Somewhere Towards the End, By Diana Athill
Sunday 01 February 2009
Somewhere Towards the End is the winner in the biography category of the 2008 Costa Book Awards. It's not a biography, but that must have been the closest-fitting category for this extraordinary memoir, in which Athill reflects on a long and remarkable life (she was 89 when she wrote it and is 91 now). She writes of her friendships, love affairs, career, dogs, gardens, and what it is like to grow old and face death, all with a deft, feather-light touch.
One review of this book, quoted on the jacket, used the howlingly inappropriate word "feisty". That patronising image of a battling old granny is a world away from Athill's persona of a wise, serene, almost unnaturally detached woman. There is none of the tiresome score-settling that spoils so much autobiographical writing. Athill likes and understands the people she's met, as, you feel, she likes and understands herself. (It's true that Elias Canetti comes in for a slight roughing-up, but it's done candidly and without malice.) There is no sound of grinding axes. Athill has few regrets, but the tone is far from the bombastic boasting of "My Way". Instead, there's an almost objective interest in the strange yet normal experience of living a life.
She writes frankly about the fading of sexual desire that comes with age, and about the death of her mother (when Athill was in her seventies). What's most refreshing and unusual is her unafraid, undramatised expectation of her own death; her thoughts on this and on atheism alone ("vastly more exciting and beautiful than any amount of ingenuity in making up fairy stories") would make the book worth reading, as would the limpid, economical prose.
By the time you read this, Athill may have been awarded the Costa prize for the overall book of the year. She would be a worthy winner.
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