Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill: A long life well lived

Cover image I first came across Diana Athill’s elegant prose in Stet, her account of her time at André Deutsch, the publishing house she co-founded in 1951 with her eponymous business partner. Deutsch was a refugee, one of the many who shaped modern British publishing. For readers who haven’t yet come across the book, it’s a treat – stuffed with stories of the many authors Athill edited, from V. S. Naipul to Jean Rhys. Published in 2015, her ninety-eighth year, Alive, Alive Oh! is a set of essays: some are autobiographical, others meditative – all are beautifully expressed.

Athill introduces her collection by telling us that now she no longer feels the pull of sex her mind has turned to the beauty of places and objects, painting a glorious word picture of bluebells spilling down a hillside at Fountain’s Abbey releasing a ‘great wave of scent’ in the early morning sun. Her first essay continues this theme with memories of her grandparents’ garden where she spent a great deal of time after a TB scare. These two pieces set the scene for a collection that ranges far and wide. Several essays celebrate the frivolous – there’s a particularly lovely one on clothes with a gorgeous description of the gold lamé dress with which the fifteen-year-old Athill became infatuated. Others are much more serious, from the titular piece recounting her miscarriage from which she emerges having discovered her zest for life, to a discussion of the legacy left to Tobago by Europeans, well-meaning or otherwise. Athill is consoling about old age, enjoying the unexpected delights of new friendship in her retirement home, but clear-eyed in her attitude to death, reconciled to the event but not necessarily the manner of it. The final entry is a poem which ends ‘Why want anything more marvellous than what is’ which sums the book up beautifully.

There’s so much crammed into this slim collection, a reflection of a long life richly led. Many of Athill’s pieces are underpinned with humour: in the post-war years she delights in the vogue for printed wallpaper, covering her walls with an ivy patterned one which ‘swarmed from floor to ceiling on all four walls… …I was tremendously pleased with it and it was hideous’. Others are thought-provoking: ‘it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little warm dust’ on Tobago. Concision and elegance are the hallmarks of her writing, reflecting two of Jean Rhys’ maxims – “I have to get it like it really was” andYou can’t cut too much” –  which Athill says have ‘done a lot to keep me in order’. In her acknowledgements she mentions her own editor, admitting to feeling a little affronted at the idea of having one at all then, with characteristic grace, thanking Bella Lacey: ‘What I had forgotten during my post-publishing years was that the one person who really loves a good editor is – the author!… …Her or his job is to make your book even more yours’. That last quote reminds me of William Maxwell, another editor whose writing is marked by grace and elegance who also understood the relationship between an author and their editor.

19 thoughts on “Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill: A long life well lived”

    1. Without wanting to prod you into spending more, Poppy, you might like to take a look at Stet which is all about her editing/publishing days. I loved it!

  1. This sounds wonderful and is going straight on my wishlist. I haven’t read Stet (also on the wishlist.) But I have read Somewhere towards the end and Yesterday Morning which are absolutely wonderful and I would highly recommend if you haven’t already read them.

    1. Her writing is extraordinary, isn’t it. This one completes the set for me although I’m hoping she may manage another slim volume. I’m sure you’ll love Stet, Ali.

  2. I was sent this not having read any Athill (though I have a copy of Stet on the shelf after so many people recommended it). You’ve convinced me to give her a go, Susan.

  3. She sounds like such an interesting writer. I should read her at some point, especially given the mentions of Rhys in Stet. My spare time is disappearing very rapidly at the mo, so it’ll be something for next year or beyond. Good to know there’s so much to look forward to though. 🙂

  4. This does sound wonderful – still writing at 98 is a hell of an achievement. I don’t know her work but Stet seems like something I would enjoy too. Oh dear, this wishlist is just growing and growing

    1. It is, isn’t it. She’s quite a character with many stories to tell. I’m sure you would enjoy her work and Stet is an excellent place to start.

  5. Oh I might have to add this to my list (checks and, yes! They have a copy of this at my library). I love essays, love literary based essays even more and as Jacqui mentions the connection to Rhys is timely with Jean Rhys week coming up. All good omens (and I still don’t have to buy it). I feel a reservation coming on. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    1. You’re welcome, Belinda. I hope I can persuade you to read Stet as well, still my favourite Athill and the more literary of the two.

  6. She sounds like an amazing woman (and writer) – and it sounds like I could add just about any of her books to my wishlist and be happy. I do like the idea of reading a book written by a 98-year-old, though. That’s pretty impressive.

    1. She’s very impressive, Naomi, and she writes beautifully. I hope you will read her writing. I think you’d like it.

  7. I loved Stet too: so delightfully bookish (even though I felt like her reading taste was rather different than mine). When I eventually heard her in interview, I began to enjoy her writing even more. If you can find something online to listen to, I think you’ll be amazed at the dimension that her measured and rich tones add when you’re following her prose on the page in your mind. So rhythmic, just beautifully expressed.

    1. Delighted to hear from a fellow fan! Stet’s so gossipy about the time in which Athill was an editor in a very literary sort of way. I’ve heard several radio interviews with her. I think she’s now something of a national treasure although I’m sure she’d hate that tag, and I wouldn’t blame her.

      1. Heheh It’s not so common to hear her on Canadian radio but it happens on occasion! A few years ago, she was in Toronto for a reading with Alice Munro (who could wear the National Treasure tag as well, over here, perhaps with the same spirit), and if she wasn’t on readers’ radar before hand, that certainly caught some people’s attention with that.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.