The storms before the calm

Now the grande dame of publishing, Diana Athill looks back on a turbulent life of literature - and love
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The Independent Culture

Diana Athill's flat, looking onto plane trees on the northern side of Primrose Hill, is wonderfully secluded from London noise. Apart from her poodle scratching at the sitting-room door, nothing disturbs the peace. There is a watercolour of an Edwardian lady contemplating a pastoral scene as she embroiders. The chair I am sitting on is an example of Diana Athill's own embroidery, gros point in deep blue and red.

Diana Athill's flat, looking onto plane trees on the northern side of Primrose Hill, is wonderfully secluded from London noise. Apart from her poodle scratching at the sitting-room door, nothing disturbs the peace. There is a watercolour of an Edwardian lady contemplating a pastoral scene as she embroiders. The chair I am sitting on is an example of Diana Athill's own embroidery, gros point in deep blue and red.

Athill, wearing a loose linen shirt and trousers, is pleasantly at ease. Because of a cataract operation she no longer has to wear severe spectacles, revealing clear, youthful eyes. She is 82 and the survivor of the partnership of three which created one of the most influential publishing houses of postwar years - Andre Deutsch, whose authors included VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Gitta Sereny and Brian Moore. The calm she lives in now is in contrast with the tempestuous time as director and editor at Deutsch.

I remember those years. I was a secretary at Andre Deutsch for a brief period, in the room next to his office, from which I could often hear sounds of strife. Eventually, one of his editors would emerge, looking brutalised. Nicolas Bentley, the cartoonist and third partner, stayed out of the office altogether apart from attendance at Friday editorial meetings.

Diana Athill's memoir, Stet (Granta, £12.99), is softer about Deutsch's behaviour in retrospect, though readers could be excused for thinking of him as a Hungarian Captain Bligh. His saving grace was his irresistible charm and genius for publishing.

"He was fiendish," remembers Athill. "By the time you got there, we were settled in, and he was quite mellow. We were very prosperous, so that this terrible threat of Doom, that we were on the way to ruin, which he always used as a way of disciplining us, didn't really impress us any more."

Curiously, for someone who was to live and breathe publishing for 50 years, Diana Athill fell into it by chance. Her youthful ideal, growing up in the 1930s, was to fall in love, marry and have children, but a broken engagement at 22 shattered her confidence. She drifted in and out of affairs, and spent the war years working for the BBC. One evening, a fellow employee at the BBC, George Weidenfeld, brought a 26-year-old Hungarian, Andre Deutsch, to a party she and her flatmate were giving.

After a brief affair with Andre, they decided they were better as friends. Andre set up Allan Wingate (he was advised not to use "Deutsch" so soon after the war) and Diana was pulled in as editor, advertising manager and packer. They started with too small a capital, and soon had to search for backers to rescue them. Two of the backers wrested control from Andre, and he left to start another house in 1952 - Andre Deutsch. This time, by selling a serial deal for £30,000, they launched on a sound footing, though this did not end Andre's legendary meanness. Envelopes had to be re-used, lights switched off, and woe betide an editor who paid an advance to a poet.

"Those were the days before the independent publisher lost out to the conglomerate in the battle over buying books. To begin with, Andre could go over to America, find something very exciting and make what appeared in those days to be a huge bid and snatch it from under people's noses. When we got Norman Mailer's An American Dream, Andre swooped on it and paid £25,000, which was a staggering amount for a novel then.

"That side of publishing began to die out on us, and we had to fall back on what else we were known for, which was good books by lesser selling writers. And those got harder and harder to sell."

In the end, someone at the editorial meeting had to ask how many copies a certain novel would sell, and the answer was "about 600". This for a book that would have paid its way a few years earlier. The reason, she thinks, is that other forms of entertainment had become so accessible. People who really adored books went on buying them, but there were not enough of them.

Before the decline of Andre Deutsch as publisher, there were great editorial moments. In the second part of Stet she writes about her relationship with the authors she edited. With Jean Rhys she entered the role almost of carer. Her friendship with Brian Moore foundered when she tentatively criticised the way he dumped his first wife - soon after, Moore dumped Deutsch. V S Naipaul left Deutsch after she suggested alterations to one of his novels. She was surprised at her relief. "I didn't have to like Vidia any more!"

While editing, Athill was unconsciously serving her own apprenticeship as writer. Her first memoir, Instead of a Letter, was written as a therapeutic exercise. She had had a happy childhood in Norfolk, and fell in love, aged 15, with the undergraduate who was her brother's tutor. She went to Oxford and they became engaged. The war intervened, he was posted abroad, and after a silence of two years, came a formal letter asking to be released from the engagement.

"My feeling of inadequacy for years afterwards was entirely and solely because of being jilted. I felt I had failed in the purpose of life for a long time. It was when I started to write for myself, which I enjoyed immensely, that my sense of failure ended... I also got a new and permanent lover." Instead of a Letter struck a chord, and she received many letters from people identifying with it. Two other confessional memoirs followed. Though she valued her permanent relationship, she still fell in love, with some turbulent results.

After a Funeral, re-issued by Granta, is about her friendship with an Egyptian writer in exile, Didi, 10 years younger than her. He moved into her flat, and soon revealed another side beneath his charm and intelligence. He was a gambler, a drunk and a womaniser, he borrowed money and he wrote hurtful jibes about Diana in a diary which he left open for her to read.

Why did she put up with this behaviour? Athill remembers what Ford Madox Ford's mistress had said about Jean Rhys; that she "had never realised the power of a completely helpless person until she had met Jean". And so it was with Didi. "Once you commit yourself to this poor helpless person, you realise that helplessness is a very powerful thing."

Didi killed himself in her flat five years after they had first met. The flat, so peaceful now, was witness to even more extreme scenes when a disciple of Malcolm X, Hakim Jamal - who was published by Andre Deutsch - moved in on her. Again, there was a sexual attraction, a tortured friendship, a transitory affair. The memoir she wrote, Make Believe, has not been reissued. You wonder how this assured, intelligent woman put up with the garbage these nutcases threw at her. Hakim introduced her to his girlfriend, Gail Benson (later murdered in Trinidad), and the pair harangued her through cannabis-laden nights, arguing that Hakim was God on earth.

There is a rawness about these memoirs that makes them painful to read. But Athill says, "There is no point in writing from personal experience unless you try to be as honest as you can. Jean Rhys used to say that in her writing she tried 'to get it as it was'. I write to get to the bottom of things."

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