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” and “ You 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.