Allan Fallow is a writer and editor in Alexandria, Va.
Is Diana Athill some kind of memoir machine? The British writer has turned out seven works of autobiography since 1962, notably “Somewhere Towards the End” (2008) — a surprise bestseller that won a National Book Critics Circle Award — and “Stet: An Editor’s Life” (2000), in which she rashly predicted, “I shall not be alive for much longer.”
Last December, Athill turned 98.
The “memories, thoughts and reflections” that fill her latest chronicle, “Alive, Alive Oh!,” range from milking goats and stealing grapes at her grandparents’ estate in Norfolk to being presented at the court of Edward VIII to her current existence as a “physically wobbly” denizen of a retirement home for the “active elderly” in London. There Athill heeds Montaigne’s advice to “spend a short time every day thinking about death” and marvels at the freshet of memories “jostling” and “shouldering” their way into her mind, making “a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring.”
Athill’s no tweedy bird, however. She shared the gritty details of her unconventional life — driven in part by a weakness for troubled men — in “After a Funeral” (1986) and “Make Believe” (1993). But here she confines her romantic reminiscences to her eight-year affair with Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, which enabled her to “enjoy the plums of love without having to munch through the pudding.” Shortly after Reckord’s wife divorced him, Athill confides, “I ceased to want him as a lover, he found someone else who did, she moved in with us and became my best and closest friend, which she still is, and for the next six years we three lived together as happy as can be.”
Did I say unconventional?
Unexpectedly pregnant by Reckord at 43, Athill experienced a brief, sun-splashed euphoria: “Instead of being a stationary object past which a current was flowing, I was flowing with it, in it, at the same rate.” But then came the tragedy of a miscarriage in month four, an ordeal that nearly killed the author.
Critic Laura Miller has dubbed Athill’s wisdom “more ambient than aphoristic ,” and it’s true that “Alive, Alive Oh!” bathes us in lush imagery. Those stolen purple grapes of her childhood, for example, “were so beautiful that one seemed to be tasting their appearance.” Her word choice is also deliciously idiosyncratic: Where else can you find the words “juggins,” “floriferous” and “unwifeliness”?
If I’m making a mountain out of an Athill, it’s because the author doesn’t merely beckon you in for a sit-down and a cuppa; she springs a back panel to her mind and guides you down the thought paths inside — some dark, others dappled, all converging confidently on the things that truly matter in our lifetimes.
By Diana Athill
Norton. 168 pp. $24.95