Friday, March 13, 2009

Somewhere Towards the End

Diana Athill's beautifully-written new book, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 2009) has the unique quality of being a memoir of being very old and happy about it without the maudlin set pieces or generic nostalgia one might expect in a fin de siecle.

The 90-year-old Athill was during her 20th century career a notable British editor who worked with Andre Deutsch in setting up one of Europe's most-respected publishing houses. She worked with such authors as Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth and John Updike to name a few. She has also been, occasionally, an author herself of several highly-respected volumes, mostly memoirs but also a book of short stories and one novel (the one, she says, she "squeezed" out).

Somewhere Towards the End is composed to sixteen relatively short chapters, all of which center on Athill's experience of being, as she terms it, "very old." She has had a rich and varied life, not necessarily glamorous but well-lived. Although she has never had (nor wanted) children, it is clear she is a motherly figure in the way she has taken care of people in her life, including her mother and a past lover.

Athill, who frankly discusses topics such as being post-sexual, not being around to see the full growth of a tree she has planted, and so on, relies very little on metaphor to make her points, instead filling the pages with concrete little treasures of experience, such as this passage when she discusses her pleasure in being around young people:

"So if when you are old a beloved child happens to look at you as if he or she thinks (even if mistakenly!) that you are wise and kind: what a blessing!... [it] does make you feel like a better person while it's going on and for an hour or two afterwards... It does seem to me that the young nowadays are often more sophisticated than I used to be, and that many of them... relate to their elders more easily than we did; but I am convinced that one should never, never expect them to want one's company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a friend of one's own age. Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that."

Her spirited championing of youth belies the stereotype of the rebellious youth we think many "old people" maintain, and so in her writing Athill breaks another stereotype that many of us have about old people, namely that they are narrow thinkers, static and unwilling to change and so very much "post life." Among many other points to ponder, the book made me think that it is somewhat ironic, of course, that old people should be so marginalized in Western societies given the universal inevitability of growing old (and dying). In one of the more moving passages of the book, Athill writes:

"What dies is not a life's value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self's awareness of itself... That is what is so disconcerting to an onlooker, because unless someone slips away while unconscious, a person who is just about to die is still fully alive and fully her or himself... The difference between being and non-being is both so abrupt and so vast that it remains shocking even though it happens to every living thing that is, was, or ever will be."

Far from being a depressing swan song, Somewhere Towards the End is a wonderfully uplifting and amazing exploration of what it is to be alive and human.