it really is very bad

“‘Talk about a young man’s book!’ I said to myself. ‘What on earth made us take it on?’  It really is very bad; but something of its author’s nature struggles through the clumsiness, and we were in the process of building a list, desperate for new and promising young writers. I must say I congratulate Andre (and myself) for discerning that underpinning of seriousness and honesty… and think we deserve the reward of his turning out to the be the writer he is.”

~ Diana Athill on having re-read, after 45 years, Mordecai Richler’s 1954 debut novel, The Acrobats.  (From Stet: an Editor’s Life, Granta, 2011)

And this—also from Stet—and quite possibly the best comment ever on the subject of gossip:

“They [Brian Moore and his wife Jackie] were both great gossips… I’m talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour. We [talked] about writing, but more often we would talk with glee, with awe, with amazement, with horror, with delight, about what people had done and why they had done it. And we munched up our own lives as greedily as we did everyone else’s.”

On advertising books in the 1950’s and 60’s, Athill says there was no such thing, that ‘promotion’ was limited to reviews [which she felt, along with word of mouth, was the better way and that ads were not as effective and mainly done to please the author]. As for being noticed generally… “A novelist had to stab his wife, or something of that sort, to get attention on pages other than those devoted to books.”

Read Stet this summer on an impossibly comfortable couch in the library at the *unpompously preserved  Cold Comfort Farm, PEI. [*a phrase Athill used to describe the great old Long Island homes, one of which belonged to Brian Moore].

diana athill, let’s have lunch…

Because lunch is what you want to do with someone who looks out at you from the cover in such a saucy Oh do I have a few stories up my sleeve sort of way. And in that necklace.

And when that lunch turns out to be just you and the book and maybe a salad at a corner table in a cafe, it’s really okay because Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End reads like a chat, the tone is casual as she shares her philosophy of life (which includes a lovely riff on tree ferns). And while you munch on your croutons she goes easily from one thing to the other: memories of painter friends, writer friends, thoughts on loyalty, faith, death, genes — both good ones and not so good—  sex, London, night school, religion, gardening, driving, love, reading, writing and books — never focussing overly on opinions or even offering any of this from the perspective of age, but merely from the perspective of someone who’s paid attention.

At the end of your salad you close the book, look at that face, that DaVinci-style grin, and all you can hope is that you might grow up to be even one tenth as interesting and wear big jewellery with that kind of panache.

“There would be an agreeable sort of itchy feeling, a first sentence would appear from nowhere, and blip, out would come a story. One of them won the Observer’s  short story competition, an intoxicating thrill in that it showed I had been putting down words in the right way, but it didn’t  make any more stories come after a tenth had fizzled out after two pages. That was followed by a lull of almost a year. Then, looking for something in a rarely opened drawer, I happened on those two pages, and read them. Perhaps, I thought, something could be made of them after all, so the next day I put paper in my typewriter and this time it wasn’t blip, it was whoosh! — and Instead of a Letter, my first book, began. Those stories had been no more than hints of what was accumulating in the unconscious part of my mind, and the purpose of that accumulation, which I hadn’t known I needed, was healing.” ~ from Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill