Sunday, August 29, 2010

Somewhere Towards the End: Diane Athill

I've already quoted from Diana Athill's wonderful Somewhere Towards the End on my other blog, where I was talking about drawing and loved her observation on the subject.

But she's quotable on so many other subjects.

Not on the topic of sex and older women -- for that you'll need to pick up the book and read the two chapters which detail first, her assumption that her interest in sex had aged right out of her, a fact about which she was resigned, if wistful. Next, she describes her delightful discovery, in a new relationship, that her "life as a sexual being" wasn't done yet. And finally, she tells of how, after months and months of the gaps between lovemaking growing increasingly longer, she told her lover that "The trouble with me . . . is that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. My body has gone against it." It's obvious to her that he is as relieved by this decision as she is firm in stating it. After that, she says, there is "no reprieve" from a life without sex, but neither does she wish for one.

And it's hard to imagine Ms. Athill languishing among regrets (she devotes one chapter to outlining the limit of her regrets, and they are very reasonable ones, sensibly confined to the margins). Editor for the well-respected publisher, André Deutsch, she lived a fulfilling career among interesting and influential people. An independent thinker, she seems to me to have carried forward the best sort of values into the 21st-century, without falling prey to conservatism or nostalgia. An atheist from quite early in her intellectual life, she nonetheless acknowledges the strengths she drew from a Christian upbringing. Here is an example of her generous, rigorous honesty:

My kind enjoys an unfair advantage. In the Western world there are probably nowadays as many people without the religious instinct as with it, but all of them live in socieities which developed on lines laid down by believers: everywhere on earth men started by conjuring Powers into being to whom they could turn for direction and control of their behaviour. The mechanism was obviously a necessary one in its time. So we, the irreligious, live within social structures built by the religious, and however critical or resentful we may be of parts of them, no honest atheist would deny that in so far as the saner aspects of religion hold within a society, that society is the better for it. We take a good nibble of our brother's cake before throwing it away.

This is the kind of intellectual generosity that David Adams Richards was looking for, it seems to me, and it impresses me to see Athill be so free with it.

She impressed me in many ways, in this memoir (as she did in her earlier one, Stet, about her life in publishing), and she inspired me, by writing about both her own aging and that of her mother (whom she began caring for in her own early 70s). This week, I'm bringing Mom back home with us where she'll be able to work in the garden, and the prompt for this really is Athill's connection of the generations AND for her emphasis on what a difference it makes, in old age, to enjoy making things -- whether knitting, gardening, or, as for herself, writing.
At the end of her 80s, she has yet to give up driving, but she writes convincingly about how important it is to her yet how aware she is of its dangers. She's very moving on what she is enjoying right now, as well as on what future joys she is unlikely to experience, and she's wise on how to reconcile the gap between the two.

The memoir is relatively slim at 182 pages, and yet I could write much more about what I enjoyed in it and about what will linger, what I continue to think about even after I've moved to other books and the various preparations for the new term. It's the kind of book I know I'll turn back to, a kind of guide to the landscape of a country I know I shall get to one day. I suspect you'd enjoy it as well.


  1. How apposite this is, given your situation with your mother right now ... I look forward to reading Athill; from what you've quoted, she has both an intellectual generosity and a strength of spirit that make her very appealing.

  2. I'm quite sure you'd find much in this book (and in her earlier memoir, Stet to linger over, think about, and come back to. As you suggest, I'm finding it pertinent -- almost troublingly so -- to my mother's visit.

  3. This sounds like a very interesting and thought-provoking book that I think I would enjoy as well. I look forward to reading it.

  4. When you do, Mardel -- and I'd ask this of Tiffany as well -- please come back here and tell me what you think. I've glossed over much of it so there's considerable material yet for us to discuss together.