Literary Review

‘Human beings are useless’

"I’m not frightened at the idea of death. I’m nervous at the thought of dying," says author Diana Athill. Photo: Mark Crick

"I’m not frightened at the idea of death. I’m nervous at the thought of dying," says author Diana Athill. Photo: Mark Crick

Diana Athill was born in Norfolk in December 1917. She worked at the Andre Deutsch publishing house for over 50 years, editing a fine list of writers that included Jean Rhys, Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul. She published her first book at the age of 46, and has since published eight more (mostly memoirs), the most recent of which is Alive, Alive Oh! Athill’s writing is characterised by candour and an irreverent brand of wisdom that she dispenses with a great amount of wit. An avowed dog-lover for whom fidelity is not a favourite virtue (“Being the other woman was what I was best at,” she once famously said), Athill is a marvellously rare woman for this or any time. Now 98, she lives in a retirement home in Highgate, London, where we met to talk about living a life of books, love, luck and childlessness. Excerpts from an interview:

Where did you get the courage to tell your stories in the incredibly open way that you do?

It began with my first book, Instead of a Letter. I never decided I was going to write it, it literally came to me. A very sad thing happened to me when I was young. In subsequent years, I wasn’t thinking about it or feeling sad about it but it had been lurking in me. I think at any given time I was perfectly happy. I loved my job, I loved my friends. I wasn’t having a nice affair at the time (that came later), but I was having quite a good life. If anyone had backed me against the wall and asked what the essence of my life was, I would have had to answer, failure. Because of the perfectly old-fashioned thing: that I’d been brought up at a time when a young woman was expected to get married and have children…

By the time I finished the book, the sense of failure had completely vanished. It was the most extraordinary therapeutic exercise. Jean Rhys used to say, “I want to get it like it really was,” and that became my only rule about writing.

And now, if someone backed you against the wall and asked what the essence of your life was?

Like a lot of lives, it includes unhappy things but the essence of my life is that it has been lucky. Funny, nice, and lucky. And what’s more, it has gotten better and better with time.

At what moment did you get a sense of this luck?

As soon as I realised I could write. That changed things at once. And what it did was it enabled me to live my own life. If you’re entirely dependent on getting married, you’re depending on living somebody else’s life. You may have a lovely man, you may even like his life, but you are living his life, apart from the fact that if you’re a maternal person you enjoy the children. But I was living my own life and that was preferable.

People always say to women that you’ll regret not having children…

I think I was a bit peculiar in that respect. There was one stage in my life when I was nearly caught out and decided to have a child. That is the only time my body, as it were, said, “Now look, if you don’t have this child, you’ll never have a child.” It wanted it, and it won, except that I had a miscarriage. But I was never one of those women who aren’t properly alive unless they have babies. I was left upstairs in a bedroom with the small baby of my then fiancé’s sister, and that baby was lying on the bed, and I was looking at it and thinking, what do I really feel about this funny little creature? And what I really felt, to my utter shock, was that I would far rather pick up a puppy.

The other thing people say when you’re nearing the end of your life is that it’s better to have a sense of religion or spirituality, but that’s not been the case for you?

Oh, I stopped believing in god long ago. We are living on a tiny grain of sand in terms of the universe, and on that tiny grain of sand, we are tiny grains of sand. We are so unimportant, there’s absolutely no reason why we should be competent to understand how any of it runs. Right from the beginning people have made up the most mad stories, and I think it’s pointless because we don’t know. I’m quite happy to think that whatever it is, it is. So it’s all right.

Why worry? It’s always been like that. Death is a part of life, that’s how it goes. If no one ever died, it is impossible to think what the world would be like. Things develop, they grow, they are animal, they breed, they die, and the next lot comes up. That’s life. That’s how it works. We are rather funny to be so frightened at the thought of it.

You’ve never been frightened at the idea of death?

I’m not frightened at the idea of death. I’m nervous at the thought of dying. It can be very disagreeable. With any luck it’s not. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I have an easy death. I don’t want to have a horrid death. But I’m not frightened of death; it’s dying that I do hope I will get through easily.

I wanted to ask about your relationship with V.S. Naipaul.

I first met Vidia when he came down from Oxford and I was very fond of him because he was very funny and so clever, so good. Difficult obviously, but he became more difficult as time went by — really tiresome. I used to have terrible battles with him. He would be so arrogant; if he was being interviewed and he decided that the man hadn’t really read his books he’d just walk out. And I’d say to him, “Look, Vidia! You moan and groan that we’re not making bestsellers of your books, you’re never going to be a bestseller — you’re much too good — but how can you begin to be a bestseller if you don’t want to collaborate in any way?” I always respected him as a writer, but when I finally lost him…. You see when you publish someone you make yourself like them, to be on their, side, but when we finally lost him, I thought, I don’t have to like Vidia anymore (laughs), and it was a relief. I’ve never seen him since.

Are there things that you hadn’t predicted or thought you might see in your lifetime?

Well, actually I’m pretty profoundly pessimistic in that respect. I do think that human beings are useless. I can’t stand the fact that we are able to perceive what is right behaviour, but we still behave atrociously and we can’t apparently help it. And I think we are ruining the planet. I think we’re going to go the same way as the dinosaurs and it will be our own fault, and I’m quite glad that I’m not going to be old enough to see that. So when I think about my private life, I think I’m very lucky and I’ve had a lovely life, but when I think about life in general, I prefer not to.

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 12:52:35 pm |