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Diana Athill

SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This book was written in old age, when Athill was about to turn 90 (she is now 100). But although the experience of growing old and facing death is one of her themes, it is far from the only one. She writes perceptively about people she has known and objectively and frankly about herself and her earlier life, including her many love affairs. Hers has been a pretty full life, one would think, but she wishes it could have been even fuller—one regret is that she would have liked to learn modern Greek and to have lived and worked in Greece.

Although she had previously published a collection of short stories and a novel, she didn't think of herself as a writer, and discovering in old age that she could produce memoirs that people wanted to read came as a delightful surprise. It shouldn't have done. She is more of a 'writer' than are many of those who ostentatiously describe themselves as such.

I enjoyed the book but it wasn't until I started to write this review that I realised whom she reminded me of as a writer: the sixteenth-century French essayist Montaigne, which is praise indeed. Sarah Bakewell, in her biography of Montaigne, writes:

Whereas most of his contemporaries struck literary postures and tried to impress their readers, Montaigne wrote in a colloquial informal style. Reading him, we are admitted to his innermost thoughts and emotions. He made no attempt to follow a train of argument or put forward a philosophy, and the titles of his essays often have little connection with their content.
All this could be said of Athill too (except that her chapters don't have titles). The book is quite short, because she favours simplicity and brevity (something she says she learned in her working life as an editor). Of her plan for an earlier book, about her life in publishing, she says: "It would be short, but that wouldn't matter because to my mind erring on the side of brevity is always preferable to its opposite." If only more writers thought this!

She is objective about her own character and what some might see as faults. For example, she is not a natural carer; she has had to take on this role at least twice, once for her mother and once for a former lover, but she didn't enjoy it and felt she could have done better. In the case of the lover she found herself acting like a wife although they weren't married; in fact, she never wanted to be married and preferred to be 'the other woman'.

She felt nothing for babies and didn't want children herself—she terminated an unwanted pregnancy on one occasion. Yet when she became pregnant again, at the age of forty-three, she found to her surprise that she was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a mother. But it didn't happen. In the fourth month she had a miscarriage that almost killed her.

As she recovered from her near-fatal haemorrhage Athill experienced "a great wave of the most perfect joy [which] welled up and swept through me. I AM STILL ALIVE! It filled the whole of me, nothing else mattered. It was the most intense sensation I have ever experienced." So intense was the joy that it almost completely overwhelmed regret at the loss of the pregnancy.

Once again I'm reminded of Montaigne. He too had a near-fatal illness after a riding accident. Outwardly he appeared to be in agony yet he was inwardly completely at peace. Something similar happened again in later life, when he suffered a good deal from kidney stones; he experienced a spiritual liberation after the attacks passed, and even when the pain was severe he preserved a sense of inner freedom.

A third possible similarity to Montaigne is in Athill's view of religion. She is an atheist and doesn't believe in an afterlife.

I can't feel anything but sure that when men form ideas about God, creation, eternity, they are making no more sense in relation to what lies beyond the range of their comprehension than the cheeping of sparrows.
(I say 'possible similarity' because we know little of what Montaigne really thought about religion. Wisely, in view of the times in which he lived, he took refuge in silence, saying only "what do I know?".)

Wikipedia comments on the "remarkable modernity of thought in Montaigne's essays. The same could be said of Athill's writing. She may, as she acknowledges more than once, be old, but her writing is fresher and more enjoyable to read than that of many younger people.

01-02-2018


%T Somewhere Towards the End
%A Diana Athill
%I Granta Books
%C London
%D 2008, 2009 (ebook version)
%G ISBN 978-1-84708-158-2
%K autobiography
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2017


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