Sunday, February 19, 2012

Diana Athill's Instead of a Book

Besides reading for work, though, I've snuck in a few books just for me. Diana Athill's Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend might be my favourite of the year so far; admittedly, I was predisposed to enjoy it after reading her earlier Somewhere Towards the End


Instead of a Book covers much of the same material, but in the considerably more intimate form of letters Athill wrote to her good friend, the American poet Edward Field. Wonderful, wonderful, to imagine having such a correspondent, such a correspondence. We only have Athill's letters here, Field being much more careful a collector and keeper, obviously, but the narrative emerges very satisfactorily from the one side. The correspondence covers 30 years, from Athill's early 60s to the present, although the book stops with the 2007 letters. This is enough to encourage me to think of my upcoming 70s and 80s as potentially rich, creative, active decades. Now in her early 90s, Athill still inspires -- last spring I read a wonderful piece she'd written in The Telegraph, "On Growing Old."

Here are some of my favourite parts of Instead of a Book:
Speaking, in 2002, of the challenges of caring for her depressed, ailing partner post-major surgery, she plans pragmatically for where he might stay when she goes off on her two-week "Irish caper," recognizing that "he's going to need someone younger than I am to look after him":
I can manage now, but am not likely to for much longer--I woke up at three a.m. last night to quite a bad attack of anxiety, and although I feel better come daylight, I don't think it was really unjustified; once one is nearly halfway through one's 80s one can fold up quite suddenly. It is really depressing to think in such terms--but probably better to do so than just go bumbling on--provided, of course, that an alternative does exist." (229)


Later, in 2002, she decides to begin painting lessons. After her first lesson, she buys the list of supplies she's been given and completes her first exercise, "copying a colour photo of a landscape, not in order to make a picture but simply to see if I could match the colours. And lo! I have done it, and it's not a puddle of mud!!!! In fact, I suspect that I've got all that I need to be taught out of [her teacher] in that first session, and that now all I need is to work at it by myself--one learns to paint by doing it, once one has been shown what to do. I fancy the idea of being able to do watercolours. In the days before photography and postcards every halfway educated person knew how. Off you went on your holiday with your little sketchbook in your pocket as a matter of course. My great-great-great-aunt Julie had a sketchbook about six inches by three inches, which I've seen. Faced with a vast panorama of Swiss mountains, did she quail? No, indeed not. She just sat down and ripped off a tiny watercolour of it, and very well too, without for a moment thinking of herself as 'an artist'-- and she was one of the thousands of such people. So I do not despair, now the ice has been broken for me, of being like her 
Mind you, she adds, as editor of these letters, that "Alas, this hopeful start came to nothing. I did achieve one watercolour that was quite good, and then the impulse fizzled out." Nonetheless, I'm cheered by the willingness (and ability) of an old dog to, well, you know . . .

And who could resist this forthright acceptance of a beloved partner's predilections written by a wisely tolerant 83-year old (who wrote quite frankly in her earlier memoirs not only about sex as a senior, but also about relinquishing it by choice)? (Okay, I suppose there are some who might be offended, but not me . . . ). Speaking of partner Barry's improvement, healthwise, she notes its manifestation in the occasional trip "to the library or the corner shop" but more markedly in that "last week he pottered off to see a very old friend of his with whom he has had a mild fucking relationship for years, since her marriage broke up. I've always marvelled at her good humour, because she never appeared to resent the fact that he would turn up at fairly wide intervals simply for the purpose of having a quick poke, though I think there was usually a token cup of coffee, and sometimes even lunch, to make a social occasion out of it. This time, after a gap of about five months, there was not even a cup of coffee. He reports that he got an erection but that he couldn't feel anything, so he came away at once. When I asked if she had minded this total disregard of her as a person, he looked cross and said 'No'. I hope that's true.
I suspect that passage will challenge many younger people's perception of seniors vis-à-vis sex! Plus, funny? I think so!

Months after the letter from which the excerpt above on painting lessons is taken, she again mentions her art lessons, her gratitude that her tutor is
giving me exactly what I wanted: the very simplest sort of technical tip [as a result of which] my second finished work is quite clear and bright . . . and has one or two passages which look quite technically accomplished. Here, though, her Editorial self (honed, after all, over a lifetime, a brilliant career editing literary works for André Deutsch) aims a judging eye and an uncompromising honesty at the paintings: It's rather odd, though, to have painted something which, if someone gave it to me, would fill me with embarrassment because I couldn't possibly bring myself to hang it anywhere so would have to hurt the donor's feelings! I have to remind myself that it is only my second attempt. But what worries me is that it's not embarrassing because it's badly done--it's rather well done, considering--but because it's such a boring little picture! It looks like an illustration for a slightly down-market children's book. Help! Is that the kind of eye I have?


Having lunch with a new, much younger friend, an expat Brit living in Japan editing scholarly journals (he'd approached her as a fan of her memoir Stet, wanting her to write something for one of his publications), she was much amused by his obvious admiration for her. She asks her correspondent, Field: Is there a reverse form of that revolting term 'a fag hag'? Because if so, Peter's - 'a hag fag': he's obviously a connoisseur of old women.
Amusing turn on that phenomenon, to be "big in Japan" . . .

Not at all a proper review, is this? But then, I've never really committed to write such things, merely to record my readings and, when I can, to note my responses. I'd say I've at least let you know that I enjoyed Athill's letters very much -- and I've also offered you some convincing reasons to pick up your own copy. If you do, as usual, please let me know what you think.

No comments:

Post a Comment