Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Diana Athill: Self-scrutiny, and the writer’s world

Happy 101st birthday to Diana Athill. One of the most successful editors of her day, she is now one of Britain’s best-loved writers

Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit. Or is that unfair? I hope so, as I do both. In Diana Athill’s case, however, there’s no doubt; she writes with grace and concision.

Athill, who was 101 on December 21, helped found the firm of André Deutsch in the early 1950s and built up a formidable list, making it a leading English-language publisher for 40 years. Following her retirement in 1993, she has turned to writing, with astonishing success; her account of aging, Somewhere Towards the End, has been widely admired, and her most recent book of memoirs and reflections, Alive, Alive Oh!, was published as recently as 2016. In fact, to those in the know, she had long been a writer as well as an editor; she won the The Observer’s short-story prize in 1958 when she was in her early 40s, and published a short-story collection in 1962. This was followed soon afterwards by a remarkable memoir, Instead of a Letter – of which more below. But the most widespread acclaim has come for books she has written since her retirement.

I must admit I was late to the Athill party. I have an aversion to writers I have been told to like. Moreover I was nonplussed by the first of her books that I read, Stet: An Editor’s Life (2002), her account of her publishing career. I was irritated by Athill’s privileged background and was disappointed that she highlighted authors I had not read and, in several cases, had never heard of. But I sensed I was missing something. Rereading Stet after several years, I saw that I was.

Athill was born in Norfolk and brought up as part of the “county” set; she went to Oxford, and spent the war in the BBC – a job she got through a personal contact in its recruitment office; class was as powerful then as now. Disappointed in love, she fell into a series of relationships, one with a young refugee met at a party. (“He sat on the floor and sang ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew’, which was unexpected in a Hungarian.”) This was André Deutsch. The affair did not last long; the friendship, however, did, and at the end of the war he asked her to join him in the publishing company he was founding. She was to work as an editor for the next 50 years, all but the last few with Deutsch himself. She says little in this book of her personal life, but she has written of that elsewhere (again, more of that below). Stet the word is a proofreader’s instruction, used to cancel a correction – is about Athill’s life in publishing.

Stet is in two pretty much equal parts. The first is a narrative account of her career, mostly with Deutsch. The second recalls her work with a series of writers, the best-known of which are Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul; the others – Alfred Chester, Molly Keane, and one or two more – are no longer household names, if they ever were.

The first part of the book is a fascinating picture of postwar publishing in all its amateurish glory. When André Deutsch was founded in the 1950s, it worked out of a converted house; books were dispatched from a packing bench that was a plank over the bath. This doesn’t surprise me; my first job, in 1974, was in publishing, and I sometimes ran the packing bench. Things hadn’t changed much. But there is nothing amateur about Athill’s shrewd insight into book buyers: “There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading ...The second group has to be courted.” In Athill’s view, by the 1980s the second group had been seduced away by more visual media, leaving little space for literary publishing. She may have been right – then. But electronic publishing has now made books good value again, at least when sold by independents or small publishers whose overheads are low. So that second audience is being reclaimed (albeit mainly with genre books). Although Athill retired in the 1990s, she will clearly have been aware of these developments, and one wonders what she thinks of them. She says little in Stet about technological change in general, although photosetting and on-screen page design arrived in her time.

When it comes to editing, though, Athill clearly had rigorous judgement. If a book didn’t quite work, she didn’t want it, whoever had written it; and she rejected one of Philip Roth’s – a decision that caused her some pain later, but was surely right at the time. She had felt that he was writing about a different type of character than usual simply to prove that he could, and it did not ring true.

This is, in fact, the key to the second half of Stet itself; it does ring true. This is because Athill has chosen to recall not the writers who would be best-known today, but those about whom she feels she has something to say. The result is a series of character sketches that do have impact, and draw you in whether you are interested in the writer or not. V.S. Naipaul is the only modern “superstar” covered here. Of the others, I had heard of Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, but knew very little about them; I knew nothing of Alfred Chester at all. But I was fascinated. These three, and the other, sketches suggest that Athill was not just a good editor; she was a generous friend to her writers as well. (And to Deutsch himself, despite his apparent self-absorption.)

Of these sketches, it is that of Jean Rhys that stands out. “No-one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life,” writes Athill, “but no-one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.” The later stages of Rhys’s life and the mess she had made of it, and her struggle with alcohol, are there – but so is her gift as a writer, and the strange early life that Athill felt explained much about her. The thumbnail sketch of V.S. Naipaul, too, is vivid, with this shrewd insight: that those whose cultural or national background is unclear must define themselves, and the personal resources needed for this can be great. Not everyone has them, and one can become lost, and stumble. As someone who has spent much of their life in an international milieu (in my case international development), I understand this all too well.

I am glad I read this again. Athill is, to be sure, a member of a privileged group – she uses the word caste – with an iron grip on the publishing world; but she knows that. This caste was “the mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people [who] loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect... our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste.” She puts this in the past tense but one wonders if that caste and its prejudices have really quite gone yet. However, Athill’s judgment as an editor clearly transcended it. So does her empathetic and subtle understanding of those she met.

This is a charming book.


But what of Athill herself? From Stet, it is clear that she is someone of substance, but she says little of her own affairs. In her other books, however, she does. Her private life has been colourful and she has been frank about it. It has included the suicide of a lover and an affair with an American revolutionary, Hakim Jamal, a cousin of Malcolm X. Jamal and his associates inspired a later novel by V.S. Naipaul, Guerillas; Athill, then his editor, did not like it. She eventually wrote a memoir of her own about her friendship with Jamal, Make Believe: A True StoryHowever, her first volume of autobiography, Instead of a Letter (1962), contains nothing so lurid (though it is quite frank about sex). What it does contain, is acute self-analysis. I rarely admire introspection in autobiography; too often it comes over as solipsism, and in any case, it is a poor substitute for narrative. So I should not have liked this book. But I did.

It is, in sum, a meditation on why one should bother to live; and why, in effect, she decided that she could be bothered. She starts with her grandmother, not long before death:

...She turned her beautiful speckled eyes towards me one afternoon and said in so many words: ‘What have I lived for?’ It was she who should have been able to tell me that. All her life she had been a churchgoing Christian ...I said to her what I believed: that she had lived, at the very least, for what her life had been.

But she began to ask herself the same question. Her grandmother, she realised, had “created a world” for the family, in which they lived and functioned as human beings. But what of Athill herself?  That was a question to whistle up an icy wind ...Which is my reason for sitting down to write this.” She proceeds to take us through her early life at the Norfolk manor, including her realisation that her mother did not really love her father. Her grandmother has an absolute belief in a secure and transparent world, but Athill does not:

I shocked her once. I was about ten years old and had thought of an image for life. I thought that it was as though people were confined in a bowl which was floating on a sea. While snug at the bottom of the bowl they lived their lives complacently, but the bowl spun and tossed on the sea and its spinning sometimes sent one of them up its side until he could see over the rim. All round would be the endless chaos of dangerous, cold grey water ...and anyone who had seen it ...would not be able to bear it. That, I decided, was the origin of madness.

Her grandmother is appalled. But in her early 20s Athill does look over the rim of the bowl. Since her mid-teens she has been in love with a man who, as an undergraduate, was brought in to tutor her brother; she calls him Paul. She grows to adulthood in her love for him, and they become engaged. He joins the RAF and goes to Egypt and she intends to join him as soon as she finishes at Oxford, which she soon will. But then he is transferred to Transjordan and his warm, intimate letters cease, with no explanation; two years later a curt note arrives asking to be released from the engagement, as he wishes to marry someone else. It appears, she thinks, to be the sort of formal note one might send to a jilted fiance in order to avoid a breach-of-promise suit. It seems to have destroyed her. She spends the war working for the BBC, but feels little interest in the job, or in life; she does not say so, but her 20s sound as if they were overshadowed by what we would now call depression. “I was not even affected by whatever feverish gaiety there may have been about (people speak of it in memoirs); it did not come my way. Years of emptiness. Years leprous with boredom...”

And yet it is her, not Paul, who survives. He – his real name was Tony Irvine – did marry, but flew into a mountain in northern Greece soon afterwards and never met his unborn son. (Oddly, Athill herself eventually did, some 60 years later.) Athill, meanwhile, has been set adrift, and her capacity for close relationships will never recover. But she rebuilds herself as something else. First comes her successful collaboration with Deutsch, which will make her one of the most powerful and respected editors in Britain. And then, in 1958, a chance meeting in Regent’s Park causes her to write a short story that, to her surprise, wins the Observer prize. The happiness this brings her is unfeigned, and is wonderfully described in the book.

Instead of a Letter could have been very dull. After all, one’s life may be interesting; one’s soul is usually not, at least to those not close to us. What lifts the book is its descriptive power and delightful asides. At Oxford: “On the river at night, moving silently through the darkness under trees: suddenly the man punting whispers ‘Look!’ ...Three naked boys are dancing wildly but without a sound in the moonlight.” She writes, too, of sailing with Irvine in the years before the war, something he very much liked to do, and there is “the sound of a jetty underfoot”, seaweed and the iron rings to which boats are moored. There is a gift here for using few words to invoke a scene in the reader. Moreover her language has clean, spare lines, and yet it flows; always concise, but never abrupt. One feels that she could have drawn one in had she written of a blade of grass, or a crack in the pavement. Athill has since said that Instead of a Letter came to her quite naturally; there was no plan; she could not wait to return home in the evenings and write, and it simply came out the way it did. Perhaps the best books often do.

Instead of a Letter takes Athill’s life to 1962, when it was written. It seems to strip her bare, and later books have been even franker. Yet one wonders if something is hidden, deep down. She is English after all. John Preston, who interviewed her for The Telegraph in 2011, commented that “while she is very welcoming, there’s a natural reserve to her. Something both distant and scrutinising. ...Behind the affability, one suspects, she would be as unsparing in her judgments of other people as she is of herself.” There are hints of this in Instead of a Letter; now and then some prevailing hypocrisy, or the prejudices of her family, are coldly dissected. Portraits show a strong chin and steely blue-grey eyes. Athill has, it seemed, hidden nothing from her readers; yet I wonder if we really know who she is.

Or maybe we do. She told Preston that she had always been a watcher. “Even at times of acute unhappiness I’ve watched myself being unhappy. I also think I’m one of those people who has never been wholly involved in an emotion, but then I think a lot of writers are like that.”

And she, of all people, would know.

Diana Athill passed away on January 23 2019, 
less than a month after this piece was posted.

Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from 
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