It all started with a zesty little book about getting old
Early in 2008, Geist received a review copy of Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Diana Athill’s memoir about getting old. She was hitting her nineties and I was hitting my sixties and we are both editors, so I took the book home and read it right away. A few years ago I had devoured and loved Stet (2000), Athill’s account of her life editing books, not just because good stories about editing are so hard to find but because Athill’s writing is such a satisfying blend of tasteful and scrappy.
In Somewhere Towards the End, Athill looks back from a greater distance. Her professional life is well behind her now, and although it still informs her spirit, she meditates on other matters: the prospect of giving up her car, the differences between religion and faith, her memories of her mother’s deathbed and her thoughts about her own, and the pleasures of gardening, drawing, reading and writing. In the cover photo she looks smooth and wise and a bit mischievous, and she wears the chunkiest, most in-your-face necklace I’ve ever seen (in an author photo, anyway). This is an elegant, eccentric, feisty woman (I won’t say “spry,” which she isn’t and which only comes up in condescending descriptions of old people) who comes alive on the page through her choice of what details to report, in what words, in what order—in other words, through good writing. Prose written by editors (and by writers who don’t argue with their editors) is often a bit too correct, too controlled, and Athill’s is no exception. But that is a minor quibble—the book is smart, funny and joyous. It took me a year and a half to begin writing about it, though, because every other bit of reading that came to hand—print or digital, new or archived—seemed connected, and I felt compelled to work it all in.
For instance, an article in the Guardian on Fay Weldon, who also happens to be an old nonconformist woman writer, and her latest book, What Makes Women Happy, carried the headline “Lie Back and Think of Jesus,” and an anti- flattering portrait of Weldon and implied that after forty years of writing novels, essays, stories and screenplays encouraging women to be angry, Weldon was now flip-flopping and advising us to be good girls. Could this be true? Easy enough to find out—the library’s single copy sat undisturbed on the shelf. Yes, she does tell women to be good, but good as in generous, not good as in doormat. Happiness is not what you think; nature is not your friend; and more along those lines. Whew! For a minute there, I was afraid Fay had gone over to the other side.
Then I came across an interview from a few years ago with Grace Paley (1922–2007), who wrote The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and other brilliant and subversive short narratives. Poets & Writers (pw.org) asked Paley why it had taken twenty or thirty years to find a way to tell some of the stories, and she said, “Well, that’s just me. I’m willing to let it go until it happens.”
Athill and Somewhere Towards the End won the Costa Prize for Biography in early 2009—not long before Margaret Drabble, age sixty-nine, announced that she would write no more novels. What?! Why not? “The older I get, the more I find myself repeating things,” she said to the Telegraph. Her readers over fifty understand this, but we don’t mind—if we even notice.
This bit of news prompted me to reread the press on Doris Lessing, from fall 2007 when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, including her very moving acceptance lecture (nobelprize.org) about people who do not have books. And an article I saw a few years ago about Alice Walker, who turned sixty and travelled to Korea, and people there told her that age sixty is “eggy, which means one becomes like a baby, or child, again.” And a piece on Joy Kogawa, who wrote Obasan, the novel that kick-started the Japanese Canadian redress movement in the 1980s, and who at age seventy-four is working on a new memoir, Gently to Nagasaki. And a cbc Radio One interview with Mavis Gallant, who published Going Ashore: The Uncollected Stories at age eighty-six. And a new story by Alice Munro, who won the Man Booker Prize at seventy-seven—such good news that I could almost forgive the judges, who said (however obliquely) that Munro is a great writer even though she isn’t a novelist.
At the end of April I opened my mailbox and out came the May issue of Literary Review of Canada, with the cover line “The Grey Wave?” and an article by Wayne Grady on The Social Behavior of Older Animals by Anne Innis Dagg. Why do old animals live on, once they are finished reproducing? Because they are rich repositories of cultural knowledge: where to find the best food and water, for example, and how to make decent art. Elephant herds that include old- timers have more reproductive success and better mental health. (One wonders how this set of data was measured, but anyway . . .)
My great big thematic convergence is over now. It started with the Athill book, it gathered steam in the months surrounding my sixtieth birthday, and it was over by last summer, when I walked along a street in London, noticed that it was called Old Broad Street and had a good belly laugh.
In print and podcast, Diana Athill is a fine advertisement for becoming venerable. She seems genuinely calm and cheerful about the effects of aging, and she still radiates supreme generosity of spirit. She worries less and less about what people think of her. She confesses that she is lazy and given to the “tribal smugness” of the white middle class, but on the whole she has no regrets. She rather likes the uninvited but salubrious slower pace of old age, and the fuller enjoyment of everyday things. Here’s how Penelope Lively put it in “Corruption,” a short story she wrote at age fifty-one: “Both Richard and Marjorie had noted how the satisfactions of life have a tendency to gain intensity with advancing years. ‘The world gets more beautiful,’ Marjorie had once said, ‘not less so. Fun is even more fun. Music is more musical . . . One hadn’t reckoned with that.’ ”
A younger person might have sat down and written up a concise evaluation of Somewhere Towards the End, with a few succulent examples, in early 2008 when it first came out in Canada, and the piece might have been published in time to join the wave of publicity that turns into book sales. But for me, here in late middle age, nothing is short and everything is connected—a condition that I think would be understood by Diana Athill, who in this (sort of) new book thinks out loud, backs up, plunges ahead and generally makes old people look smart and generous and complicated and interesting.