Still Somewhat Against The Grain

Life Class by Diana Athill (Granta)
Growing Old Disgracefully BBC documentary

Diana Athill published Stet in 2000, her amusing and revealing account of her life as an literary editor, when she was 82. One could have been forgiven for considering it an astute piece of literary housekeeping, the final gasp of a pen that was about to be laid down for good. It was her fourth installment of memoirs. 

The first -- Instead of a Letter -- had candidly handled her first love disappointment at the hands of a man, five years her senior, with whom she fell in love when she was fifteen, but who dropped her from afar and was then killed in the Second World War, a blow whose repercussions shadowed her existence with a sadness she found almost impossible to escape. Published in 1965, it was an unusual work for the time, when such cathartic and disarming honesty was far from the norm. Candidness was seen as a loss of face, not a brave serving of truth. She followed it with a brisk and witty novel, Don't Look at Me Like That, about a girl of Bohemian tastes, who has affairs, but none of the guilt one might anticipate in less liberal times. It remains a pithy breath of fresh air, free from apology, modern and astute.

Her second attack of the memoirs, After a Funeral, continued in her theme of personal trauma as means of literary excavation. Appearing in 1986, it was the long view of a momentously sad event. Her friend, the charming, but unstable Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, with whom she fell in love after publishing his novel Beer in the Snooker Club. Athill provided him with sanctuary and support, but he ended up living with her, mentally abusing her kindness and infatuation by leaving his diary open so she could view his toxic reflections upon her failings in both personality and physical attractiveness. His ultimate act of selfish selflessness, was to commit suicide in her flat in 1969. In her detailing of their emotional tryst and trauma, they slept together once after a drunken collision in her flat, she is terribly unflinching in her dissection of her motives, weaknesses, and the sadly inevitable outcome.

By the time Make Believe appeared in 1993, a possible theme had become a glaring actuality. Another brief sexual relationship with another vain, but charismatic man, Hakim Jamal, the black American radical. A follower of Malcom X, and lover of the actress Jean Seaberg, he was eventually gunned down in his native Boston in 1972. He also believed himself to be God. His other English lover, Gail Boston, the daughter of an MP, was murdered in Trinidad after following him there; her sorry plight became the basis for V.S Naipaul's novel Guerillas. Again Athill dissected the experience in cool, calculated prose, as much an observer of herself as she is of others. 

Her first book, a collection of short stories, An Unavoidable Delay, was published in the early '60s, but only in America. By the time of Stet it seemed that Diana Athill was a six-book wonder, a minor literary figure, a footnote in the lives of famous writers. In the decade since she has become a curious arrival: a major literary figure, a success in her own right, and most definitely on her own terms.

In 2002 she cast a long, affectionate, but unsentimental look at her childhood in Yesterday Morning. The book went through several editions, building upon the interest she had kindled with her previous works which were falling into print again. Her unexpected breakthrough came with an unfashionable topic, and an unprepossessing subject, Somewhwere Towards the End which appeared as the author turned ninety, exploded myths of old-age, and many of the expectations one has of those in the elderly bracket. It became a literary, and a commercial wonder, winning the Costa Prize for biography, the near perfect next installment in a long life, and a happy account of a time we fear. She was soon a regular feature on the literary circuit making "Sold Out" appearances at Festivals in Bath, Cheltenham, and Hay on Wye.

Last year saw the publication of Life Class, a doorstop-sized compendium of her memoirs, and again her audience grew. Diana Athill was on the radio, on TV, and in magazines as both a contributor and an interviewee. At the age of 92, she had arrived. Then she confounded expectations by giving up her flat, winnowing her lifetime of possessions and books, by moving into an old person's home. She also became the subject of a profile by Alan Yentob for BBC television.

Athill has a voice for radio and a face of which the camera approves. The documentary of her life took her back to the places she recreates in words. Her grandmother's palatial house, her school as a student in Oxford, her office at the publishers Andre Deutsch (now an artist's suppliers), the graveyard which holds various family members, even her abandoned flat where Ghali ended his life. Much of hers was spent editing the work of others, a list that reads like a "Who's Who" of current greats and the gone -- John Updike, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, V.S Naipaul, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, and Jean Rhys, to name but a few.

She holds Rhys in particular esteem, because she feels she learnt the most from her reductive approach to refining prose. Given that Andre Deutsch could be mercurial, it was often left to Athill to soothe the ruffled feathers of startled authors. She wryly recalls that some were not so easy to console, and despite the famously cranky V.S Naipaul acknowledging her as the best editor he ever encountered, she admits that in times of trial, she would console herself in the knowledge that at least she wasn't married to him.

Recently she had to write an introduction to a reissue of Ghali's lone novel, which has become a surprise best seller in Egypt. Speaking of him, and his suicidal passing was the only time you saw the veneer of resolution almost crumble, and the sadness she successfully discharges in concise prose, return to almost draw a tear. It was momentary, and once again she is off, remembering, analyzing, clutching her cane. At one point she observes her amusement at sharing the stage with a woman in her sixties to discuss the topic of age. As she correctly states that old age from your nineties is a totally different place. She has lived, a long, unconventional life, but her experiences prove that in affairs of the heart, the route that doesn't follow the footsteps of convention, hold greater, unexpected rewards. Her on going friendship with the lover of her life partner, whom she allowed to reside with them after their physical relationship had dwindled into a sexless companionship, proves that dictum.

Diana Athill has recently been diagnosed with cancer, but because of her age it is being monitored, but not treated. She hopes she can get away without pain or fuss. I share that wish for her, but hope that it comes as she desires, but not for a good while. She is the editor, who became a writer in her own right, but who managed to take the advice she had long given others into her heart, and apply it to her own efforts. She recently cast her eye over my work, and wrote that she liked the themes but that I should make my lines longer, it would make the poems stronger. It was a simple piece of advice, but once applied, I knew I would always carry it with me. A reminder from someone who knows.

She says she is tinkering with another book, but has no desire to discuss what it entails in case it might derail the project and it comes to nothing. Given the strength of her past performances, this seems a rather unlikely outcome.

Purchase her books on Amazon