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.
2013 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.
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.