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A Memoir

by Diana Athill

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-393-06770-5
Publisher: Norton

Now 91, one of England’s notable book editors examines life, old age and approaching death with astonishing candor in 16 essays distinguished by her spare, direct prose.

Athill (Yesterday Morning, 2002, etc.) does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects: the waning of sexual desire, her qualms about the physical act of dying and her atheism, which deprives her of a comforting belief in the hereafter. Although she knows that death cannot be far off, the present is full of quiet satisfactions. The tiny tree fern that she purchases in the opening essay will not provide shade for her backyard garden in her lifetime, but watching it unfurl its fronds becomes an unexpected and genuine pleasure. Athill vividly describes corpses she has seen and deaths she has witnessed, taking some comfort from the knowledge that among her close relatives the end has been relatively swift and peaceful. Having no children to care for her at the end of her life, she notes sadly but calmly that she will likely end her days in an impersonal institution. With no afterlife to look forward to, the present becomes more precious; hers is filled with reading, writing and reviewing books, gardening, drawing, pottering about and, surprisingly, driving her car. After a highway accident in which only the car was damaged, her love of the freedom provided by driving kept her behind the wheel. Erotic desire may have vanished, but Athill remembers it clearly and is quite candid about relationships with past lovers. Kindness and loving friendship are more important than sexual fidelity, she asserts, demonstrating this with brief anecdotes of her affairs. At the time of writing, she has reluctantly but dutifully become caretaker for a man she has lived with for nearly half a century. Their life now, she writes matter-of-factly, is “in about equal parts, both sad and boring.”

Fiercely intelligent, discomfortingly honest and never dull.