to a house she shares with her cousin, finding driving easier than walking, which she does with a stick.
What does get better, she said, is not minding what people think. “Though I enjoy bothering about clothes and I don’t like being seen without a good foundation to hide the veins and the shiny bits. My hair is very short because I’ve hardly any left, just a spider’s web over a pink scalp, but my dear man in Regent’s Park who cuts it agrees it’s not wig time yet.
“It’s false cheerfulness to say things get better because most things get worse, but occasionally things that are rarer in one’s life can be more delicious: a recent visit to York, for instance – absolute heaven when I got there. Or seeing the Russians at the Royal Academy from a self-propelling wheelchair, or playing with little Alexander who’s just moved in downstairs. One of the things that make me love writing or looking at pictures is that you become unconscious of yourself. Anything absorbing makes you become not 'I’ but 'eye’ – you escape the ego.”
There’s no point in worrying about the future because there’s nothing to be done about it. “As Shakespeare says, 'The coward dies many times before his death.’ I haven’t gone gaga, I’m not lonely, I have friends who are great fun. The actual business of dying is pure luck, and when you’re older your heart is more likely to just stop. I’m counting on that. My Uncle Billy fell off his horse in the middle of telling a story, out hunting with the Norwich stag hounds. It’s always shocked me how quickly one gets used to the death of dear friends.”
The fear of death, she said, is a profound instinct. “We’re all afraid of it. We try to ward it off, make up stories about floating up to heaven. Then there are people like me who cheer themselves up by thinking that death is a part of life; everything that ever lived has died and will die. I suppose I want to be remembered as quite a nice person, but it doesn’t really bother me.” What about funerals? She’d go for the good old C of E: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it serves its purpose. I don’t want someone who’s never met me saying pious things about me.”
In the meantime, the secret is to keep working. “I’ve got to the bottom of my personal experience and now I’d like to know more about my mother’s generation. If you write as honestly as you can, it’s most therapeutic. I think about the past quite a lot; I think about the good bits. This must depend on temperament – if you’re naturally optimistic. I was born that way.”
It surprises her that she’s never much minded not having children. “I love playing with Alexander, but I’m glad I’m not his grandmother. Something in me didn’t want to get involved in something that was more important than anything else.” So had that reviewer discovered the secret of a contented old age? “Selfishness,” she says. “A sobering thought – I think the bastard’s probably right.”
February 8, 2009
By ERICA JONG
SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END
By Diana Athill
182 pp. W. W. Norton & Company.
Back in the ’90s, Daphne Merkin, one of our best critics and trend-watchers, predicted that “if the last decade of the 20th century is to produce any great literature” it will be “around the subject of death.”
This has proved true.
The literature of death may have begun with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s classic “On Death and Dying” (1969)or with Judith Viorst’s “Necessary Losses” (1986), a book I buy for anyone who is grieving. Or the subject may linger in the air because of global warming and terrorism.
How does an atheist prepare for death? This is a theme Diana Athill explores in “Somewhere Towards the End.” Her grapplings are impressive: “My own belief — that we, on our short-lived planet, are part of a universe simultaneously . . . ordinary . . . and incalculably mysterious . . . — does not feel like believing in nothing and would never make me recruit anyone for slaughter. It feels like a state of infinite possibility, stimulating and enjoyable — not exactly comforting, but acceptable because true.”
A graceful memoirist, Athill is a Londoner in her 90swho is also a celebrated book editor. Her authors include Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Elias Canetti, Anthony Burgess and many others. She writes as a person of wide-ranging learning, a generalist, a lover of men and animals and a garden enthusiast, a person intoxicated with life. Her atheism is not bleak and simplistic. Rather, it sings of possibility.
She knows that people die, and she fully expects our species and our planet to become extinct. But this belief, rather than depressing her, frees her. All creatures are simply passing through like the dinosaurs. This is not the end of everything; it is the beginning of immense diversity. The universe keeps on creating new forms. Why should that trouble us? We may be perishable, but creativity and creation are not.
In one of her extraordinary essays, “The Space Crone,” Ursula Le Guin wrote that old women would make the best space explorers. Free from the daily tasks of rearing helpless children, free to see and comprehend without vanity, loving life because we know we may have to leave it soon, we would embark on our journey to the stars not for ego or planting flags but only for information to transmit back to our grandchildren for their future explorations. We know by then that we are part of the flow of life.
So does Diana Athill. Her memoir is captivating because of her fearlessness of death, her sense that death is another adventure in her adventurous life. She reminds us that loving life may well mean accepting death as a part of it. The two are not opposites. They only seem to be.
“What dies is not a life’s value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self’s awareness of itself: . . . The difference between being and nonbeing is both so abrupt and so vast that it remains shocking even though it happens to every living thing that is, was or ever will be. (What Henry James was thinking when he called death ‘distinguished’ . . . I can’t imagine — though the poor old man was at his last gasp when he said it, so one ought not to carp.)” Athill is good at not carping. This gives her memoir a levity that makes it fun to read. She also offers wisdom many of us can use about facing one’s end.
Athill filled her life with editing and writing, loving remarkable men in a remarkable way, nurturing her garden, animals and her authors. She writes on the maternal instinct as well as anyone — though she never became a mother, probably because the instinct first seized her in her 40s when it may have been too late. She became pregnant but had a miscarriage that almost killed her.
Death has always been a subject for serious writers, no less so today than in earlier times. Jim Crace has explored death and its tentacles in his novels. He almost defined the subject in “Being Dead,” his 2000 novel, in which he traced the lives, violent deaths and return to nature of a couple after many years of marriage. Annie Dillard has been sniffing at death ever since “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Her latest book, “The Maytrees,” also explores it through the medium of marriage. “What was it, exactly — or even roughly — that we people are meant to do here? Or, how best use one’s short time?” one of her characters asks.
Nature writers and novelists may have gotten there first, but it is the memoirists like Athill who most deeply plumb the subject of death. She teaches us how our shattering of illusions may be salutary rather than grim.
“I have heard people bewailing man’s landing on the moon, as though before it was touched by an astronaut’s foot it was made of silver or mother-of-pearl, and that footprint turned it into gray dust. But the moon never was made of mother-of-pearl, and it still shines as if it were so made.”
Honesty is Diana Athill’s answer.
Erica Jong is the author, most recently, of “Love Comes First,” her seventh collection of poems.
March 6, 2009 at 9:56 AM EDT
With Somewhere Towards the End, which recently won the prestigious (but then, aren't they all?) Costa Prize for Biography, Diana Athill in all likelihood completes her metamorphosis from one of the most significant editors in the 20th-century literary world of London to one of its best memoirists.
Over five previous memoirs, perhaps most memorably Stet, an anecdotal and incisive account of the publishing world, Athill has been a delightful and observant escort through the public perils of British publishing, and a private life (though no longer so) cleanly and cannily observed.
Befitting her age — 91 now, 89 when she wrote this — this one is about the various losses we sustain as we approach and contemplate the end. But far from being depressing, the book is rendered charming by Athill's consistent candour and her unsentimental, though often almost amused, attitude toward aging and its indignities.
Athill plunges immediately into those losses. She wants a dog, a pug, but cannot buy one because it is unfair to be unable to take it for walks (she later confesses that her legs are failing her). She can no longer fully indulge her very English passion for gardening, to which she devotes an entire wistful chapter.
She unblushingly discusses sex, geriatric style, and allows that the waning of desire is not an unmixed curse: "An important aspect of the ebbing of sex was that other things became more interesting." On the subject of sex, which arises regularly, Athill is candid without any hint of salaciousness. If there is such a thing as chaste discussion of extramarital affairs (never married, she has always been more comfortable as the "other woman") and a preference for black men, with one of whom she had a relationship of more than 60 years, Athill has mastered it.
Then it's on to God, in Whom she does not believe, though she admits to retaining the moral traces of her religious upbringing, and glories in the unsolvable mysteries of being. And so winningly on, through consideration of the process of dying in her long-lived family and what it might portend for her, the loss of independence that giving up driving (which she has not done) means, her passion for art and gardening et al.
On reading, Athill interestingly says that she no longer has much taste for fiction, especially of the domestic or romantic-entanglement variety, though she still loves the classics and finds much to savour in the — to her — exotic likes of V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth. But her preference is for non-fiction, in which it's subject, not story, that attracts.
The one armorial chink seems to be Barry, her Caribbean companion and former lover, who still lives with her in her somewhat straitened circumstances and who, by dint of being old and frail and not having attended to his diabetes properly, must be cared for. That's no easy task for an 89-year-old and, despite a lifetime of deep affection, a bit of humanizing resentment creeps in.
A tiny flaw, and not Athill's fault: Now that British publishers seem no longer to employ copy editors, books from the font and origin of our Mother Tongue contain an alarming number of typos. Admittedly, cases such as "that" instead of "than" and "or" rather than "of" are minor and unconfusing, but they are still irritating pebbles in an otherwise immaculately constructed shoe.
Diana Athill has enjoyed a good life, a lucky life by her own reckoning, in both career and relationships (though she does frequently note her absence of children, especially of a daughter). But not everyone who has enjoyed such a life can write about it from a great age with such dispassionate clarity and charm.
And certainly not everyone possesses the same generosity of spirit that is a clear hallmark of the still remarkable and fearless Diana Athill. Instead of raging at the dying of the light, she continues to bask in its remaining rays.
Globe and Mail Books editor Martin Levin is a great admirer of those who toil in the vineyards of literature and those who face their end with fortitude.