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Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir

Review

Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir

I want to make it clear that this memoir is not only for those
euphemistically known as “seniors” (an appellation I
despise). Although it was written by a woman now 91, and it is
about aging, it is not just about that; it also journeys through
reading, writing, religion (or the lack thereof), children (or the
absence thereof), death, sex, luck and friendship.

For Diana Athill’s contemporaries, the book must be
immediately relevant. For me, almost 30 years younger (and thus,
according to her, “still within hailing distance of middle
age”), it is a reassuring dispatch from my all-too-near
future. I can’t speak for younger generations, but I think
that they too will find more meaning and sustenance in this slim
(183-page) volume than in a hundred self-help books.

Athill was for 50 years a brilliant London book editor; among
her writers were Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul and Margaret Atwood. She
wrote about all this in STET, an amazing memoir of her publishing
days that she produced at 80. Although she had written other
memoirs and a novel before that, her discovery of herself as a
full-fledged writer came relatively late. Athill is emphatic that
the ability to “make things” --- art, music, books ---
is a crucial factor in having a lively and resilient old age, 
yet for most of her long career (she retired at 75), she seems to
have been content to let others do the making, while she remained a
behind-the-scenes figure.

Athill, in fact, was brought up with a very British horror of
attention-seeking or boastfulness: “YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY
PEBBLE ON THE BEACH might have been inscribed above the nursery
door,” she writes, “and I know several people…who
still feel its truth so acutely that only with difficulty (if at
all) can they forgive a book written in the first person about that
person’s life.” This may be one reason that SOMEWHERE
TOWARDS THE END is so un-narcissistic and so devoid of self-pity.
Athill does express modest delight in her own accomplishments, and
she does complain a bit about her deafness (mentioned so fleetingly
I almost missed it) and her bad legs (making her grateful for the
perfect vision that still allows her to drive). But she never
strikes a smug or dismal note. You don’t think Who
cares?
Or Poor soul! What you think is: Me,
too!
And: Could we have lunch together if I took a plane
to London?
She is that smart, honest, unpretentious and
funny.

Reading her book, I realize how much first-person writing
(including my own) is flashy, self-conscious, more about showing
off than saying something useful. With Athill you always register a
quiet intelligence at work. You can sense her mind figuring out the
most eloquent and accurate way to get at the truth. And, good lord,
does she ever take on tough subjects!

She starts off briskly and frankly with sex, the topic most
often mentioned by reviewers (the book has already appeared in
England, where it won the 2008 Costa Biography Award). In her 70s,
she says, “she ceased to be a sexual being.” It’s
a fact, not a tragedy; indeed, with the ebbing of biological
forces, Athill reports, a certain clarity arrived about other
things, such as the non-existence of God. A lifelong atheist, she
finds her beliefs (that the universe is mysterious and
unfathomable) vastly preferable to religion, which she compares to
“fairy stories.” This despite the imminence of death,
which she comes to see, in her sensible way, as quite ordinary.
That doesn’t mean she is unaffected by her mother’s
passing; the poem she wrote on that occasion captures exactly a
child’s ambivalence about a parent’s death. An
excerpt:

“What did I feel? Like Siamese twins, one wanting her
never to die,

the other dismayed at the thought of renewed life,

of having to go on dreading pain for her, go on foreseeing

her increasing helplessness and my guilt

at not giving up my life to be with her all the time.”



SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END isn’t all Big Issues. It also
touches on topics like intergenerational friendship (“One
should never, never expect [the young] to want one’s
company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a
friend of one’s own age”); adult-education classes in
sewing and drawing; gardening (“Getting one’s hands
into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable [is] a
totally absorbing occupation”); and how her reading habits
have changed (less fiction, more nonfiction, especially the kind of
book that lets you “take a holiday from oneself”). By
the way, she has never watched TV. Perhaps that, too, accounts for
her graceful aging (in which case I am doomed).

Refreshingly, Athill does not have many regrets: primarily the
narrowness of her life (she claims to have lacked the courage and
energy to take risks) and what she calls “a stubborn nub of
selfishness” (however, judging from her unstinting care of a
former lover and longtime friend who has been bedridden for years,
this diagnosis may not be entirely accurate). What she has
achieved, she attributes partly to temperament, largely to luck.
Granted, certain crucial things went right for her (a fortunate
childhood, a place to live, good health), but I suspect she
doesn’t always give herself enough credit for how
well she manages.

An inspiring book that is blessedly free of homilies is a rare
thing. SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END is about a life being lived right
now, vibrantly and enthusiastically, not about a slow descent into
night. Paradoxically, by writing about old age, Athill seems almost
to transcend it. At any rate, she eludes easy categories
(“For oldies only”). Her observations are for anybody,
of any age, who wants to peer into the further corners of life.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir
by Diana Athill

  • Publication Date: December 7, 2009
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393338002
  • ISBN-13: 9780393338003