Somewhere Towards the End
by Diana Athill

Norton, 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-06770-5.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 02/21/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Elders; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Diana Athill, now 91, is a remarkable woman. She was an editor for Andre Deutsch in London for 50 years, retiring at 75.

Somewhere Towards the End is an honest, funny, revealing glance at her life. This is not a book about how to be noble and wise, but rather a long essay about being true to oneself. She writes, for instance, about wanting a pug but realizing that she is too old to take it for walks. She continues, commenting that her friend and author Jean Rhys was her "object lesson, demonstrating how not to think about getting old...She expected old age to make her miserable, and it did...." And, more humorously, about another friend who, "slapped on a lot of scarlet lipstick, [which] would soon come off on her teeth and begin to run into the little wrinkles round the edge of her lips, making her look like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner." Athill does feel, even now, that a bit of makeup makes her feel better.

Athill was a wild one in her unconventional young years, and in her older years as well. She doesn't fudge, writing things that may shock some even in this day. She touches on love and relationships, religion or her lack thereof, but also charms her readers with the memory of her grandmother reading bible stories aloud.

There are times when she does focus on aging. Consider her observations on relating to younger people, those who are just beginning. "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 it...."

Part of Athill's aliveness, I believe, is her ability to continue learning. Not only was she a late blooming author, but also artist, seamstress, and gardener. She observes her bodily decline with candor and her driving foibles (at the age of 89) with humor. Athill writes of the decline of her companion, once lover, with tenderness and clarity.

Perhaps, what captured my interest most about Diana Athill was her chapter on books and book reviews. She has been a book reviewer for these many years. She comments that it pushes one toward some books that one would not naturally pick up and she goes on to mention one that I, too, reviewed: Georgina Howell's book on Gertrude Bell. Athill, then goes off on a delightful tangent about her dislike of the name Gertrude. Somewhere Towards the End is a delightful, scrappy engagement. When I grow older, I want to be like Diana Athill.

Born in 1917 and educated at Oxford University, Diana Athill is one of the great book editors of the 20th century. She has written several memoirs, including Instead of a Letter and Stet, a NY Times Notable Book about her 50-year career in publishsing. She lives in London.

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