By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 4, 2009
SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END
By Diana Athill
Norton. 183 pp. $24.95
Thirty years ago the literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley brought out a memoir called The View from 80. It was, as you might guess, a slender volume about old age, much of it emphasizing the "grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be" approach to the advancing years. I had to assign the book for review and, after some thought, called up the distinguished and elderly scholar Douglas Bush, long a fixture of the English department at Harvard. I had every reason to expect Professor Bush to confirm an image of old age as a time of retirement and happy retrospection, of favorite volumes reread before the fireplace, of glasses of brandy shared with friends while reminiscing over the good times, a period, in other words, of serene pleasures and quiet satisfactions.
Bush's piece was an angry cry of rage at these familiar clichés. Old age was cruel and bitter, a time of ashes, not warming fires. He wrote that he could hardly read anymore, and when he could, even favorite books seemed stale and unprofitable. His doctors had cut out drink; his diet was restricted; his body gave him nothing but trouble and misery. A once formidable memory was going, and with it the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a lifetime of scholarship. Those rosy images of a cultivated and leisurely Otium were all mirages. The so-called sunset years were at best tedious and at worst an ordeal.
Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill's account of growing old, lacks Bush's passion but does underscore that, on the whole, the later years are a time of making do with less of everything except aches and pain. Only writing -- a talent that the now 91-year-old Athill discovered relatively late in life -- affords some modest pleasure to this former editor for the English publisher André Deutsch. To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well.
She opens by zeroing in on the true essentials of almost any contemporary human life: Physical attractiveness and sexuality. "Appearance," she writes, "is important to old women, not because we suppose that it will impress other people, but because of what we ourselves see when we look in a mirror. It is unlikely that anyone else will notice that the nose on an old face is red and shiny or the broken veins on its cheeks are visible, but its owner certainly will." The development of modern cosmetics has been a godsend to the elderly, she writes, helping to soothe and disguise some of time's ravages.
Nonetheless, says Athill, "the most obvious thing about moving into my seventies was the disappearance of what used to be the most important thing in life: I might not look, or even feel, all that old, but I had ceased to be a sexual being." Readers of Athill's Instead of a Letter and her other memoirs know that she once enjoyed an adventurous erotic life: Her heart was broken several times, she refused multiple offers of marriage, and she rapidly came to prefer black men to all others.
In her late 50s, though, she discovered that her sexual re sponses to a longtime, and somewhat younger, lover were dwindling: "Familiarity had made the touch of his hand feel so like the touch of my own hand that it no longer conveyed a thrill." When the man fell into bed with a "succulent blonde in her mid-twenties," Athill admits to a sorrowful night. But she is nothing if not candid about her feelings: "What I mourned . . . was not the loss of my loving old friend . . . but the loss of youth: 'What she has, god rot her, I no longer have and will never, never have again.' " A bitter pill, and yet she swallows it, while also recognizing another, no-nonsense truth: "You know quite well that you have stopped wanting him in your bed," she tells herself. "It's months since you enjoyed it, so what are you moaning about? Of course you have lost youth, you have moved on and stopped wanting what youth wants."
With the ebbing of sex, other aspects of life soon grew more important to Athill: She took up gardening and enrolled in art classes, came to value the connection with youth represented by a daughter-like friend and her grandchildren, enjoyed being able to continue driving. She explains that to the elderly "your car begins to represent life. You hobble towards it, you ease your unwieldy body laboriously into the driver's seat -- and lo! you are back to normal. Off you whizz just like everyone else, restored to freedom, restored (almost) to youth." While Athill still finds pleasure in reading, she confesses to having "gone off novels," partly because "I no longer feel the need to ponder human relationships -- particularly not love affairs." Instead, she prefers "to be fed facts, to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander." She mentions enjoying recent biographies of 18th-century industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, scientist Charles Darwin and wood-engraver Thomas Bewick. All, she says, provided her with the often underestimated gift of "good company."
Inevitably, Athill also writes about mortality and religion (she lacks all belief, including the hope of an afterlife). She devotes one of her longest chapters to the hardships of caring not only for herself but also for her former lover, the one who took up with the blonde and with whom she has continued to live for decades. He is now ill with diabetes, heart disease and a vague, listless anomie. From her description their life together seems alternately boring and wearying. Still, Athill does enjoy two unexpected gifts from old age: One is that late-blossoming talent for writing; the other is a wonderful sense of freedom, of lightness that she feels because nothing matters very much any more. Only after she had retired (at 75 -- she couldn't afford to quit working earlier) did Athill finally shed her pronounced shyness and simply stop caring what other people thought of her.
Towards the end of the brilliantly titled Somewhere Towards the End, Athill confesses to regrets over a certain coldness in her personality and laziness in her career. But neither fault torments her. She does think about her own approaching death and concludes, reasonably, "What dies is not a life's value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self's awareness of itself: away that goes into nothingness, with everyone else's." What we do with our lives does matter, then, even if we all eventually arrive at the same common end.
A refusal to sugar-coat and a commitment to utter frankness, coupled with an engaging style, make Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End unusually appealing, despite its inherently cheerless subject. Certainly no amount of mendacity or whining will change the facts: The end of life is hard. With luck and adequate health, you might be able to enjoy a few simple pleasures for a while longer. But that's about it. And be grateful for even the smallest of such favors. Time is not on your side. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.