Letters to A Friend

  • Diana Athill
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 352 pp.

The author’s latest memoir traces a friendship, life, fame and the vagaries of growing older.

Reviewed by Nancy Reynolds

Diana Athill, a renowned literary editor in London for nearly 50 years, published her first book, a memoir, when she was in her mid-40s. After a hiatus of nearly 25 years, she began to write again and was the author of seven more autobiographical volumes, of which the most recent appeared in 2008, when its author was in her early 90s. Today, at 94, she remains active. As a writer, she is known not only for her burning personal honesty but for her economy of style. A critic once wrote that she can convey in a single word what other writers need a paragraph to say.

Edward Field, the friend to whom these letters are addressed, is an American poet living in New York and nearly as old as Athill. He continues to be as productive as she: his latest poetry collection, After the Fall, also appeared in 2008. Beginning in 1980, the two started corresponding over a mutual interest in Field’s writer-friend Alfred Chester, sharing dismay over his forgotten reputation and a life destroyed by madness. They have been affectionately writing to each other across the Atlantic ever since. (Only Athill’s letters have been saved.)

The letters cover Athill’s demoralizing final years at the publishing house of André Deutsch Ltd. (“it had become the House of Usher incarnate,” she writes); the difficulties of finding her footing after her retirement at age 75; the serious medical issues — given in far too much gruesome detail — of her life companion, Barry; her own health concerns, including dentures, sore feet, hearing and eventually cataracts; the loss of her mother; and her efforts to write anew. They end with her in her 90s, when she has emerged as a famous author and something of a cult figure in England. Warmth for Barry and for various relatives is a common thread throughout, although, frustratingly, we learn very little about any of these people. Still, it is nice to know that Athill, who never married, had strongly family ties.

In the early part of the book, perhaps because she was putting most of her energy into her job and not into letters, she writes randomly of her dog, the remodeling of her flat, a gall bladder exam, embroidery, bunions, Pond’s cold cream, the inevitable ongoing struggle to adjust to the dreaded computer, and other quotidian concerns, reflecting her complaint that “the trouble with life is that incidents so often merely follow each other rather than grow out of each other.” Elsewhere, clearly at a low point, she writes, “We never do anything. The days flow gently by and our minds — or mine, anyway — cooks slowly, slowly into a sort of bland, very lightly seasoned gruel.”

Toward the middle of the book, however, her tone lightens and the content correspondingly gains substance. A bit after this new mood becomes apparent to the reader, Athill remarks on it herself, believing it to have started with her first visit to Dominica around 1998, a place with a special meaning. Jean Rhys was a native of the Caribbean island, and Athill was both her editor and the sometime caretaker of her messy life. Later, Athill writes, “I’m seeing things properly again like I did when I was young … a feeling of being in direct contact with everything.” Probably more to the point (although she does not say so), this new outlook coincides with the publication in 2000 of Stet, a memoir of her career as an editor. Soon, her days and nights are filled with parties, new acquaintances, honors, interviews, readings and good reviews. All this enhances her powers of observation and appreciation for such activities as gardening and life drawing; the reader cares more about them, too. Best of all, there is the promise of a contract for a new book. In fact, she went on to write three more. As events were picking up speed she writes, “Life without all this pre-publication fuss will seem quite flat! I feel I am building up to knowing what it feels like to have once been famous.” One cannot begrudge her never having had to.

Age and increasing medical problems bring this collection to an end, although we are told that the letters continue.

Readers who have admired Athill’s first book, Instead of a Letter, with its exquisite shades of feeling, so finely portrayed and delicately layered, or Stet, with its succinct, hard-nosed and insightful portraits of, among others, Rhys and V.S. Naipaul, may well be disappointed by the present volume, in which the author deals mostly with fairly mundane activities and only occasionally gives voice to her highly informed opinions on literary topics, her views on politics, or any ideas about life’s big questions. In these discursive and meandering missives, the writer in whose other published works virtually every word has meaning is profligate with them here.

Another group of readers, those unfamiliar with her work, could be excused for confusion over the welter of names scattered throughout that lack introduction or explanation. A notable example is the occasional mention of André Deutsch. Until the book is far advanced and he is dying, we learn mainly that this person was a “shit” who paid her coolie wages and that after her retirement he came forward to cover her dental bills. It is by piecing indirect remarks together that we deduce he was her professional (and sometime personal) partner for nearly the full life of his distinguished publishing house. Similarly, the amiable neighbors Harry and Sally are referred to from time to time, but it is not until late in the book that Sally is identified as having had an ongoing affair with Athill’s live-in lover and eventually having become part of their household for several years — the three of them living contentedly together.

Give me Athill’s “real” books any time over this one. But I salute her for rediscovering how to live.

Nancy Reynolds, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, is director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation, where she conceived and continues to direct the video archives program. Her books include Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet and No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with Malcolm McCormick). Before becoming an author, she served as an art-book editor at Praeger Publishers.

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