Towards the End

A Memoir

Diana Athill
For more than fifty years, Ms. Athill was an editor at André Deutsch publishers in London, knew V. S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, edited Philip Roth and Norman Mailer ... and recently turned ninety. Even though she doesn't make a big point of it, Athill was good at shocking the hell out of people in the old days. Most of her amours were with blacks from the Caribbean.

One of the most charming anecdotes has to do with Barry Reckord of Jamaica. While they were still lovers, he needed to go back to the island to produce his play White Witch. He chose to take the young Sally Cary. When he returned, Sally did too. Athill noted, "since she was spending almost every night in Barry's bed, keeping her bedsitter was a waste of money, so I suggested that she should move in with us."

    I know people thought our ménage à trois odd, though whether I acquired undeserved merit for generosity, or disapproval for loose morals, I could never tell because no one was ever impolite enough to comment.

§     §     §

This memoir is not without its charms, although at times Athill --- why do I always want to write it "Anthill?" --- has a habit of going around in roundabouts, as they call them in England. Sometimes she even runs into children, religion, atheism, prostate problems (not her own), gardening, and car wrecks. All her fault; none, thank god, fatal.

A few of her stories are touching, if not chilling. Such as going to identify the recently deceased mother of the owner of her publishing house (he was out of the country). It was a first for her. Even though Athill was in her seventies, she'd never seen a body before. Her final view of Maria Deutsch was startling, "What was lying there was poor little Maria with her hair in a mess and her face grubby, looking as though she were in a state of great bewilderment and dejection because something too unkind for words had been done to her."

The writing is all very English, made even more eccentric by the strange words that pop up: "weak and dozy," "popple," "boot" (for trunk of a car), "pernickety," "munching the pudding," "gone off the boil" (sexually) --- and the story of a man who

    was on his horse at a meet of the Norwich Stag-hounds at the age of eighty-two, talking with friends, when flop! and he fell off his horse stone dead in the middle of a laugh.

Old age isn't for the faint-of heart, and imperceptibly during Somewhere Towards the End we come to see Athill as more than a little heroic. She lets fall casually the facts of her life: not being able to walk, going deaf, caring for her old love Barry long after he has gone off the boil and turned sour, sick and complaining. Throughout, she always maintains her pith.

Late in life, the great psychotherapist Milton Erickson said, "I'm living on borrowed time ... and I don't have to pay it back." Ms. Athill seems to be of the same persuasion, giving her the license to write almost anything that occurs to her. Such as her opinion of youngsters ---

    I didn't go so far as to blame them for being what they were, but I did feel that they were tedious to have around except in very small doses.
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