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Book review: Reissues of 'Instead of a Letter' and 'After a Funeral' by Diana Athill

Return visits to early volumes by the British editor and author reward the reader with gripping, luminous examples of a life well examined.

September 06, 2010|By Dinah Lenney, Special to the Los Angeles Times

In a recent interview, Diana Athill, longtime British editor of such writers as Philip Roth, V.S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer, Jean Rhys and John Updike, pondereds her mother's objections to her own first book, "Instead of a Letter," published in 1962. "I had written about sleeping with someone before I was married," she says. "I had written about having an abortion." Athill's mother felt (or believed) that to write about one's private life for public consumption was "unseemly."

But literary self-examination — memoir, that is, as a literary genre unto itself — is a long and noble tradition beginning with St. Augustine's "Confessions" in the 4th century AD. In the most effective examples of the form, the writer is after more than confession. "Memoir," explains Patricia Hampl in "Memory and Imagination," "is the intersection of narration and reflection…. It can present its story and reflect and consider the meaning of the story." Here is a genre, then, in which the pedagogical adage "show, don't tell" gets turned on its head. Show and tell is not just the memoirist's privilege, it's her responsibility. Today, at 93, the author of six autobiographical works, Athill is a master of the game. Our good luck — in the wake of her award-winning book about old age, last year's "Somewhere Towards the End" — is the reissue of the first two of her six memoirs: "Instead of a Letter" and "After a Funeral." Taken alone or together, they are among the best of the genre.

Joan Didion famously asserted that she writes to find out "what I'm thinking … and what it means." So it is for Athill. "Instead of a Letter" is not just a chronological account of her upper middle-class childhood and romantic coming of age: It's a reckoning with the human condition. In the prologue, Athill frankly states the question that will drive her narrative. Her grandmother was close to death when she asked Athill, in her 40s, "what have I lived for?" In the moment Athill assures the old woman that her large, extended family is evidence that her life has been worthwhile. But once alone, the author cannot help but wonder: "[W]hat of a woman who had never had the chance, or missed the chance, to create something like that? What of myself? That was a question to whistle up an icy wind, and I was out in it. I waited for the shivering to start. Well, it has not started yet, and I would like to know why."

From there she flashes back to early days, to her Oxford education, to establishing her reputation as one of England's finest editors of literary fiction. But Athill's sense of herself in the world has been skewed by an early love affair gone wrong; well into middle age she sees herself as a failure. So is she bitter or blameful? Not a bit. No heroes or victims in this account, only human beings; only a woman determined to understand herself — to come to terms with the ways in which she has not fulfilled her original expectations. With wit and pathos, and in elegant prose, the author handles multiple themes (love, sex, faith, work) and finally discovers joy in her writerly calling. It's her vocation that redeems her life: It is a facing off with her personal history on the page that allows her to move on: "No one can be detached from his past, but anyone can come to see it as being past and when that happens, one is partly liberated from its consequences."

Entirely different in structure and tone, although told in a thrillingly familiar voice, "After a Funeral," published in 1986, is an investigation of Athill's friendship with the man she calls "Didi" — whom she knew and loved, with whom she worked and lived, until his death in 1969. As with "Instead of a Letter," in which the writer is revealed as unmarried and childless in the first pages, we know the end of this story at the start. Athill meets Didi at a party in Chapter 1. "I felt elated when I went to bed that night," she writes. "One can make plenty of new acquaintances in middle age, but it is not often that one sees the possibility of knitting a new person into one's life as one did in youth, and that had just happened." But in the next sentence we learn, "Five years later this man killed himself in my flat. He swallowed twenty-six sleeping pills."

How to pick up from there? How to sustain interest and momentum? With vivid and vigorous prose, that's how, and devotion to the truth, no matter how devastating. Didi is thus revealed as gifted and damaged; but Athill is as unsparing with herself as with him in exposing their pattern of mutual manipulation. Like "Instead of a Letter," "After a Funeral" is a page-turner, suspenseful by virtue of the discovery and transformation intrinsic to the form.

From our point of view, Athill was ahead of her time. If memoirists continue to face disapproval, obviously they're undeterred. And suspicious as we are of first-person narrators, we appear to be insatiable. Do we find solace in stories of humiliation and failure? Or are we looking, perhaps, to connect with the universal, which is possible when a writer of Athill's grace and insight reminds us that it's not what we tell but how we tell it — so revealing the genre for its singular purpose and rewards.

Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."

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