Here’s a memoir by an author who was 89 at the time of its writing in 2007. It’s not about her life, but her old age. “Book after book has been written about being young … but there is not much on record about falling away,” Diana Athill writes. And so she picked up her pen, giving us a book that neither rages at nor complains about old age, rather looks it squarely in the face to live its unwanted challenges as best as possible.
Athill is not unfamiliar to me. I read her previous memoir Stet several years ago, about her career as a book editor with a London publishing house. Over five decades, Athill worked with such distinguished authors as V. S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys. I found her writing starched and the stories lacking an insider’s flare. The writing in Somewhere Towards the End again is starched, but this time her thoughts resonate an engaging warmth and vulnerability. Her musings range among topics that include past romantic affairs, children, atheism, gardening, the ebbing of sexual desire and caring for a longtime friend through illness. They also include regrets, of which Athill has two: her selfishness, and her never having had the guts to escape the narrowness of her life, lacking courage and energy.
Athill doesn’t offer advice, which is refreshing. The focus is on her experience, the personal scenery of her life’s last passage, not any preaching or grand sense of wisdom from the perch of high age digits. Even when she tells us what’s required to live old age well — a positive outlook and an active mind — she says, with her usual frankness that’s also refreshing, either you have it or you don’t. “Those able to draw on such qualities will be doing so already,” she writes.
Somewhere Towards the End is a small book at 182 pages. It was first published in Britain in 2008 and won that year’s Costa prize for biography. The United States published the memoir in 2009, and it’s a finalist for a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, to be announced this Thursday.