A lady of letters

Diana Athill. I had only vaguely heard the name, knew she was a formidable editor in her day. A fellow publishing friend had recommended STET, Athill’s book recalling her life as an editor at the publishing house Andre Deutsch. The memoir had been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year, untouched. It was Persephone Books’ new collection of Athill’s short stories: MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE which opened my eyes to her brilliance as a writer.

Finely wrought, well constructed prose; a surprising, original voice. Athill immediately drew me in. She has a refreshingly unique, ‘real’ voice and embodies the essential characteristic of a good writer (as she defines it in STET), one who writes freely about her experience, about the way she sees the world, rather than in a highly self-conscious style, trying to emulate another’s voice. This distinction is often subtle, but nonetheless exceedingly important. Contrived texts – whether prose or poetry – quickly sour and I lose interest.

Never with Athill. Quite apart from her total lack of sexual inhibition and her frankness about having regular affairs – which provides salacious fodder for many of the stories – the plots are all pacy and captivating. I raced through the 200 page collection. My favourites are, perhaps, ‘The Real Thing’, ‘No Laughing Matter’ and ‘A Weekend in the Country’, but I enjoyed them all – each had their delicious moments to savour.

I have a found in Athill a writer whom I respect and admire and, as such, feel driven to read all she has written: several autobiographical accounts, two ‘documentary’ works and a novel. I’m on my way, having just finished STET. The latter certainly kept my interest, but I found the best bits were when she speaks of why she likes to read, what makes a good writer, a good editor, a good publisher, rather than some of the minutia about the business. While interesting – she doesn’t hold back from good hearted gossip or from giving her honest opinion – I wasn’t quite as gripped by these bits (even though I spent five years in the trade) and I can’t imagine many outside the books world would be entranced.

That is not to say I did not retain complete sympathy with Athill throughout, and found the memoir an intriguing, erudite, revealing – and, at times, poignant – look into the publishing world from the 1930s-1980s.

I shall end with one of my favourite bits from STET; where Athill articulates why books are important to her:

They brought home to me the central reason why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have so greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of life: of its consuming darkness, and also – thank God – of the light which continues to struggle through.


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