After a Funeral
by Diana Athill (Ticknor & Fields)
Beer in the Snooker Club
by Waguih Ghali (New Amsterdam Books)
Diana Athill turned 91 on December 21, became an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours List, and were that not compliment enough has now been announced as the deserving recipient of the Costa Award for Biography for her astute account of the progress of age Somewhere Towards the End. A strange but rewarding turn for a lady who spent her working life discovering, editing, and promoting the writings of others. Jack Kerouac, V.S Naipaul, and Norman Mailer are but three of the many whose careers she nurtured and enhanced. Another was the young Egyptian novelist Waguih Ghali, but theirs was a more complicated relationship, one colored by an immediate romantic attraction on her behalf.
Ghali had written Beer in The Snooker Club. It was published in 1964 by Andre Deutsch, for whom Athill worked. She admired the book greatly, and became determined to meet its author.
Ghali was handsome, charming, and troubled, and known as Didi in Athill's book about their relationship. A rootless and largely loveless childhood had left him thin-skinned and unstable. She was immediately drawn to him, despite realizing that their age difference (she was thirteen years older) and his chaotic nature spelled certain trouble.
Brutally honest in her memoir of their time together, she admits in her refined and unforgiving prose:
"If my heart had never jumped at the sight of Didi's letters, had I never wanted him physically, if I had never romanticized him, our relationship would not have endured. Sex and the maternal impulse are closely interwoven, particularly in childless women of middle age. However much I had liked a girl, and however great the girl's need, I would not have 'taken her on' as I was to take on Didi, nor would I have done it for a man to whom I had not, at first, been physically attracted..."
The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they draw the heart in directions that foil any reasonable aspect of sense. Ghali eventually took up residence in her spare room, and his life became a succession of dramatic affairs with a string of girls, a symptom of his manic depression and listless nature. He also left his diary for her to read, in which he listed mostly her faults and flaws. Only once was there a moment of sexual intimacy, but emotional proximity is just as scalding.
As Ghali became more and more unpredictable, usually broke and bouncing checks or losing whatever work she found for him through the kindness of friends, the writing was on the wall. Unfortunately those walls were Diana Athill's.
He died by suicide in her flat in January 1969. He was 38.
Athill details their strange tango of friendship in After a Funeral. Written many years later, it dissects a relationship that worked on some levels but which became unbearable with the accumulation of relentless experience.
Ghali's suicide had to happen. He died by his own hands because the repetition of events was boring him. It was written in his nature, and he knew that somewhere in the future he would commit that act. This makes the book a challenging read that forces readers to reflect on twists and turns from within their own experience. There is a strange mixture of elegance and catharsis. What seems an act of immense selfishness can also be viewed as a final act of trust in her. He described it in his suicide note as the "one authentic act of my life."
Beer in the Snooker Club is an extremely readable account of life in Nasser's 1950s Egypt. It is also a love letter to two cities, London and Cairo. Ghali reveals the isolation a Western education bestows on the Egyptians who have it bestowed upon them, how their perception of the West is informed firstly by books, and then by the sheltered world of academia. They return, speaking French or English, as outsiders in a society in which they no longer belong, nor much care for, and exist in isolated enclaves like the club in the book's title, where their lives are idle and detached.
The sections in London are beautifully observed and authentic. Ghali has a Camus-like sensibility. His book deserves wider attention, but has been ignored because it fails to flatter the society that it annotates. It is a little too true, a little too honest. Athill's memoir and Ghali's novel are two sides of the same coin.
Although it would be an unorthodox pairing, they deserve to be published together, because of the manner in which they inform and complement each other.
Diana Athill was kind enough to lend me her own copy of Beer in the Snooker Club.
In her accompanying letter she reflected, "I was rereading it last night and felt sad all over again -- it's so like him, and so tragic that someone with such a gift was too damaged to use it except just that once." Most, though, don't even succeed in achieving that, and unlike Diana Athill aren't capable of refining their personal turmoil, tragedy, and love into a volume of haunting clarity.