Archive for the ‘Diana Athill’ Category

People’s attitudes towards death and aging fascinate me, particularly in our youth-obsessed culture.  I grew up in a world where at least one tennis mom on each court had obviously had something nipped, tucked, or plumped and where men in their fifties welcomed new additions to their second families with the dire prospect of hitting retirement well before their child’s graduation from high school.  These were people who fought Father Time with every fiber of their being, spending time and money and, most of all, energy in an attempt to turn back or at least hold the clock.

That always works out so well, doesn’t it?

Growing up as I did, with a pessimistic babi and a father who specializes in estate planning (nothing says ‘fun day at work’ like talking with people about their inevitable demise!), I suppose it’s only natural that that my attitude towards death has always been rather matter-of-fact (aside from a brief period when I was eight and terrified myself by imagining the emptiness of nonexistence).  Few things bother me more than the phrase ‘if I die’, unless it’s accompanied by ‘while climbing this sheer rock face above a river filled with crocodiles’ or some equally specific circumstance.  You are going to die.  It’s going to happen, hopefully when you are very old, but still, it’s a certainty.

Diana Athill proves in Somewhere Towards the End to be one of the people who understands this, not that it makes the process that much easier.  Recalling a conversation with her octogenarian brother, Athill summarizes his feelings: “what filled him as death approached was not fear of whatever physical battering he would have to endure…but grief at having to say goodbye to what he could never have enough of” (p. 75).

Athill doesn’t pull many punches.  She has written a very personal and very fascinating memoir of aging, of reaching the end of a rich and long life.  I discovered quite early on that I don’t particularly like Athill.  She comes across as one of those insufferably self-righteous, PC-obsessed, left-wing zealots – a subtle version, admittedly, but one all the same.  Her vocal rejection of the ‘wicked nonsense’ that framed the basis of the Empire and the upper-middle class she was born into, her distinctly unconventional relationships/living arrangements, her preference for black lovers over white…it was all intoned in a vaguely superior tone that irritated me to no end.  To other readers, with different frames of reference or personal opinions, these same traits may make her seems incredibly modern and forward-thinking. 

That said, disliking Athill doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her lovely prose.  It’s clear and simple, direct and energetic.  The voice of an eighty-nine year old woman sounds remarkably similar to that of a woman fifty years her junior, only possessed of more experience and a better writing style than most.  Having spent most of her life as an editor, she certainly knows what she is doing. 

The insights into Athill’s life and youth are interesting and may lead me to pick up the other memoirs she has written, but what I was drawn to most was her writing on the aging process, her perception of what is happening to her body.  At the beginning of the volume, she remarks on how poorly documented a period in the human life cycle the last years are.  Not altogether shocking – I can think of a number of reasons why one might not be able to or want to spend one’s final years writing about the process of dying – but how wonderful that someone did take the time to document it and in such a detailed and thoughtful manner.

For anyone who enjoys memoirs, I’d recommend this without reservation.  Even if you aren’t a fan of memoirs, I’d urge you to try this.  It’s rather short and the chapters are equally brief and self-contained.  If nothing else, it would be a simply wonderful style guide for How To Write. 

A few favourite passages:

Growing old sucks or, as Athill says:

… there’s no denying that moving through advanced old age is a downhill journey.  You start with what is good about it, or at least less disagreeable than you expected, and if you have been, or are being, exceptionally lucky you naturally make the most of that, but ‘at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’, and that is sobering, to say the least. (p. 179) 


Considering the importance of interacting with young people:

What is so good about it is not just the affection young people inspire and how interesting their lives are to watch.  They also, just by being there, provide a useful counteraction to a disagreeable element in an old person’s life.  We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so.  We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead…It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier.  Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder – indeed it enables us actually to feel again – that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings, new beginnings – are still parts of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children’s being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste our time grizzling. (p. 83-84) 

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