Review of Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End

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Almost ninety years old, Diana Athill isn’t as well known as she should be.   Her musings are rather special and should interest feminists on this side of The Pond.

From the (UK) Literary Review, this review of Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End:

On sex especially everyone over sixty should read her – and everyone under sixty too. I have a dear friend who hoped at every decade’s turn from forty on that the travails of sex and love would be over, but reported that they weren’t, until seventy. Diana, in her much happier way, reports the same. She felt ‘within hailing distance of middle age’ throughout her sixties, and had her last affair (touchingly described here) through most of them. She is as original about sex as about everything else; or rather, in this book as in all her others, sex is the fons et origo of her originality. She is ruthlessly honest about it: how much she liked it; how, after a conventional, ie prejudiced, English beginning she always preferred black men, because they did not bore her; and how lucky this was for her, because for black men of her generation her being white was an attraction. She is entirely untamed about both old and new conventions, arguing for instance that infidelity is not as important as kindness; but also that sex will never be the moveable feast for women that it is for men, and that though old people should go on enjoying it, they should have the decency not to parade their enjoyment in public.

Above all, she is extraordinarily generous and sensible about it. She did not begin to live with her life’s companion, Barry Reckord, until their affair was over and they had settled into a loving friendship. When he took much younger women as lovers she was (after one night of sorrow) undismayed, invited the most important girl to live with them, and counts the years of their ménage à trois among her happiest. She refuses to take credit for this, saying that she is simply lucky not to have a possessive nature. I do not believe it. Partly, she is – despite her denials – a kind and good person; and partly, perhaps, she was inoculated forever against possessiveness when she lost her first love (the subject of her first and still most perfect book, Instead of a Letter). Besides, it was not only Barry’s exclusive love she lost, but – as she recognised in that night of sorrow – her youth, her time in the sun. To mourn that for only one night is exceptional fortitude – or again an exceptionally lasting response to inoculation. It sometimes seems it was that long-ago rejection, which fixed her outside the stream, that made her a writer. If so it was more gain than loss, for both Diana and her readers.

She seems all sense, but is really sensibility; that is why she understood Jean Rhys better than anyone. And in the end they are similar writers: not wide but deep, exploring their own lives without mercy. Jean Rhys said that literature was a lake, and what mattered was to contribute to it, even if only a trickle. She contributed a narrow boiling river.   Diana Athill has contributed a cool clear burn.

The full review by Carole Angier is here.

-Ralph Michael Stein

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