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The Spiky, Unsentimental Visions of Diana Athill

The Spiky, Unsentimental Visions of Diana Athill


One of American fiction’s core preoccupations, these days, seems to be the question of what causes unhappiness. Many of our major writers are earnest anatomists of discontent and its social, psychological, and existential causes. This kind of fiction can be very powerful. Reading about loneliness when you’re lonely can provide both diagnosis and solace; encountering a character trapped by student debt or patriarchal expectation can inspire a sense of camaraderie in a reader facing similar frustrations. But more often than not, contemporary novelists handle their subject matter with immersive seriousness and sincerity—and sincerity, after a while, gets tiring. Misery may love company, but sometimes a miserable person wants cheering up too.

If you’re looking to make a little light of sadness, as I have been, the work of Diana Athill might be the perfect place to turn. The legendary writer and editor is one of a loose cadre of 20th-century English and Irish women authors gaining resurgent attention for their brilliantly drawn characters and sharply witty prose; others in this camp include Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, and Molly Keane. These novelists are brisk and mordant stylists who treat sorrow and disaffection not as problems to solve or as states to submerge oneself in, but as conditions to be lived with and sometimes laughed at. This unsentimental approach could turn into a stiff-upper-lip denialism, but it instead intensifies the profound currents of emotion running through their work. Reading any of them is like cracking open a sea urchin: spiky outside, soft within.

The queen of the sea urchins is, without doubt, Athill, who died at age 101 in 2019. Athill grew up in shabby rural gentility and, after going to Oxford—unusual, at the time, for a girl of her background—helped launch the publishing house André Deutsch. There she edited writers such as V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, and Keane, whose novel Good Behaviour she swiped from her colleague Esther Whitby: “In our firm,” Athill recalled in a 2017 Guardian essay, “the person who first read and loved a book usually became its editor. In this case, however, I said, ‘I’m sorry, Esther, but I am going to pull rank. I am going to edit this novel.’”

A similar decisiveness shines through Athill’s own writing. In her 40s, she began writing short fiction, followed by one novel and several memoirs in which she chronicled her life as an editor and a single woman unafraid of either adventuring in or candidly discussing the realms of sex and love. Don’t Look at Me Like That, the novel, and Instead of a Letter, her first memoir, have recently been reissued in the United States. Both are beautiful examples of Athill’s refusal to romanticize feelings.

In her afterword to Don’t Look at Me Like That, the writer Helen Oyeyemi describes being captivated by the “acidic crackle” of the book’s “novelistic I.” It’s a perfect turn of phrase. Athill writes in a series of miniature explosions: of meanness, of insight, of stark confrontation with loneliness or brutality or grief. She doesn’t shy away from any of this. Both reissued works dump readers into dark emotion with their first sentence. The memoir’s is “My maternal grandmother died of old age, a long and painful process.” The novel’s: “When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me, and it wasn’t far from true.” For Athill, death, pain, and being disliked are not subjects to duck—or, for that matter, subjects to mine. They’re natural parts of life, and, in fiction, sources of plot rather than of extended interest. It’s a tack that creates room for spite, surprise, and humor, and lifts her prose brightly from the page.

Don’t Look at Me Like That is especially acerbic. Its heroine, Meg Bailey, looks back with unsparing clarity on an adolescence and young adulthood defined by her cool-blooded view of unhappiness. Meg is breezy about the financial mismanagement that ruins her family’s fortune and affectionate toward the parents she disrespects for their naivete. As a teenager, she is already gimlet-eyed about her role models: She looks up at her friend Roxane’s mother, Mrs. Weaver, whose effortful glamour Meg realizes she’ll “one day, see … as a joke.” The knowledge that her admiration has an expiration date doesn’t seem tragic to her; it lets her more fully enjoy Mrs. Weaver in the moment. Meg is even jaunty about her first great disappointment, when she’s told at art school that she won’t succeed as a painter. After less than a paragraph of mourning for her ambitions, she jumps into professional illustration, at which she succeeds quickly while maintaining a sanguine, win-some-lose-some attitude.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meg’s apparent comfort with loss comes back to bite her. Much of the novel’s momentum comes from her ill-fated affair with Roxane’s husband, Dick. Meg feels passionately about Dick; her love for him is the one thing she can’t move promptly past, and, as their relationship falls apart, she descends into misery. Still, Meg makes a point of treating her grief spryly. Indeed, dwelling on it strikes her as nearly inhuman. “Why must you face facts when almost all of them are intolerable?” she wonders, recalling the dissolution of the affair. “Apart from the obvious ones like war and the bomb and concentration camps … how could I stay alive if I spent much time facing them? Even the tiny corners of cruelty and hopelessness which stick into my own life: what would have happened to me, during the time I am remembering, if I had faced them?”

The haste with which Meg pushes through the “intolerable facts” of her life has additional repercussions. Meg is congenitally unable to feel sexual pleasure, a condition that she talks about in brief, barbed terms: “I suppose,” she tells the reader, “that I am a freak.” But her lack of introspection about the effects her sexual detachment might have on others winds up causing hurt: Late in the book, Meg forms a bond with Jamil, an architecture student and her housemate. Although he has a girlfriend, Norah, Jamil yearns for Meg; she brushes his desire off, announcing that “in spite of the misfortune of his having fallen in love with me, Jamil and I remained friends.” She can’t see the complexities of having a friend and neighbor who is in love with her. When it blows up in a humiliating way, though, she feels shame and makes no excuses for herself.

Meg’s capacity to admit fault comes from her relationship to loss. She assumes that some badness, in herself and others, is natural. The novel ends with a confrontation between Meg and Norah in which Norah is genuinely, shockingly cruel—far crueler, in fact, than Meg would ever be. Still, in the book’s blazing last sentence, Meg shrugs it off. “There’s something almost enjoyable,” she tells the reader, “in having one person in the world I can truly hate.” Her crisp observation underscores what could be interpreted as the book’s thesis about pain: Just because you have to feel it doesn’t mean you have to wallow.

Athill’s memoiristic I has a warmer tone than her fictive one, though it’s no less sharp-tongued. Instead of a Letter opens on her grandmother’s deathbed, where Athill, in her mid-40s, sat and wondered that the idea of dying with no heirs did not cause an “icy wind” to blow through her: “I would like to know why. Which is my reason for sitting down to write this.” Questions about aging and legacy can invite sentimentality—think of Pixar’s Up and Coco, kids’ movies on those themes that double as tearjerkers for adults. Athill’s blunt curiosity is refreshingly straightforward in contrast. She is surprised herself, and just wants to know more.

Like her novel, the memoir covers its heroine’s childhood and roughly the first decade of her adulthood, in which she establishes herself as an editor and falls in love. On the latter front, Athill is at once strikingly emotional and strikingly unromantic. In the memoir’s best scene, she has unintentionally gotten pregnant and goes to a counselor to discuss her options. The counselor begins spouting pieties about how badly women suffer after ending pregnancies, which, Athill writes, “clarified my mind in a flash. I knew, now, that I must get on with the job of finding an abortionist.” Walking down the street afterward, she feels confident not only in her decision, but also in her scorn for the counselor—the “old blackmailer,” she calls her—that helped her arrive at it. She would love to have a baby, and feels that she “got pregnant by subconscious intention”; she knows herself, however, to be totally unprepared to raise one, and so she will not.

Athill’s matter-of-factness about the decision to have an abortion is especially notable considering the question of posterity that she asks herself at the book’s outset. Another memoirist might have turned the counselor scene into a lengthier meditation on her feelings about maternity. Athill pins those feelings down swiftly, then moves on. She doesn’t return to the issue until the book’s final pages, at which point she reaches an answer, then instantly undermines it. “I have written a little, and I have loved,” she begins, and though she finds literature and romance enough in her 40s, she expects that “if I do not die until I am old, those things will have become too remote to count for much. I shall remember that they once seemed worth everything, but quite possibly the fact that by then they will be over will appear to have wiped out their value. It ought to be a frightening thought, but I am still not frightened.”

Athill underestimated herself. She kept writing memoirs—many about love and sex—for decades, and her final memoir, Alive, Alive Oh!, came out in the U.K. when she was 97. But maybe her icy wind did not show up because dying, no matter what she might or might not leave behind, just didn’t scare her. In her work, death, like love, loneliness, or humiliation, is more than natural: It’s too real and too human to fear.


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