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Somewhere Towards the End

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The first book I've read by Diana Athill introduced me to her "towards the end" of her life. Her previous biographies are:

  • Yesterday Morning
  • Instead of a Letter
  • After a Funeral
  • Stet

 

Diana Athill will be ninety in December, 2007. "Somewhere Towards the End" tells the story of what it means to be old: how the pleasure of sex ebbs, how the joy of gardening grows, how much there is to remember, to forget, to regret, to forgive - and how one faces the inevitable fact of death. Athill has lost none of her skill or candour as a writer, her love of the intimate detail. Her book is filled with stories, events and people, and the kind of honest, intelligent reflection that has been a hallmark of her writing throughout her long career. 'We rarely did anything together except make ourselves a pleasant little supper and go to bed, because we had very little in common apart from liking sex,' she writes of her last affair, when she was in her late sixties. 'We also shared painful feet, which was almost as important as liking sex, because when you start feeling your age it is comforting to be with someone in the same condition.

 

Winner of the Costa Book Award for Biography, my bookclub chose this on the recommendation of one of our members who had read her earlier books.

 

It got mixed reviews form the group - the member who recommended it was so pleased we read it, I thought it was a nice gentle (and sometimes laugh-out-loud moment) read, others wondered what the point was. It may have been nice to have read the earlier books, but I didn't feel that was crucial - Athill is looking back over her life a the key moments, and looking forward to the end of her life and the preparations she feels she needs to take for it. It's not offensive (although there is a lot of mention of sex in a manner you wouldn't want to hear from your grandmother) and it's a candid look at life over the years. I enjoyed it!

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I became aware of Diana Athill as a writer through some short pieces or extracts which appeared in Granta magazine some years ago. I thought how interesting and "young" she seemed for a 90 plus year old. I then found her first memoir "Instead of a Letter" in a second hand book shop while looking for something different to read - and I fell in love with it. She writes with such directness and honesty - and gives a glimpse into another world, and another time. Since then I have read all of her memoirs and wholeheartedly recommend them to my friends. The combined volume of memoirs "Still Life" is now published, and I will be buying a few copies to give away as Christmas presents.

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Somewhere Towards the End It has taken me nearly 3 weeks to read, but I would thoroughly recommend Life Class to anyone interested in books, writers, publishing and literary gossip. At hill's 'novels' are in fact sequences from her long life, beginning with her childhood as a girl on a Norfolk estate. Here (Yesterday Morning ) she emerges as an acute observer of the hunting-shooting-fishing gentry to which her family belongs. How Diana gradually emerges from this comforting shroud into becoming a free-thinking left-wing feminist is portrayed in the later 'novels,' Instead of a Letter and Stet, the last two focussing 1) on her broken engagement and its debilitating consequences and 2) her rescue from the trauma of losing her fiance by entering the world of publishing via Andre Deutch Ltd.

 

Athill writes intelligently and well about her gradual transition from a girl who lived for horses, hunting, tennis parties and new dresses to a woman in her own right, writing articles in semi-poverty from a London bedsit and then finding her metier as an editor, reading novels by such literary lights as Naipaul, Mailer and Brian Moore. The deals and wrangling that go on behind a publisher's closed doors are something to behold and any reader or writer of serious literature will be find much to ponder over in the lives and loves of the famous. But although there is plenty of gossip here and much to amuse, Athill comes across as a sympathetic and honest observer.

 

I find it difficult to understand why any reading group members should fail to be absorbed by the fragment of this Memoir entitled Somewhere Towards the End and why they would not then demand the rest of it. My only reservation about the complete book - Life Class - is that there is a good deal of repetition, the parts being originally wholes and the sewing together much too loose. It should be much more seamless, the being young and the gradual process of growing up and then old being an essential unit.

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