Tuesday 23 November 2010

Diana Athill - Instead of a letter

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on Goodreads, starting with this memoir by one of my heroes, British writer and editor Diana Athill, originally published in 1976.


One of the cover blurbs for this book - Athill's first memoir, covering her life from birth to when she began writing and publishing in her early forties - suggests that every 17 year-old girl should have a copy of this book pressed upon her.

I wonder what that particular reviewer thought a 17 year-old girl would take out of the book. Would she see read it as a warning?

As a young teenager Athill fell for a young man, about 5 years older than she, who was acquainted with the family. She recounts how she grew up quickly, and soon the young man saw her less as a younger sister and more as a romantic possibility to the point where, when Athill was about to leave for university, they became engaged.

Athill's young man was the centre of her happiness, her world. He was sent to Egypt (this was at the start of WWII) and they corresponded joyfully until his letters stopped coming. It was nearly two years before he wrote to her again, asking her to release him from their engagement, so he could marry another woman.

Athill never married. One of the refreshing things about her memoirs is the calm and un-coy way she writes of her sexual relationships with men; here she talks about an abortion - which saddens her, but which she does not regret - and later miscarriages, her long-term, steady affairs with married men, and her short-term (even one-night stand) relationships conducted out of a sense of obligation, and the feeling that sometimes it is easier to just go to bed with someone than to find a convincing (yet polite) way to turn them down.

She covers her years of war work, and later career in publishing, where she worked with Andre Deutsch to set up two publishing houses (covered more fully in 'Stet').

But most of all Athill writes of unhappiness, and the late discovery, in her forties, of happiness when she begins writing. It is not that writing 'fills a hole' as such, but that it gives her s sense of ease and pleasure, of surprise and success.

So, what that reviewer think a 17 year-old would learn from this life? It is that she should not hitch her happiness to a young man, but look instead for fulfillment in a career? That one can only find true happiness by being happy with oneself, and other platitudes?

The way I read it, Athill was saying something different about unhappiness, and its particular source. It was all consuming ("My soul had shrunk to the size of a pea") but it didn't stop her from doing things, and doing things successfully. It didn't stop her from feeling happy at times. It didn't mean her life wasn't meaningful.

At the same time I was reading this book, I read Jenny Diski (now, there's a writer who can talk about unhappiness) reviewing a self-help get happy book in the LRB:

Truth number four is ‘You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.’ This is not just unfathomable but raises a prior question. Why is Rubin so very sure that happiness is the goal? Why do people, some people, understand their sense of incompleteness as a lack of happiness? Or why do they believe that such an incompleteness can and should be remedied? If the answers to these questions strike you as completely obvious, or they don’t seem to be sensible questions at all, then maybe it’s just me, but I suspect Freud didn’t stop at ordinary unhappiness because he was at a loss to know what to do at that point, but because ordinary unhappiness constitutes part of regular existence.

I once tried this thought out on a panel on a TV book show when we were talking about a biography of Ford Madox Ford. There was general agreement that his had been a tragic life, evidenced by catastrophic love affairs, difficulty in writing and several failed suicide attempts. I wondered if you had to see it as such a tragic life, or just that kind of a life. He did after all have all the melodrama and all those torrid relationships, and he also wrote some of the best novels of the 20th century. Even suicide attempts, if they fail, offer a kind of renewal, if only of unhappiness. Certainly, he wasn’t happy, but was it a tragic life? I’m no more sure what constitutes tragic than I am about defining happiness. They cut that bit out when the show was broadcast, because the other people on the panel just blinked at me and moved swiftly on.


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