When I read Claire’s (from ‘Word by Word’) review of Diana Athill’s ‘Stet’, I made a mental note to look for that book and other books by Athill. Soon, I got a chance to stop by at a sale of secondhand books. Most of the books which were featured there were popular bestsellers. But as past experience has taught me that if I spend enough time at a sale like this, some treasures will pop out from unlikely places, I decided to look through the collection carefully. And, of course, the hidden treasures started popping out. One of them was Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’. I was quite excited when I discovered it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘Somewhere Towards the End’ is Diana Athill’s meditation on old age. She starts the first chapter with these lines :
Near the park which my bedroom overlooks there came to stay a family which owned a pack of pugs, five or six of them, active little dogs, none of them overweight as pugs so often are. I saw them recently on their morning walk, and they caused me a pang. I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
And she ends the book (this is not a spoiler, as this book is a memoir ) with these lines :
I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.
In the in-between middle, Athill shares her thoughts on becoming old, on her past lovers and how her relationships with them changed with age, on taking care of old people, on having a family vs staying single, on how her writing picked up after she became old, on how she stopped reading fiction after getting old, on how old age has made her a stronger atheist, on the pleasures of gardening and driving cars, on having adopted daughters and grandchildren, on developing new interests and hobbies, on how some old people are lucky with their health (she includes herself in this) and on old age ailments and regrets. Each chapter is on a particular topic (though the chapters don’t have titles) and these are reasonably self-contained and so can be read independently.
Reading the book felt like sitting at the feet of my grandma and listen to her tell stories. The only difference is that though Athill was born in 1917 and at 96 years old (89 years old when she wrote this book) is an Ancient (she calls herself that – so don’t get angry at me ), her voice is fresh and quite contemporary. Her life as she has described it is quite fascinating – graduating from Oxford in the 1930s (must have been comparatively rare for a woman at that time), staying single and never marrying for her whole life (though she had lovers at different times), being financially independent and working till she was seventy five, not being too attached to money and not trying to accumulate material possessions (she says that she didn’t own a house at the time she wrote this book a few years back). I know there are younger women (and men) today who defy the norm and live independent lives pursuing their careers and their interests (it is still rare to find them though – most people seem to be living similar lives, doing the same things, having the same interests, watching the same movies, even having remarkably similar opinions on social and political issues – nothing wrong in that though, it is part of the fun of being a human being), but for someone who lived through most of the twentieth century, when things were conservative for a significant part of the century, I think it must have required a lot of bravery and courage and a fiercely independent spirit to do what she did and live life the way she did. (It is fascinating to compare Athill with a few other great literary women of the 20th century – Virginia Woolf was still alive and writing novels when Athill graduated from Oxford and went to work; Irish Murdoch was two years younger (yes, younger!) than Athill. Simone de Beauvoir was just nine years elder to Athill, so practically they were from the same generation but it doesn’t feel that way when we think about it now).
There is only one place where where Athill betrays her great age and we feel that she was really born in a different era. It happens when she says this : “I depend so much on reading because I never developed the habit of watching television. I have never even bought a set.” It was absolutely unbelievable for me. It made me think of my father though – he never developed an interest in television other than watching the news. (My mother loved watching television, but mostly movies and movie-based programmes and not serials). I don’t think my grandparents ever watched television.
Athill says some interesting, quirky and sometimes contradictory things in her book. The contradictory things add to the charm of the book and make us like her more (we are all a bundle of contradictions, aren’t we?) In the early part of the book when she talks about her past lovers she says that at some point she started liking black men more than white men. When she talks about the time when she lost faith in romantic love and some men proposed to her, she says this : “During those years, if a man wanted to marry me, as three of them did, I felt what Groucho Marx felt about a club willing to accept him : disdain.” That line made me smile
When she compares popular books of today with those of her childhood, this is what she says : “even the run-of-the-mill novel of today is much more sophisticated and interesting than that of my early youth, not to mention those popular just before the First World War.” And she goes on to say this about the popular novels of her childhood : “The best of them seem ponderous and verbose, over-given to description, while as for the rest! Infantile tosh : that is what they so often are.” I have mixed feelings about what Athill says here. I think novels of an era are written for readers of that era and so the language and the story reflect the language and the value system of that era. If a novel is ponderous and verbose, it is probably because readers of that era liked that kind of prose. If I can mention a couple of examples here : Marie Corelli was a bestselling writer in the era that Athill is talking about (she outsold her contemporaries like Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells and Rudyard Kipling put together). Unfortunately, her books are out-of-print today. I have read some of her books and they are quite good – the central theme is powerful and the story is quite engaging. Another example I can think of is Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ which was published in 1902. It is quite gripping and fascinating and not at all ponderous. I find it strange that I am defending writers from the pre-First World War era whose works Athill calls ‘ponderous’, ‘verbose’ and ‘infantile tosh’. It makes me ask myself the question, ‘Who’s the Ancient now?’
Some of the things that Athill says make us want to have a debate with her. On her not wanting to have children, she says – “I have uncommonly little maternal instinct, a deficiency I think I was born with. As a child I was not just indifferent to dolls, I despised them.” It is, of course, a total contradiction to what she says in the first passage of the book – that she loves dogs and likes taking care of them and taking them for walks. I think at some level taking care of a puppy or a dog is as complex and as rewarding as taking care of a child. Also, having a dog is like having a child forever – it won’t grow up (it will grow up in a doggy sense, but not in a human sense), go to university, get a partner, find a job and move out of home. It is going to stay with one forever. And one has to take care of it forever. It is paradoxical that Athill loves that but doesn’t have a maternal instinct for children. Athill, of course, acknowledges what might be the real reason : “selfishness…which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler. It was that which prevented me from wanting a child for so long…” This and other honest, self-critical things that Athill says in the book made her more interesting and charming and made me like her even more.
Another thing which Athill says which might lead to debate is about loyalty, especially in marriage. She starts on the topic with this sentence – “Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine.” She then continues with – “Loyalty unearned is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system. When spouses are concerned, it seems to me that kindness and consideration should be the key words, not loyalty…” It is a point of view which will lead to some interesting conversation.
One of the interesting chapters in the book is where Athill talks about atheism. I always thought that people became spiritual as they became older and even if they were atheists when they were young, they became spiritual in a secular or even atheistic way (I realize that is a contradiction in terms) when they got older. But not with Athill. She says that when she got older, her atheism became more firmly established. To John Updike’s attack on atheism :
“Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ambiguity, the ingenuity, the humanity of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”
She responds :
“Perhaps it is uninteresting intellectually to believe that the nature of the universe is far, far beyond grasping, not only by oneself as an individual but by oneself as a member of our species; but emotionally, or poetically, it seems to me vastly more exciting and more beautiful than exercising any amount of ingenuity in making up fairy stories.”
And she goes on to add :
“Surely the part of life which is within our range, the mere fact of life, is mysterious and exciting enough in itself? And surely the urgent practical necessity of trying to order it so that its cruelties are minimized and its beauties are allowed their fullest possibly play is compelling enough without being seen as a duty laid on us by a god?”
This is a topic which will make for a fascinating conversation on a winter evening, in front of a warm fire, with a drink in hand.
My love for the small quirky things sprang into full attention when I noticed the word ‘pernickety’ in the line – ‘old age has made me pernickety’. It sounded very similar to ‘persnickety’ and after a little bit of research I discovered that they mean the same thing – the former is the British spelling while the latter is American. It made me wonder how that extra ‘s’ came into the word in the American version. Doesn’t American spelling always remove redundancies and make it easier for one to spell the word (like ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’)? What is the story behind that ‘s’? Would you know?
I totally loved Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’. It is beautiful, charming, heartwarming and a pleasure to read. I loved this description of the book on the cover – “Jean Rhys said that literature was a lake, and what mattered was to contribute to it, even if only a trickle. She contributed a narrow boiling river. Diana Athill contributed a cool clear burn.” I would love to read all of her books now. I hope she lives to a great age, continues to drive her car, and continues to share her wisdom to readers through her writing.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book :
Getting one’s hands into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable – it is a totally absorbing occupation, like painting or writing, so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self.
How successful one manages to get through the present depends a good deal more on luck than it does on one’s own efforts. If one has no money, ill health, a mind never sharpened by an interesting education or absorbing work, a childhood warped by cruel or inept parents, a sex life that betrayed one into disastrous relationships…If one has any one, or some, or all of those disadvantages, or any one, or some, or all of others that I can’t bear to envisage, then whatever is said about old age by a luckier person such as I am is likely to be meaningless, or even offensive. I can speak only for, and to, the lucky. But there are more of them than one at first supposes…
If this is smugness, and I can’t help feeling that it is, then I have to report that I have learnt through experience that, though repulsive to witness, it is a far more comfortable state to be in than its opposite.
…most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them seem to come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.
What is so good about it is not just the affection young people inspire and how interesting their lives are to watch. They also, just by being there, provide a useful counteraction to a disagreeable element in an old person’s life. We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so. We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead…It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into a general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier. Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder – indeed it enables us actually to feel again – that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings, new beginnings – are still parts of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children’s being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste out time grizzling.
Have you read Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ or any other book by her? What do you think about them?