A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As the other foxes will know from my dramatic teeth-gnashing in the den, I have found this review a hard one to write.
I sat up late last night looking at sentences like “I first encountered Miss Athill’s writing at the Borders Book Festival” and “this spare slim little volume” and just wanted to shoot myself for my boring pomposity.
I just want to do something simple about this book. Something meaningful. But it’s harder than it looks to write simply and meaningfully as Diana Atill does. I want to sum it up in one sentence. But not with the usual clichés. Just nail it. But I can’t.
When browsing Athill’s books at the Borders Book Festival where I saw her speak this summer, I did what you normally do when buying a new book – I read the opening lines. And it was these ones that won my heart and my £7.99:
Near the park which my bedroom overlooks there came to stay a family which owned a pack of pugs, five or six of them, active little dogs, one of them overweight as pugs so often are. I saw them recently on their morning walk, and they caused me a pang. I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
To describe this book doesn’t exactly make it sound like a fun read. Its subject-matter, as alluded to by the title and by that opener – is getting old and facing death. Mooted as autobiography, it is in fact more meditative and fragmented – less to do with events and more like a series of ponderings on life and growing old. On what’s important. On dogs. On gardening. On taking evening classes. On realising that you will never be Rembrandt. On what makes good art. On the importance of young people. On clothing the older body. On watching the world change about you.
HOW TO “DO” AND NOT TO “DO” OLD AGE
Diana Athill was a respected editor at André Deutsch working with many famous literary figures. She speaks of it a little in Somewhere Towards the End, but more in relation to how some of our great writers have dealt with the problem of facing up to mortality: Jean Rhys, for example, “demonstrating how not to think about getting old” sinking into a world of drink and querulous complaint or “Bulgarian-born Nobel prize -winning writer, Elias Canetti” so filled with his own ego that he claimed he “rejected death”. Diana Athill has little truck with this, and has more sympathy for drunken Rhys than the arrogance of Canetti. For, despite rubbing shoulders with many great literary figures, Athill herself sets great store by taking a humbler attitude to life – to seeing yourself as part of something bigger. It is interesting how this attitude – something she puts down to a rather old-fashioned sort of notion that comes from her background – comes across almost as a release and a power. Athill freely admits she is an atheist and always has been, despite the religious beliefs of her siblings and parents. You need not mourn yourself so extremely. You are not special. You are taking your part in the bigger world, which is a source of awe and wonder. So, you get old and die. Athill may not be religious but her connection and wonder at the world shines forth. It is as though being honest and embracing that honesty about her predicament, being curious about it…gives her keener eyes through which to see the world.
ART, LIFE AND CAPTURING THE ORDINARY
For Athill has a great love and respect for ordinariness. She talks of her brother, determinedly sailing near his home in his eighties. A man who loved his life and the particular place he lived with a passion and who fought death because of it. He did not need an ego the size of Canetti’s to find meaning and profundity in living.
She talks of what she considers to be great art. She is not interested in stylistic quirks or experiments.
Only a person with a gigantic sense of self-importance, could, for example, produce a large number of canvases painted in a single flat colour, or even in two or three flat colours, without being bored to death.
But, again, seems to return to the idea of the ego lost in pursuit of truth and reality.
There are many ways in which a painting can be exciting , but a drawing that thrills me is always one that has caught a moment of life. Drawings are what artists, great or small, do when they are working their way towards understanding something, or catching something they want to preserve: they communicate with such immediacy that they can abolish time.
LUCK, SUCCESS AND SORE FEET
All this makes this book sound a little sombre. But it is anything but – full of wit and twinkle like the woman herself (whose interview at the Borders Book Festival was uplifting, thought-provoking and hilarious by equal turns).
She discovers this capacity for making others laugh late on in life. Gaining success when you are very old, Athill tells us, is really rather fun. You have none of the angst, your sense of self remains comfortably unaffected, you are not beginning an ascent up any greasy pole (haven’t the time) so it is pointless to get too self-conscious or careerist about the whole thing. Instead you can sit back and ENJOY. (As so many of those great writers she mentioned earlier seemed to fail to do.) Being a bit humble and not expecting immortality through others’ reverence or being plonked onto university syllabuses seems to help too. When her work is received well and she wins a few awards (indeed Somewhere Towards the End, itself, won the Costa Biography Award last year) she is obviously pleased, but it isn’t the be all and end all, and this allows her to enjoy it all the more.
It is in seemingly simple observations like this that she reveals how very observant she is of the human condition and how we so often don’t allow ourselves to be happy. Again and again we seem to return to this idea of not thinking too much of yourself – not as some irritating middle-class affectation – but as a joyous strength, as an acceptance of life that allows us then to engage with and enjoy life.
This is not to say that this book is all touchy-feely and worthy and ” life-is-wonderful-no-matter-what and let’s-all-sit-about-and-do-a-bit-of-meditation–and-get-in-touch-with-our-inner-nonagenarian”, or some other sort of sickening avocation of the selfless acceptance of old-age. Athill admits that a lot of it is down to luck. Luck in keeping your health. Luck in being alive at all. And luck in how you die. She is lucky, she says, to come from a family who are long-lived, and who – in the main – have had relatively unprotracted deaths. She mentions her own mother’s last words (said in relation to a trip to a garden centre to inspect a eucalyptus tree) and holds them up as hope for all of us that death may not always have to be a horror. But, on the other hand, she also acknowledges the pain of seeing your friends and relations disintegrate around you; the way that, as a very old person, you inevitably become a carer or a caree – whether suited to these particular roles or not; the way you ALWAYS have sore feet.
But she also sees the pointlessness in mourning things that you do not have, or – more importantly – do not WANT anymore.
This is particularly relevant in relation to sex: which by all accounts played an extremely important part of Athill’s life and which starts to recede until, suddenly, in her seventies, it disappeared completely.
SEX AND INFIDELITY
…very soon another voice began to sound in my head, which made more sense. “Look,” it said, “you know quite well that you have stopped wanting him in your bed, 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.” And that was the end of that stage.
A woman of her generation, Athill believed she would marry and have children. But when marriage didn’t materialise she embarked instead on a series of affairs – often with other people’s husbands. I was put in mind of a recent interview on the Today Programme with French art critic, Catherine Millet, whose infamous “The Sexual Life of Catherine M” was a bestseller in “noughties” – chronicling her life of affairs and orgies and all things sexually extreme. Catherine Millet has now apparently released another book, which I haven’t read, but is about her extreme jealousy about her husband’s affairs, despite her own antics. In the interview, Millet stated that she had become monogamous and that the answer to “the free life” was to keep things secret no matter what.
This made me laugh: the way we all want to create grand overarching theories and moralities based on our own personal wants and foibles. But there is something honest about her assessment nonetheless. Catherine M believes rationally in the “free life” but admits she can’t handle jealousy – a very human emotion. She has come up with her own theory to suit herself. I – personally – can’t handle not knowing things so, for me, the idea of secret affairs is far worse than open ones. Diana Athill, who does not believe in the idea of possessing and being possessed, was, like Catherine M, faced with a situation in late middle age that similarly confronted her own beliefs. Her way of dealing with it was very different and, in my view, incredibly impressive. I won’t go into it all here as I don’t want to give away everything that happens in this book. But, her attitude, again, seemed born out of a sort of pragmatic lack of self-importance and even a selfishness with the realisation that perhaps she would gain more and be happier by taking this attitude than a more self-destructive one.
Athill’s clear-sighted honesty seems a little less sure of itself when it comes to the cheated on and I was less convinced she had totally worked out what she thought about infidelity in terms of the lies that need (or do they?) to be told.
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.
Although, she claimed to feel no guilt about having affairs with married men as “the last thing I intended or hoped for was damage to anyone’s marriage”, she says she prefers the following attitude to the extreme opposite: the “attitude, often attributed to the French, that however far from admirable sexual infidelity is, it is perfectly acceptable if conducted properly. Vive la France!”
Athill’s idea that it is down to circumstances whether to be open or secret is interesting to me – although I can’t help but wonder at the fairness of making that decision for another woman or man and what s/he gets to know (or not) about their own relationship. Similarly, it is hard to tell how much some affairs depend on the solidity of the marriage elsewhere to exist in the first place or are able to be “free” because other needs were met elsewhere. Athill is adamant that she did not want the kind of relationship with a man where she looked after him, made his meals, did his washing or allowed her own life to be taken over with other traditionally wifely duties. I have every sympathy with this (as my poor half-starved, neglected, and uwashed boyfriend can attest). But perhaps it is easier these days. I can shake off these expectations without a care (despite protestations from family and friends.) For Athill, you get the impression that in a funny way she couldn’t.
Perhaps, you could argue that it is all very well for someone with no children and who freely admits to not being a jealous person, to take up such a position – for many there may be greater complexities to their situations. On the other hand, I have to admit to having some sympathy with many of Athill’s points and I was left realising this is something I need to ponder further.
But whatever the ins and out of her attitude to infidelity and whether or not as a reader you agree, even on this subject, Athill is wonderful – again – writing about the pleasures of ordinariness. Of embarking on an affair in later life, for example, and the peculiar pleasures of sleeping with somebody else who has sore feet.
TO SUM UP
This is a short book full of thoughts and ideas and it would be unfair of me to outline every one of them here. Simply to say that in the thoughts, ideas, wit, honesty and feeling, this book is a real gem. I could spend many more hours listening to Athill’s beautifully measured yet always mischievous voice. And if she doesn’t exactly make me wish I was in my nineties, she – at least – makes it seem less frightening and shows that (if you keep your mind) old-age can, for some, be curious and interesting.
It’s a cliché to say this turns out not be a book about old-age and facing dying, but about living – and perhaps that’s not totally true. For me – this book is more about the realisations and joys that old age brings into focus, that we often fail to see or embrace properly when we are young. It is more about how to look at things, and shows how being honest with oneself – even about unpleasantnesses – can be a power and a strength and maybe even allow one to enjoy oneself more.
And humour. Athill never loses that. And that – to me anyway – is a sign of someone still very much engaged with life.
Publisher: Granta Books (2008), 182 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1862079847
For more of RosyB’s cheery death series, see her review of The Spare Room by Helen Garner
When not pondering death and old-age, RosyB writes comedy novels. Find out more here.