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Culture Watch


Page Three


By Diana Athill © 2008

Published by W. W. Norton & Co.; Hardcover, 184 pp.

Diana Athill's new book makes a reader feel right away that it would be a good idea to have read her earlier ones.  Well into Somewhere Towards the End the author tells us that she has written other books, and admits that at least one was a novel. She was not a writer until she was in her seventies.

Athill was an editor, so it is no surprise that her extended essay is as captivating, correct, and blessed with distinguished diction as it is entertaining and challenging; a literate as well as a literary delight.

It is in the nature of autobiography to be revealing. That characteristic makes the form especially challenging for a writer who has a tendency to reticence and lacks an overdeveloped ego.  You will meet someone who appears to possess not even an ounce of envy or selfishness. Her affinity for the people who have been close to her is so full of sympathy and understanding, one might wonder that she never became a therapist.  She must be a wonderful friend.

This is a book that makes an attempt to address what it means not only to get old, but to be old.  What comes next is an unavoidable question for anyone who is human, that is anyone who is self-aware, and few matters are more revealing than one's attitude toward death.

As an avowed atheist, Athill automatically risks eliminating a whole segment of readership.  I hope not all of it.  Her unemotional attempt to contemplate her own end, as well as the ends of others about whom she cares and has cared is a relief. Without making any remarks to antagonize a believer, she merely indicates why a belief in any supreme being is unnecessary for her and suggests that she foresees no problem when the time comes for her to discover whether she is right or not.  She seems not to be a cynic, which is an accomplishment in itself.

The emphasis for this forthright and clear-sighted lady is on what one can do while awaiting the inevitable. Her recollections reinforce her delight in her (relatively) newfound talent for writing.  She comments on her revised views of independence, for example, the need for taking on the care of another that she dreaded so heartily earlier in her life.  Perhaps she will alienate some readers by her conviction that she was correct to have deliberately remained childless.  She confesses that she once decided to have a baby which she lost, and for which loss she has long-since given up grieving.  She decided after retirement to learn to draw and paint.  It's not that she does not look back, it's that she focuses forward with every fiber of her remarkable mind.

Apart from the self-portrait, a reader gathers notions of a youthful English life that is probably almost completely gone:  a comfortable, semi-rural existence that included reverence for tradition, culture, even learning.   Like so many English people, she is charmed by Nature. She appreciates sensuality in the broadest sense. 

The author was eighty-nine when the book came out.  Her recollections avoid nostalgia, even when referring to friends who have outstripped her financial means, or become mothers, who manage to keep domestic help, to enjoy luxuries she cannot.  She makes us taste the atmospheric changes in London and the countryside that have taken place in the past half century.  The book is rich in showing where this person lives as well as giving a picture of how.

She is proud of coming to an appreciation of the performance of art and her love of gardening in later life.  (She didn't retire until after she was seventy.)  Occasionally she allows herself to remark on dwindling physical strength and multiplying aches, without whining.  At the same time, the reader is aware that she is leaving a good deal unsaid, and one admires her for it.

A woman of such unconventional attitudes must have had times when her acquaintance were awed by her sang froid.  Imagine contentedly giving house room to her successor in the house she continued to share with her former lover!  She admits some of her friends were taken aback.  Somehow she makes the reader accept her claim that that particular ménage à trois made perfect sense. 

She seems never to have allowed herself to step out of a purely cerebral persona.  If there is a chink in this intellectual armor, it might be there.  One must wonder how anyone as sensitive as this lady could have managed to rise above the emotionally charged events she manages to make sound like reports delivered by Peter Gunn — "just the facts."  Yet, in this day of "letting it all hang out," what a relief it is to be allowed to assess what she relates without embarrassing editorializing. 

The most remarkable thing is that at the end of the book, one really would like to know what happens next, and that the author has made herself not just admirable, but also eminently likable.

Fans of biography have a treat in store in this memoir that covers a remarkably broad territory, given the restriction suggested by its title.  It would be nice to think it might even appeal to those who aren't anywhere near the end — yet.  It has much to entice anyone.

 — Joan L. Cannon

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©2009 Joan L. Cannon for

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