The briefest of posts wishing Diana Athill a very happy 100th birthday. For those not familiar with Athill’s books, she’s a fine editor and writer whose elegantly slim slices of autobiography offer an insider’s view of twentieth-century British publishing: Stet is an excellent place to start. Athill also writes with grace and insight about ageing. Her 2015 Alive, Alive, Oh! offers a collection of vignettes from a life thoroughly well lived. And she’s still writing – A Florence Diary was published only last year. Let’s hope she has a splendid day today.
To celebrate Athill’s centenary The Guardian set up a live webchat with her last week. If you missed it and would like to read Claire Armistead’s account of it, it’s here.
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.
My Salinger Year is Joanna Rakoff’s account of her first job after completing her post-grad studies in London, a year spent working for J. D. Salinger’s literary agent. It’s 1996 and on her first day she wonders where her computer is only to be presented with an electric typewriter then put to work typing up the backlog of contracts and letters all held on a pedal-operated Dictaphone. This is an office where photocopiers are regarded as the coming thing. In her first week she’s called into her boss’s office and given the Jerry rules – never reveal Salinger’s personal details, never pass on any letters – and a pile of unanswered fan letters complete with a form response. The problem is that when she comes to read them she’s unable to harden her heart to the World War Two veterans who identify with Salinger, to the teenagers who identify with Holden Caulfield convinced that Salinger has been channelling them, to the mother who wants to name the library she’s setting up in memory of her daughter after a Salinger short story. She writes her own replies.
Rakoff is an immensely likeable and entertaining guide to the inner workings of the Agency, as it’s referred to throughout, which seems to have not one but both feet firmly planted back in the mid-twentieth century. At one point her boss daringly considers buying a computer but only if they’re available in black. Max and Lucy try their best to breathe fresh air into the Agency, taking on young, edgier clients but Rakoff’s boss reigns supreme, refusing to take part in auctions and removing any reference to ‘electronic books’ from contracts. The Agency is all agog when Salinger himself strikes a deal with a tiny publisher to publish a short story originally run by the New Yorker, in book form. It’s a fraught enterprise and Rakoff finds herself fielding phone calls from the publisher attempting to soothe his shredded nerves. Loud calls with the man himself are conducted behind closed doors in her boss’s office and some times with Rakoff herself. She becomes quite matey with him, confessing her own literary aspirations. Running through her account is Rakoff’s personal life: her college boyfriend in California who she loves but cannot be with; her New York boyfriend, older, self-obsessed and neglectful; her hopes for her own writing career and the horrible realisation that she will somehow have to make ends meet on the Agency’s pittance and pay off the credit card bill that she’d assumed her parents were footing. By the end of it, you can’t help but root for her, desperately hoping that she’ll ditch Don, rescue the close friendship that seems to be drifting away from her, reunite with her college boyfriend and make her own mark on the literary world. In the final section of the book, Rakoff ties up the loose ends of her Salinger year then brings us pleasingly up to date with her life.
I would have been amazed if I hadn’t loved this book entrenched as it is in the book world and I wasn’t disappointed: it’s a delight from start to finish, an endearingly affectionate portrait of a particular corner of the trade being dragged, quietly protesting, towards the twenty-first century. It’s tone reminded me of Julie and Julia – Julie Powell’s account of a year spent learning to cook like Julia Child – and at times it screams ‘film me’. If this has whetted your appetite for another insider’s view and you haven’t come across Diana Athill’s Stet already, you’re in for a treat. Beautifully expressed, it isn’t as exuberant as My Salinger Year but it’s a fascinating insight into life as an editor in a publishing house. I thoroughly enjoyed both.