Granta, £20, 328pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Instead of a Book, By Diana Athill

 

When the poet Edward Field suggested to Diana Athill that she publish the letters she had written him over 30 years, her first response was "nonsense!". But when he sent them to her to look at, she started laughing. "I thought 'Oh, my God!'" she told me in an interview last year. "Those letters were really an extraordinary portrait of a friendship and my life."

Click here to get money off this book from at Independent's bookshop

You could argue that we don't need to know all that much more about Diana Athill's life: that she has, in the six memoirs she has already published, and the many pieces written for newspapers, and the many interviews she has given, particularly after becoming a "celebrity" in her nineties, already said quite a lot about a life that has borne witness to a big chunk of history. You could argue that we've already heard about the writers she worked with during her 50 years at Andre Deutsch, and about the pain that, for many years, shaped her private life, and the affairs she had to numb that pain.

If you did, you wouldn't be wrong. We have heard a great deal about Athill's life as one of the major editors of the 20th century, and about her upper-class upbringing, and the fiancé who rejected her before he was killed in the war, and her relaxed approach to sexual fidelity, and her relationships with a string of Caribbean men. But that's to forget, until you encounter it again, the sheer joy of her brisk, wry and hugely energetic prose.

"Diana has a physical need to write," says Field in his introduction. Her letters, he says, are "full-blown literary works". They certainly are "literary works", glittering with sharp-as-a-silver-scalpel observations about people and events, and with the cool wit that turns even "frightful" situations – mechanical breakdowns, domestic disasters, family illness – into comic cameos that have you longing for more. But the physical need to write is also evident.

"There now, I've written that down so I needn't think of it again!" she says, after describing the ordeal of an acquaintance who was tied up and raped. In a later letter, she quotes Field's own words about writing: that "half" of it is "learning to put down what is there." This is writing not just as maintenance of a friendship, but as catharsis and habit.

Most of all, it's writing as the product of an almost relentlessly clear-eyed gaze. "None of them seem to recognize a beady eye when they see one," she complains when the reviews of her memoir Make Believe come out. It's hard to see how they could have missed it. Athill brings the same cool eye to friends, lovers and colleagues as she brings to the "gnomelike" builder who "recognized us at once as two times the sucker than just one of us would have been," and to the "bossy boots to end all bossy boots" who helped her when her car broke down in France. When she writes of a friend with warmth, you know that she must really, really like them.

The writing, as always, combines upper-class English matter-of-factness with a self-deprecating humour that's often (and sometimes slightly irritatingly) exacerbated by the use of Random Capital Letters For Wry Emphasis. As an editor, Athill would know she doesn't need them, but she wasn't writing for publication, and is too scrupulously correct to remove them now.

It's also, as always, imbued with the kind of honesty that sometimes makes you gasp. "No woman I saw him with," she says, of someone she used to know, "including myself failed to fall into bed with him almost on sight". It's hard to think of many writers who would relegate their own experience to such a casual aside.

"I've decided," she writes in 1986, "that it's a waste of precious time to think about getting old". As the years pass, and the ailments stack up, it's impossible not to. It's because they stack up too much, in the end, that she decides to cut off publication in 2007. The "detailed swapping of symptoms", she says, becomes "boring". Maybe, in other hands, it does. But I'm not sure that Diana Athill could write a boring word.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before