A farewell collection of essays from the beloved 97-year-old memoirist.
Diana Athill will turn 98 on December 21st. Apart from “Dead Right,” however, this essay collection is not primarily concerned with imminent death. Indeed, while reading these sparkly and astute pieces, it is hard to imagine that this intelligent voice might soon be extinguished. In this final book Athill is still grateful to be alive, marvelling at a lifetime of good luck and health and taking joy in gardening, clothing, books, memories and friendships.
Six of the eleven essays originally appeared elsewhere. “My Grandparents’ Garden,” about the stately home in Norfolk where Athill spent much time as a girl, was first published in a gardening journal and seems like the least apposite piece. “A Life of Luxuries,” about Athill’s changing view of fashion – from childhood love of pink through the hideous green dress she chose for a debutante ball to her current fondness for garments splurged on at the V&A shop – only turns relevant in its last paragraph, when Athill admits that she has recently accepted rides in a wheelchair. Not a sign of a weakness after all, but a wonderful luxury.
The collection highlight is the title piece, about a miscarriage Athill suffered in her forties. She had an unconventional personal life, considering this was the 1960s – she never married but was with her partner, a black man, for some four decades. After he divorced his wife they formed an unusual household with his new lover and her family – and [though they] had never particularly longed for children, [they] welcomed an unexpected pregnancy. Yet when she miscarried, a life-threatening event she narrates with remarkable clarity given it happened more than half a century ago, she did not experience a grave sense of loss. Instead, she felt lucky to still be alive at all. When first published in Granta, this was written in the third person; I’m so glad Athill put it back in its properly intimate first-person voice for inclusion in this collection.
A few other stand-out essays are “The Decision,” about moving into a Highgate retirement home in her nineties; “Dead Right,” on society’s changing attitude toward death as well as her family’s experience of it, and “Post-War,” about the holiday atmosphere that pervaded Britain at the end of the Second World War. Athill, in her late twenties at the war’s close, went to Corfu on holiday with her cousin, an experience that inspired her prize-winning story for the Observer, “The Return.” Another travel piece here is about Trinidad and Tobago.
I’ve now read all of Athill’s work, even her rather obscure novel and short story collection. This doesn’t live up to her few best memoirs, but it’s an essential read for a devoted fan, and a sort of consolation prize for the fact that she will likely not publish anything else (though you never know). For readers new to her work, I’d recommend starting with Somewhere Towards the End, followed by Stet, which is about her work as a literary editor. From there you might try her book of correspondence with American poet Edward Field, Instead of a Book, or her memoir of childhood, Yesterday Morning. [Ed: I couldn’t have made a better choice – all really worth seeking out!]
Athill didn’t publish anything until she was in her forties, and didn’t reach true acclaim until her eighties. Hers is an entirely inspirational story of late-life success and what can be achieved with diligence and good fortune. The collection ends with a brief, lovely poem Athill wrote in 2010, “What Is,” which eschews a religious view of the world but still affirms the meaning of human existence: it imagines the full moon as
“a silver disc
floating there to mock
stories of gods, myths of origin, hell’s penalties
or heaven’s bliss;
Why want anything more marvellous
than what is.”
This is no memento mori; it’s a celebration of life.
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill
9781783782543|Granta hbk Nov 2015
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