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.
I was more than a little surprised to be sent a new Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m pretty up and together on my ‘Books to Look Out For’ previews and I’d seen nothing in the fiction schedules. Then I spotted that it had been translated which discombobulated me further. Reading the press release I found that In Other Words is the product of Lahiri’s passion for the Italian language, a passion so great that she uprooted her family from the States to live in Rome for a year to immerse herself in it. Her book is a set of essays – intimate reflections on learning the language – presented as a parallel text: one page in Italian written by Lahiri; the facing page in English translated by Anne Goldstein. There are also two short stories.
Lahiri begins with her struggles to learn Italian in the States after her first trip to Florence with her sister back in 1994. It’s a frustrating experience, and even more so when she finds that when she returns to Italy years later as a successful writer she can understand all that’s said to her but is unable to be understood herself. Eventually, the teacher with whom she’s had most success tells her the only way to achieve what she wants is to live in Italy. Six months before leaving she decides to read nothing but Italian finding it a liberation: ‘Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility’. Writing, however is a different matter: ‘When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveller… …When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter’. Throughout this set of essays, Lahiri reflects on her relationship with language and the way in which each of her three languages affects her identity. Born in America, her ‘mother tongue’ is Bengali, the first language she spoke and continued to speak until starting school; her ‘stepmother tongue’ is English and the one she feels most comfortable in. As she says in her Afterword, this is her first work of non-fiction but the themes remain the same as in her fiction: it’s about ‘identity, alienation, belonging’.
Lahiri fans may be wondering if this is a book for them and I think that depends on your own relationship with language. I’ve been interested in words since learning Latin at school and discovering its relationship with English hence my enjoyment of the book, although I did find some of the essays covered the same ground. Lahiri’s writing is often intimate, introspective and always eloquent, a vivid description of the process of learning a language and our relationship with our different ways of communication. At one point she finds she has an extensive vocabulary, much of it outdated as if she’s ‘dressed in an outlandish manner, wearing a long, elegant skirt of another era, a T-shirt, a straw hat and slippers’ – beautifully translated by Goldstein, of course, At times I was reminded of Eva Hoffman’s brilliant autobiography Lost in Translation in which she writes about the loss of her native language after emigrating to Canada at the age of thirteen and the long slow process of trying to find her way back to the nuance and intimacy with which she expressed herself in Polish. In her Afterword, Lahiri describes herself as being at a crossroads, facing her departure from Rome and unable to decide if she will continue to read and write only in Italian. That seems to me to be quite a challenge outside of Italy but it will be interesting to see which road she takes.
I’m a huge Ann Patchett fan and when I spotted her memoir in Bloomsbury’s catalogue it seemed the next best thing to a new novel. When it arrived I was a little disappointed as it turns out to be a collection of essays rather than continuous prose but after gobbling them all down I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a better form than straightforward linear autobiography. Together they offer an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work. The introduction explains how Patchett used newspaper and magazine gigs to fund her fiction before earning enough from it to give up her day job, so to speak, although she chose not to do this having come to enjoy the discipline of the essay and the excitement of finding out about new things. As her stature grew she was able to get commissions which tied in nicely with research for her novels – trips to Italy to review opera for Bel Canto which resulted in an abiding passion, a boat trip up the Amazon for State of Wonder.
As anyone who knows her fiction will tell you she writes extraordinarily well. Her essays are clear, often incisive and pull no punches, particularly when describing the sheer hard graft of writing when addressing prospective writers who want a magic formula in The Getaway Car. We learn a great deal about Patchett’s life – the pleasures and otherwise of a large extended family, how she found her dog Rose her most constant companion for sixteen years, the sadness of looking after a beloved grandmother afflicted with dementia, the excitement of helping to set up an independent bookshop and, of course, last but not least the long eponymous essay on how she overcame her reluctance to marry based on a family history chequered with divorce and embarked on a very happy marriage to her husband Karl. Vivid images leap out from some of these essays – the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street of the small Nashville town where she lived as a child, pushing her ancient beloved dog in a buggy because she can no longer walk, determinedly struggling through the most taxing part of the LAPD entry programme. There isn’t a dud essay in this collection and somehow it feels more honest as a reflection of a writer’s life than a straightforward autobiography written with the gloss of memory. If you’re a fan, it isn’t a novel but it’s surely the next best thing, and if you’re an aspiring writer it’s worth the cover price just to read the advice in The Getaway Car.