Reviewed by Simon
Diana Athill has made a name for herself chiefly, it seems, for still being alive. Yes, her intelligence and literariness also set her apart, and her skills as an editor are celebrated (and documented in her brilliant Stet) but you would be hard-pressed to find anything by or about her nowadays that doesn’t mention her age early on. This review will be no different; she is 97. This collection of essays is very much an assortment, a miscellany, that has all the charm and edge that Athill fans have grown to expect, if no obvious linking thread.
And what a range it covers! ‘And other things that matter’ is the subtitle, which could more or less mean anything – and, under that banner, Athill encompasses topics as various as a life-threatening miscarriage, the thought of leaving her family home, and race relations in Trinidad and Tobago. I told you it covered a wide range.
What Athill brings to all of them is a keen eye and a strident honesty. She writes about issues which could be shocking, but never seems to want to shock: instead, she merely documents her feelings and reflections with admirable recall. ‘I was in my mid-seventies when I stopped thinking of myself as a sexual being,’ she will muse, while elsewhere she talks dispassionately about affairs she has conducted. The chapter which talks about discovering she is pregnant, debating an abortion, realising how much she wants the child, and then suffering a miscarriage is truly stunning, and would be an exceptional piece of writing even if it were not true.
My favourite chapter – partly, perhaps, because it is one which deals with a section of Athill’s life I have not read her discussing elsewhere – is where she writes about entering an old people’s home. This is how she opens the chapter:
Few events in my life have been decided by me. How I was educated, where I have lived, why I am not married, how I have earned my living: all these crucial things happened to me rather than were made to happen by me. Of course an individual’s nature determines to some extent what happens, but moments at which a person just says, ‘I shall now do X,’ and does it are rare – or so it has been in my life. Perhaps my decision to move into a home for old people is not quite the only one, but it is certainly the biggest.
Her descriptions of various other friends reaching old age (including one who is ‘only’ in her eighties) are adroit, while portraits of residents of the home are kind and well-drawn. Minna and Rita (the two residents with whom Athill has the closest friendships) come off the page beautifully – and then there is her description of a trio trying to plant roses, having negotiated a piece of land. The three – aged 94, 94, and 97 – manage to plant six between them, haphazardly (‘no one in this place can get up once down’) and delightedly. It’s a perspective of an old people’s home at the opposite end of the spectrum from the abuses we hear much more about – and also a perspective possibly only available to the privileged – and it is refreshing to read, as well as enjoyable on its own merits.
It is difficult to write about these essays without detailing each one at length, since there is relatively little that unites them beyond Athill’s personality – and it bears testimony to her forceful nature that it does still offer some sort of coherence. She writes relatively little about her adulterous affairs (which rather put me off Somewhere Towards the End, whether or not it should have done) and more about memories and everyday pleasures – which makes for a winning combination. Perhaps Alive, Alive Oh! isn’t up there with her greatest contributions to life writing, but it is at turns a joyful and poignant collection. If it does end up being her last, it will be a fitting ribbon tying up an exceptional life, but it deserves to be considered on its own merits and not simply the work of a very old woman – and, under those terms, it is still rather brilliant.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and sort of wants to move into an old people’s home now.
Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh! (Granta, 2015). 978-1783782543, 168pp., hardback.
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