Book review

A blunt look at getting old

The New York TimesFebruary 1, 2009 

  • Somewhere Towards the End

    Diana Athill

    W.W. Norton, 182 pages

One of the drawbacks of old age, the protagonist of Saul Bellow's final novel, "Ravelstein" (2000), declares, is that gaps begin to open in your life, "and these gaps tend to fill up with your dead."

One of the many excellent things about Diana Athill's previous memoir, "Stet" (2000), about her long and storied career as a book editor in London where she worked with V.S. Naipaul, John Updike and Norman Mailer, among others, was that she allowed the gaps in her story to fill, like frosting layered onto a cake, with fulsome memories of her own cherished dead.

Now 91, Athill is back with a second, slimmer memoir, which she has called "Somewhere Towards the End." It is a rumination on late old age, undertaken, she writes, because "book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster round procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away." Being well along in that process herself, she thought, "Why not have a go at it?"

The result is welcome and original, and it succeeds because Athill is such a robust, free-thinking, nonmawkish presence on the page. She catalogs the indignities of old age while reminding us how much joy can be sucked out of a physically diminished life, joy that often comes from unexpected places.

One thing Athill clearly misses is sex. "I was a steamy girl," she writes about herself as a teenager, when she was addicted to romance novels because of the "nyum nyum" sensations they brought her. Athill, who never married but had many relationships long and short, some adulterous, learned quite young that "women, too, could be cheered up by sex without love."

Athill ceased to be a sexual being, she says, in her 70s. Not that vanity ever vanished: "Appearance is important to old women, not because we suppose that it will impress other people, but because of what we see ourselves when we look in a mirror." She is pleased that cosmetics for the old have improved. In earlier decades, she observes, bad lipstick could make an older woman "look like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner."

A positive aspect of the waning of sex, Athill says, "was that other things became more interesting." She writes very well here about art, gardening, reading and many other pursuits. I was surprised that this longtime fiction editor has declared that she has "gone off novels."

Why? She no longer feels the need to parse the intricacies of human relationships and love affairs, "but I do still want to be fed facts, to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander."

The elderly, she writes, can find great enjoyment in the company of younger people. But she warns: "One should never, never expect them to want one's company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a friend of one's own age. Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that."

In terms of physical mobility, Athill says, old age delivers a double whammy.

Her legs have almost given out because of painful feet. But at the same time, society urges one to stop driving at an advanced age, and that's a hard thing to give up. As she writes:

"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 whiz just like everyone else, restored to freedom."

Childless, Athill is aware that she has no obvious caregivers for her last years. "I haven't got the money to pay for care of any kind," she says. "If I don't have the luck to fall down dead while still able-bodied, it is going to be the geriatric ward for me."

Athill's memoir ends with her realization: "There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving and also more particular opposites such as a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness."

We are all amassing big stakes in our own ends, and Athill's frankness and good cheer in the face of that fact are comforting. Still, she hopes her own disappearance from this planet "does not come too soon."

Anyone who's read her will be in complete agreement.

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