An editor in her 90s writes about the end of her sex life and more
Somewhere Towards the End. By Diana Athill. Norton, 182 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
Diana Athill has mastered that bittersweet negotiation with old age that the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.” Born in 1917, Athill worked for decades at an esteemed London publishing firm, where she edited the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and others, and she has had a vibrant life that included an affair with the playwright Barry Reckord. In her new memoir, she writes eloquently of life after her retirement at the age of 75 – the ebbing of sexual desire, the deaths of friends, the pleasures of gardening and driving a car when the padding on the soles of her feet has grown so thin she is hard put to walk a hundred yards.
Somewhere Towards the End won a major British award for biography and reflects a keenly English sensibility rooted in the values of the world that existed before Starbucks moved into Victoria Station. Athill is by no means morbid. But neither does she lecture or assault you, as so many American authors do, with cloying euphemisms like “aging” – a word that, as Katha Pollitt has noted, applies to all of us: “A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”
Athill is matter-of-fact but discreet about events such as a miscarriage that nearly killed her and about the prostate troubles suffered by Reckord, with whom she lives. But her natural tact doesn’t preclude astute observations on life. In her last chapter, Athill avoids reaching for tidy lessons and observes instead that “most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.”
Best line: As a student at Oxford in the 1930s, Athill told a man named Duncan that she had fallen away from the Christianity of her youth: “ … I said that though I was unable to believe in the god I had been taught to believe in, I supposed that some kind of First Cause had to be accepted. To which Duncan replied ‘Why? Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?’”
Worst Line: Athill writes of a 103-year-old woman who had a “positive attitude” (and, a page later, a “positive outlook”), a rare descent into cliché.
Recommendation? Somewhere Towards the End is more cohesive than the Nora Ephron’s entertaining but disjointed I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and reading groups might like to compare the two books.
Published: January 2009 (first American edition).
Furthermore: Somewhere Towards the End won the 2008 Costa Award for biography. Athill also wrote Stet: An Editor’s Life, a memoir of her years in book publishing. Other quotes from Somewhere Towards the End appeared on this site on July 17.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
More quotes from Somewhere Towards the End will be posted later today.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.