Naipaul, Rhys editor pens new memoirs

A review in the Columbia Tribune looks at new memoirs published by Diana Athill: “Instead Of A Letter” and “After A Funeral” by Diana Athill. In Caribbean circles, Athill is best known as the legendary editor who worked with V. S. Naipaul and famously held Jean Rhys’ hand as she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea.

When Diana Athill’s maternal grandmother was dying a long and painful death at 92, Athill writes, she “turned her beautiful speckled eyes towards me one afternoon and said in so many words: ‘What have I lived for?’ ”

At least that is the way Athill remembers the moment, and who would want to doubt her? It is this question, turned on herself, that begins her engrossing memoir, “Instead of a Letter,” first published in 1962. This led to more books about her singular life and times — including “Stet” (2000), about the British editor’s 50-year career publishing such giants as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and “Somewhere Towards the End,” her celebrated observations on aging, which, at 91, made her a best-selling, prize-winning author and officer of the British Empire.

What a gift that two years later, we can savor her first two memoirs — “Instead of a Letter,” about her childhood and a lost love, and “After a Funeral” (1986), about her complex relationship with a charming, severely unstable Egyptian exile, a writer she calls Didi, who committed suicide in her flat in 1969.

Athill, now 93, has not merely lived an interesting life and observed it. Clearly, she has always been a wonderful storyteller, as masterly about suspense and pacing as she is brutally perceptive about other people, post-Empire British social history and herself. “Instead of a Letter” feels a bit overdecorated at first — as descriptive and leisurely as an English costume drama. But soon she drops in a nugget of foreshadowing, a throwaway line indicating the wartime death of the man she believed to be the love of her life and, later, a shocker about him that previews “twenty years of unhappiness” for this girl we’ve come to trust as lively and hearty.

In both books, we journey through the life of a sexually adventurous unmarried woman — “if not a career woman, at least a woman who had found a career” — who co-founded, almost by happenstance, an important English publishing company with Andre Deutsch.

It was by similar fluke that her life became entangled with the much-younger Didi, actually novelist Waguih Ghali. As she explains at the start of “After a Funeral,” she had invited him to a dinner party “because I loved a book he had written.” During their five-year friendship, he turned out to be a hopeless gambler, a drinker, a freeloading “parasite” and deceptive depressive who, increasingly, treated her like a grotesque, “pathetic old spinster.”

Why would anyone put up with him? As she explains, not entirely convincingly, her “vanity” made her want “to feel that I am a nice person rather than a nasty one.” He left her his diary, the inspiration for this memoir and justification for her loyalty. “Well-edited,” he wrote in his suicide note, “it could be a good piece of literature.” Clearly, Athill is incapable of anything less.

The review appeared at

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