Vulpes Libris

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Somewhere Towards The End by Diana Athill

somewhere-towards-the-end2013 was the year I finally got around to reading some Diana Athill.  Indeed, by the end of the year I’d read three books by her – two memoirs and a collection of short stories.  And boy, Diana, we’ve gone on something of a rollercoaster ride together.  I don’t know about you, but our friendship has gone all over the graph so much that I’m getting dizzy.  And we’ve never even met.

The first book I read by Athill was Stet, and readers of my own blog will know that it was one of my favourite books of the year.  You can read my glowing review of it (and a sadly-expired giveaway) here.  It’s a memoir of Athill’s long and successful career as a literary editor, and it was a total joy – wise, witty, informative, humble, and unique for its perspective on people like Andre Deutsch, Jean Rhys, and Molly Keane.  I also read her short stories, recently collected by Persephone Books, and they were great too – in a different way, and to a lesser extent.  And then I read Somewhere Towards The End (2008).  And now I’m confused.

I think the buzz about Somewhere Towards The End was where I first heard about Diana Athill, coming late to the party as so often.  Lots of bloggers were reviewing it (including our very own Rosy, who wrote a brilliant and effusive Vulpes Libris piece about it here), lots of people on Radio 4 were discussing it, and I responded in my usual fashion – by buying it, and buying lots of other books by the same author, and not reading any of them for a few years.  My shelves are packed with pretty much everything Athill has ever had published – and I’m glad I read my beloved Stet first, or I might have been tempted to have a bit of a clear-out…

Well, this would be a much more entertaining review (and much easier to write) if I’d hated Somewhere Towards The End.  I didn’t; there is a great deal that I liked.  But there was also a fair amount I didn’t like, and that left a curious taste in my mouth.  Come with me on a journey, dear reader, while I try to work out exactly what I want to say about this book.

Like Rosy, I thought the opening paragraphs (about how Athill will never now own a pug, or see her seeds flourish completely, because of her age) rather poignant and moving. The whole of chapter one (itself short) was setting the tone nicely for a thoughtful, reflective, wise book about growing older; Stet for being an octogenarian.  And then I got to chapter 2, or whichever chapter it was where she started writing about sex.

From then on, my feelings about Athill became mixed.  At first I thought, “Come on, Simon, don’t be ridiculous.  Just because she’s a 80-something year old woman doesn’t mean she can’t write about the important sexcapades of her life” – yes, I’m afraid my inner narrative is rather fond of puns – and I thought I was just being unintentionally a bit ageist or sexist or something.  I then I had a re-think.  I realised I was being ageist and sexist – but in Athill’s favour.  If it had been a man or a young person writing, at some length, about their various sexual conquests, then I’d have closed the book much more quickly.  Because we are not used to older women writing these kinds of books, it feels for a moment a bit like a feminist triumph of some sort.  But if it is tawdry for a man to list off the women he has slept with throughout his career, then it is surely equally so for a woman.

“But,” I hear you say, “surely she isn’t just giving a list of her inamoratos?”  Well, firstly let me congratulate you on your turn of phrase, and secondly – she more or less does, for quite some time.  Her post-coital friendship with one (Barry) is dwelt on more thoughtfully, but there is plenty of “I slept with this married man, then this one, then this one” which is not at all what I was expecting from Somewhere Towards The End.  (Those who know me and have read the book might have expected me to have more trouble with her writings about Christianity, but I actually thought she wrote fairly intelligently and not too bigotedly – rare when people write about the faith(s) of others – even while disagreeing with her.)

I should mention that, even in Rosy’s positive review, she has some doubts about Athill’s doings here.  I’d like to quote the same line Rosy quotes:

Yes there are some things, sexual infidelities among them, that do no harm if they remain unknown – or, for that matter, are known and accepted, and which is preferable depends on the individuals and their circumstances.

and:

the last thing I intended or hoped for was damage to anyone’s marriage.

Oh, Diana.  I’m about a thousand years younger than you, and I know that’s not how the world works.  You can’t wreak havoc in other people’s lives, then expect them to cope because you’ve established your own moral code.  These sections demonstrated an astonishing, and unrepentant, selfishness in Athill – and it made me think about her approach more generally…

The last word you’d expect to be applied to Athill is ‘curmudgeonly’.  She is pretty bohemian and intellectual and has resisted all sorts of old fogeyisms (although I just had to include this paragraph, which I did like a lot, about her time at a drawing life class):

I think I was almost the only student in that class whose aim was to reproduce the appearance of the model.  What most of the others seemed to aim for was marks on paper that gave what they hoped was the effect of modern art.  To them my attempts must have seemed boring and fogeyish; to me theirs appeared an absurd waste of time, and I still think I was right.  This may be because I am old, but being old doesn’t necessarily make one wrong.  I am pretty sure that it is not only the old who are unable to regard as art anything that does not involve the mastery of a skill.

This is amusing, but I think it is indicative of a wider feeling I got about Somewhere Towards The End and Athill’s outlook in general.  She is a curmudgeonly bohemian.  I loved the bits where she wrote about gardening or reading, but even here there is the tiniest sense of intolerance for other people’s views.  It is clearest with her infidelities – things are her way or be hanged; the sort of open-mindedness which is entirely close-minded – but there is a hint of it in every aspect of her outlook and her reflections.

There is the inevitable retort that this is inevitable in a memoir, particularly of someone nearing the end of their life – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!  Unselfconsciously, Athill notes when saying that she prefers reading non-fiction to fiction, ‘the attractiveness of non-fiction depends more on its subjects than it does on its author’s imagination.’  Nowhere is that truer than memoir.  There is, of course, no earthly reason why Athill should care for a second whether or not I found her an attractive character in this book.  And, truth be told, it didn’t actually impede my enjoyment for many sections of Somewhere Towards The End – but it did damage my response to the book as a whole.  Stet had led me to believe Athill was a kindred spirit, who loved writing and literary folk, and I confess to disappointment when I find that – though she writes intelligently about her experience of life and her anticipation of death – she is also not the person I thought, and hoped, that she was.

Diana Athill: Somewhere Towards The End. Granta Books (2008), 182 pages, ISBN: 978-1862079847

Simon Thomas blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book, and generally has rather a fondness for grande dames of literature.

8 comments on “Somewhere Towards The End by Diana Athill

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    January 15, 2014

    Excellent review, and I can see exactly where you’re coming from. You can’t go around sleeping with married people left, right and centre and not expect any repercussions – it’s either arrogant or naive, and people are too casual in the way they brush off the results of their actions. I think I would *definitely* respond in the same way as you – if it was a man writing I would be furious and so we should expect to react to a woman in the same way.

  2. rosyb
    January 15, 2014

    And I very much disagree…This feels a little bit like a review of the person more than the book. And surely this is you, as a reviewer, imposing your moral code on Athill and even on her book yourself. And isn’t it a bit selfish to expect someone to conform to your idea of a kindred spirit because she happens to like literature and you liked another book she wrote? The woman is her own person and that’s what is so very engaging about her writing, whether or not you agree with what she says. I agree she can present things in a overly casual fashion sometimes (and perhaps I don’t buy that she never worried about those moral aspects or felt any guilt because why soooo casual, if you see what I mean?) but I don’t agree with your presentation of her presenting a succession of lovers like some kind of set of notches on a bedpost. She touches a little on life and expectations for a woman…and that I think is quite relevant – and unfair for a review like this not to deal with. Because men and women at that time were not equivalents in the kinds of roles, lives and lifestyles and expectations and even relationship opportunities they had. I take your point about closing a book on a tiresome male boaster of sexual exploits with women. But I didn’t feel this book was like that. And it also was set in a context of growing old and the things that are very absorbing and important to you when young change and seem rather unimportant when old. I thought her dealing with her own jealousy was interesting in that regard. But most of all I’m thinking, there is an honesty to her writing. You perhaps would like her more if she didn’t mention things you didn’t like or approve of. And maybe you’d be able to go on believing her to be a kindred spirit. But she has dealt with stuff that might make her less popular but the book you wanted her to write wouldn’t have been an honest one. For me, she is an interesting character and an engaging writer with lively thoughts and ideas. I don’t have to agree with all of them to enoy her writing and if I don’t agree I don’t have to disengage from her either.

    Haha! A tough response from me, Simon. I don’t mean to bludgeon you. But I suppose the question I would ask is what do you want from an autobiography?

  3. rosyb
    January 15, 2014

    Or memoir I should have said. Autobiography suggests something much bigger and more factual and dry, doesn’t it?

  4. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    January 15, 2014

    Karen – thanks! I think you’d love Stet, if you haven’t already read that, and maybe stick to that :)

    Rosy – thanks for your comment, bludgeon and all! I basically agree with what you’re saying, and that’s why I put in that quotation from the book – “the attractiveness of non-fiction depends more on its subjects than it does on its author’s imagination.” A memoir/autobiography *has* to be fundamentally about the writer, of course, and so a review of one will end up being a review of the other – I definitely can’t fault her honesty, but she was putting forth a presentation of herself and that’s what I was responding to. It’s entirely selfish of me to want her to be a different person (and I tried to address that with ‘here is, of course, no earthly reason why Athill should care for a second whether or not I found her an attractive character in this book.’) but I thought I’d write my subjective response rather than an objective review (if that were even possible). I hope that explains my reasons a bit!

  5. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    January 15, 2014

    *there, not here (bad copy+paste!)

    So often I would review a book saying “this person seems interesting/amusing/great” – indeed, I responded to Stet in that way – and so I think it’s equally intellectually valid (or perhaps, alternatively, equally invalid) to say “this person seems callous/selfish/whatever”… if that makes sense.

  6. Diana Birchall
    January 16, 2014

    From my perspective, I’ve observed this morality many times in the generation that is now eighty: the “sexual infidelities do no harm if they’re unknown” thing. My in-laws lived their lives that way and it ended tragically. In New York when I was growing up (1950s/60s) the mantra was “As long as my wife doesn’t find out.” The more sophisticated and bohemian the circle, the more this was so. I’ve always had a viscerally negative reaction to this, and have lived my life differently: bohemian but faithful. While not presuming to judge others, we cannot help having aversions and likings for what writers tell us in memoirs; and as their life is their subject, it’s very hard to objectively separate out the morality and how you respond to it. So I understand how Simon feels (since I feel that way myself), but I take Rosy’s point: we are entitled to our feelings, but must keep in mind the time the person came from and the influences that made them the way they are. Can we feel without judging? I think Simon did.

  7. Christopher Sykes
    January 16, 2014

    You might like to now that you can watch, for free, several hours of Diana Athill talking about her life and work, from her childhood to the present, at the British video archive Web of Stories
    http://www.webofstories.com/people/diana.athill

  8. rosyb
    January 20, 2014

    Diana Birchell – I take your point. And as a dyed in the wool prude myself I do try to question myself on these sorts of topics. I take issue with Simon here because – although I really enjoyed and was interested in the review and also think the point he brings up about memoir is valid (but any more or less valid than the subjective response being relevant to any book? Not sure really.) BUT (big shouty but :-) I do think there is a bit of judging going on here without questioning:

    “Oh, Diana. I’m about a thousand years younger than you, and I know that’s not how the world works. You can’t wreak havoc in other people’s lives, then expect them to cope because you’ve established your own moral code. These sections demonstrated an astonishing, and unrepentant, selfishness in Athill – and it made me think about her approach more generally…”

    For one thing, Simon is assuming the world’s moral code is his own. It’s interesting that you describe a different moral code in some circles…so I suppose a question i would have is – what is the assumed moral code and is it any different in different times and contexts. Diana Athill is ninety something. The times she lived through were times where people didn’t get divorced easily (for example) and where some parties were financially dependent. Marriage as a moral construct – but partially it’s been a practical construct – we explore the oppressive nature of marriage these days but there is also the protective nature of marriage in a society without birth control, or financial independence for women (obviously all those things inter-relate).

    In such a context of people not leaving each other or being able to divorce or have independent choices, there can also be much unhappiness.

    We are also assuming here that it’s the married men who have all the affairs? Do we know this?

    Simon says “you can’t wreak havoc in other people’s lives” but this is exactly what Diana says she didn’t want to do (and didn’t do it would seem). This is why they lied or were secret. (Presumably).

    My moral code would find the lying/secret bit the really problematic bit – as I said in my review. But again, I’m looking at things from a context of now where people are freer to make choices and leave. Isn’t life a bit more messy sometimes?

    I think she admits that it is a kind of control thing – that she didn’t want to be hurt – that partly made her go in this direction. And that is an interesting admission.I got the impression it was also about controlling the kind of life she had and that was a lot to do with choices and roles and expectations of women at that time.

    I think these issues are more worthy of thinking about. I’m not talking about justification but it seems to me that it’s just not as simple as engaged with here.

    (And now I really must stop giving Simon a hard time. Sorry Simon!)

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2014 by in Entries by Simon, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , .

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