by Diana Athill (Granta)
Age is not a popular topic in literature. When young, it seems too distant, once old it looms too near, so it is sparingly used, the full picture being perceived as too grim and too painful for prolonged attention. There is also the distinct likelihood that being caught up in the process, one is rendered incapable of annotating the experience. Diana Athill can and has. She didn't set out to write about age, but being born in 1917, has experience on her side, and talent to share.
Two minor incidents, her desire to own a pug (denied) and her wish to buy a tree fern (permitted), preface the opening of Somewhere Towards the End, her astute reflections upon the inevitable journey. The dog idea gets short shrift.
Athill begins the book aged eighty-eight, forced to concede that the sole reason she can manage the canine she already has is because it has aged in tandem with her. This becomes linked to the arrival of a much anticipated, equally craved tree fern. Instead of the large specimen, a mere sapling is dispatched in a disappointingly small box. This forces her to admit that it will never be, in her lifetime, the tree she had desired.
After forty years in publishing (Andre Deutsch), Athill has experienced a late-flowering recognition as as writer of pithy, honest memoirs. She has also found, much to her surprise but also to her satisfaction, that she enjoys the attention afforded by literary festivals and events.
Her sole novel, Don't Look at Me That Way, published in the '60s, is a riveting account of a fairly libertine young woman who embarks on a series of affairs, one with her best friend's husband. It still reads as a remarkably assured postcard from Bohemia. No angsty wringing of hands. No preachy moralizing. Strangely modern, it is a secular example from a time when such free-wheeling was largely frowned upon, but then Athill has always had a rather flexible attitude towards staid conventions.
Her latest literary exercise is part memoir, part confessional, and part guide book to the wary. It is not a depressing enterprise, and in that she is assisted by a sharp and acute mind, being of relatively robust health, and by maintaining a distinct need to question, even if the answers are not the kind she had anticipated. Those with fortunate faculties would naturally shy from the level of scrutiny and candor which she affords the reader concerning her long and unconventional life.
This is a warts-and-all confection. Her musings are resigned, without any sense of rancor, and are afforded a disarming sense of honesty. She willingly reveals her failings, imagined and perceived, and her regrets, persistent or incidental, in a way that proves a tonic to the advancement of years.
Her affairs have always been a tad unconventional. Never one for marriage, despite the offers, nor for fidelity, because of a realization that such limitations ultimately stifle, she has lived into the lack of libido, the diminishment of cachet, and the increasing threat time places on one's tenure.
Possessing a sanguine outlook that is as unblinking as it is gentile in its brutality, she raises salient issues concerning the importance of experience in lives bereft of religious conviction. This is a poignant consideration of the transitory pointlessness of things. There is also wit and mirth aplenty, as in her description of an old friend's undiminished reliance upon red lipstick:
"It would begin to run round the edge of her lips, making her look like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner."
This will have most ladies of a certain age casting worried glances in the first available mirror. When her long-term companion Barry takes a new girlfriend, their physical relationship having merged into understanding companionship, Athill befriends her, and maintains this even after the affair withers.
Her partner in life has been less fortunate in the lottery of age. Despite being several years her junior, he is beset by infirmity. After attending a rather undignified mess, and bemused by her own unflustered reaction, she likens such relationships to the unpredictable flowerings which emerge from otherwise unprepossessing roots.
Diana Athill has written a stimulating and uplifting report from a voyage on which everyone is embarked. It could be a handbook for alarm, but in her considered hands, there is hope, humor, satisfaction in small things, and the ability to learn from what one has witnessed in others of age, when she was less advanced upon the journey. A rare account of the difficult truth which arises from our slow, and always fatal, dance with time.