Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Alive, Alive Oh!", by Diana Athill

I absolutely loved British publisher and writer Diana Athill’s best-known memoirs (out of seven she has now written! but I think only a few of them have been published in the U.S.), “Stet” and “Somewhere Towards the End,” as well as some others of her writings (letters, etc.). Athill, now 98 years old, has had a long, fascinating life working in publishing and living a somewhat unorthodox personal life (unorthodox by the standards of society during her youth and middle age); it has been a pleasure to hear her perspective as a vital older woman. And she is a terrific writer. When I heard she had just published a new memoir, “Alive, Alive Oh!” (Norton, 2016), I was interested, but thought perhaps she wouldn’t have a lot that was new to say. How wrong I was! In “Stet,” she focused on her earlier years and her career and love life, among other topics. In “Somewhere Towards the End,” she wrote frankly about what it is like aging and being an older woman, meanwhile weaving in stories of her past. In this new book, which is divided into several sections (including “My Grandparents’ Garden,” “Post-War,” “Beloved Books,” and a few more), she focuses on different aspects of her life. She says, for example, that in earlier memoirs she has written mostly about people in her life, but as she is deep into her nineties now, she thinks a lot about landscapes, scenes, and gardens in her life; she describes some of them here. She writes about moving into a retirement home, and how she initially didn’t really want to, but did so out of worrying about the friends who would have to take care of her if she didn’t. She discovers, to her surprise, that the new home offers interesting and rewarding new experiences and friendships. When she does look back, she remembers what life was like after World War II; she tells us with scrupulous and painful candidness about a time she was unexpectedly pregnant, agonized about what to do, decided to keep the baby, and then lost it to miscarriage; she muses on how quickly the British Empire fell apart; she writes about what she learned during her time living in Tobago, and is particularly astute about race, including writing thoughtfully but pointedly about the self-congratulatory and condescending attitudes of white Europeans living there and “helping” the inhabitants of the island; other topics are equally intriguing, and she is equally thoughtful and incisive about them. This book, like the earlier ones, is engaging, thoughtful, fresh, and beautifully written. We get a real sense of Athill’s personality, character, temperament, opinions, preferences, and life. And although she is now 98, I would never say this book is “good, considering how old the author is”; not at all; in fact, it is excellent coming from any author, at any age. And we readers benefit from her experience, her hard-won wisdom, and her ability to write compellingly about it all. I hope she will write more memoirs!
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