Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Feb 2019

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

The news that the editor and writer Diana Athill had died on the 23rd January 2019 aged 101 managed to pass me by. I only saw it when looking at some websites over the weekend. It immediately made me put aside what I was reading and choose one of her more recent memoirs to reread as a way of marking her death. I chose Somewhere Towards the End, her flinty consideration of ageing and mortality, published in 2008.

In writing of Athill one almost instinctively wants to talk of her as the “grande dame of English letters”, as The Sunday Times did. But I feel sure she would have resisted such an aggrandising cliché because she spent her life trying to escape her ‘caste’ – English, privately educated, upper class, ‘county’, landed gentry – and this decision and the steely resolve to carry it through is reinforced on numerous occasions in this memoir. I reviewed my favourite book of hers, Stet, here to mark her hundredth birthday in December 2017.

Stet remains my favourite book of hers because it is about a subject that I find endlessly fascinating – books and the people who write them, publish them and sell them – but in many ways her other memoirs, and especially this late one, are more characteristic, more indicative of her range and intelligence and outlook, and certainly more personal.

Written when she was approaching ninety, this book reflects on the loss of libido, the responsibilities of caring (both giving and accepting care), her mother’s death, late-flowering relationships, inequalities in business and the workplace (she was a co-founder of André Deutsch publishing house but never received full financial recognition for this), her own financial ignorance, the religious impulse, fidelity and infidelity, childlessness and much more.

But don’t expect a pious how-to-age-gracefully style self-help book. In everything she writes Athill writes lightly and deftly, but every word is threaded on an armature of pure steel. She is above all else a stoic intellectual figure, I always feel, and her primary concern is always that of articulating what she thinks about a particular thing with the utmost concision and clarity. She is unashamedly intellectual and clearly believes that the act of having thought through a particular matter and arrived at a conclusion – however uncomfortable, however inconvenient, however much the conclusion may turn out to be self-condemnatory rather than self-justifying – is a critical part of being alive, indeed is a way of life. I suspect it is the product of a particular kind of education. All of her books are in some form an experiment in radical candour – not self-revelation, exactly, because despite all this she also paradoxically maintains a certain degree of privacy, a dignified reticence.

There is little in the way of the sort of literary revelation that characterised Stet  in this particular volume. She touches here and there on the continuing importance of books and reading, and occasionally the narrative is spiced with peppery observations about certain writers – Elias Canetti, for example, a towering public intellectual in his time, has the “central European’s respect for the construction of abstract systems of thought”, but is swiftly dismissed: “what pompous self-importance!”

She writes movingly about finding that fiction now holds little attraction for her. Certain writers, she says – WG Sebald, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel – have minds “one falls in love with” and they continue to fascinate her regardless of the kind of books they write. And there are a handful of true greats – Tolstoy, Flaubert, George Eliot, Proust, Dickens, Trollope – whose “imaginative energy” she considers so extraordinary that it can only be described as “uncanny”. But what she really wants is non-fiction – to be “fed facts, to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander”.

She writes with utter candour of her mother and her mother’s death; and she admits the shame she feels when remembering how she failed to help her cousin care for her children following the break-up of her cousin’s marriage – a cousin she considers her greatest friend and whose house she was to share for over forty years. She spares the grimmest details of the years she spent caring for her partner, Barry, and dedicates the book to the family of the woman who was once his mistress and indeed for a period lived with them in a ménage a trois.

This, then, is Diana Athill writing as she nears ninety – resilient, enquiring, assured, happy. Not without regrets, exactly, but undaunted by regret, and determined not to dwell on those she is in any case too old to do much to address. “I have reached a stage at which one hopes,” she says, “to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present.” It is the unmistakeable voice of a woman who has found her own way in life and her own way of living – precisely, one feels, what she had set out to achieve some seven decades earlier. Athill was very much a type and we shall not see her like again.


Alun Severn

February 2019