Friday, September 24, 2010

(No.115) Somewhere Towards The End

Since beginning I have from time to time recommended books and authors whose work I have found rewarding. I do so because I assume that many readers of these columns are likely to share my enjoyment of good writing, fiction and non-fiction.

I very much enjoyed several volumes of memoirs by a fascinating Englishwoman, Diana Athill, who is now 93. An Oxford University graduate, raised in a problematic upper middle class home, she worked as a literary editor and herself wrote both novels and memoirs, retiring from her career in 1993 at the age of 75.

She spent 50 years in London publishing including helping Andre Deutsch build his British publishing house. She never married but had affairs, several long term relationships but no children.

Of several volumes of memoirs her first, published in 1962, Instead Of A Letter [Norton], is like all her non-fiction: still in print and available in softcover. It is about her youth and young adulthood including a broken engagement with a member of the RAF who later died during World War II.

It was for her one of a series of formative events and years later, writing this volume ca 1960, she said prophetically that "I see my story, ... sad though much of it was, as a success story. I am rising forty-three, and I am happier in the present and more interested by the future than I have ever been since I was a girl .... But is it a story which will seem worth having lived through, of value in itself, when I come to die?"

Doubtless Athill at age forty-three would never have predicted that she would still be alive and writing in her nineties -- but she is, and the reader is the more fortunate because of it.

During her career in publishing Athill worked with many well-know authors about whom she has interesting insights, including Philp Roth, Mordecai Richler, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul. Her 2000 memoir, Stet: An Editor's Life [Grove] is a refreshing look at the reality of literary publishing in post-war Britain. But she is not one one to look to the past as a literary golden age.

"It is, of course, true that reading is going the same way as eating," she wrote,"the greatest demand being for the simple, instantly recognizable flavours such as sugar and vinegar or their mental equivalents: but that is not the terminal tragedy it sometimes seems to the disgruntled old. It is not, after all, a new development: quick and easy has always been what the majority wants."

The Athill book which had the most impact on me (as I suspect it might on anyone who thinks about the end of life, including their own) is her prize-winning Somewhere Towards The End [Granta] written mostly when she was 90 and published in 2008. In all her books she writes not just well but with a pleasing clarity. Her use of the English language is so pleasing that one stops and rereads paragraphs to savour both a thought and its expression.

In this, her last book, she looks back with a complete absence of sentimentality and no hint of an aged curmudgeon. "It seems to me," she writes,"that anyone looking back over eighty-nine years ought to see a landscape pockmarked with regrets. ... Regrets? I say to myself. What regrets? This invisibility may be partly the result of a preponderance of common sense over imagination: regrets are useless, so forget them."

Athill offers views which will resonate with many readers and for different reasons. For example, with those who devoted their working lives to the service and interests of one or two employers and did so loyally, only to be tossed aside by the employer because of this merger or that corporate expense reduction. "Loyalty unearned," she concludes, "is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system." Amen.

If only the average 50 year old CEO could think half as clearly and express himself or herself half as well as this 93 year old Englishwoman.

Somewhere Towards The End is an extraordinary book by an amazing woman who has lived a thoughtful and interesting life -- and has thought about that life in a serious way and shared those thoughts over several volumes.

It is both timely and welcome that Athill has written this volume now when popular culture still too often portrays people who reach age 80, much less 90 as little more than child-like, if not gaga. Her book thus provides the reader with a welcome antidote to the toxicity of pop culture. Just as, in the realm of Canadian politics, 89 year old Hazel McCallion does as mayor of Mississauga, one of Canada's largest cities.

Diana Athill has written an impressively thoughtful volume about approaching the end of life, the most affecting I have read on the subject. She has lived a long and worthwhile life that began during the First World War, reaching her old age with mental acuity intact in the second decade of the 21st century.

Nearing the end of her life she concludes that "digging out past guilts is [not] a useful occupation for the very old, given that one can do so very little about them. I have reached a stage at which one hopes to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present."


In 2009 a 670 page volume of memoirs selected from four of her books was published by Granta: Life Class:The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill.


Alastair Rickard