Diana Athill's inspiring memoir about old age was like a balm these past few days. Tears, anger, emotional eruption, and the fine realization that the prednisone crazies have probably conquered all my good thoughts (despite almost being off the drug), all combined to leave me feeling quite exhausted. Luckily, then, I had this slight memoir to keep me occupied. Athill, who worked in publishing until she retired at age 75 (I don't know how she did it), has written brilliant little book in Somewhere Towards the End.
Narratively, the memoir has echoes of Jean Rhys (who was a friend), Joan Didion, and a touch of Isak Dinesen, and it's sharp, unwavering voice remains focussed and clearly meditative throughout. The book opens with a number of clearly practical observations about age, moves through more traditional memoir-type content (the life and death of her sex life; the important men in her life), and then passes quickly over the idea of regret. Independent and fiercely individual, Athill's words are nothing but inspiring. There are sentences, paragraphs, entire sections to be marked as one reads, which gives one pause to examine one's own life. To imagine the spec of dust one's own ninety-odd years will have left on humanity as a whole.
The parts that I liked best were about death and dying -- the business of it, as such, and how lucky Athill has been in all of her years not to experience too much of it. The idea of luck persists throughout the book and it's not as if Athill is bragging, her stoic, almost upright British self would never stand for such, no, she's simply stating a fact. To have lived her life as she has done meant that she was both incredibly lucky and incredibly hard working. Some advice: avoid television, read a lot, take up gardening, never worry if your life falls somewhat outside of the norm, and experience life moment by moment if you can, taking pleasure out of what brings you happiness.
Now, my fingers are sore to the bone, and my arms and legs ache from lugging pounds of soil, so I am going to sign off by saying prestigious awards or not (the memoir won the Costa Biography Award in 2008), I adored every single inch of this little gem of a book.