Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Somewhere Towards the End" Diana Athill

What’s it like being an old woman? Well, in the benefit of full disclosure the answer to that question is not the primary reason why I got “Somewhere Towards the End”. I was actually won over by the first paragraph where Diana Athill professes a love of black pugs but sadly realizes that at 89 years old it wouldn’t be fair to get a new puppy. I decided to read the book on the strength of that musing, such is my faith in the discerning world-views of pug connoisseurs. And am glad I did, because this memoir-essay is fascinating for anyone interested on the exceptionally lucid ramblings of an almost nonagenarian on love, sex, illness, death and friendship.

As soon as I realized Athill was a non god-fearing, childless woman I became more interested in her views on old age: don’t we end our days clutching rosaries and cursing our decision not to procreate? What is a woman’s life without faith and babies (and faith in babies)? Well, it turns out that a life without either (nor money – for it turns out the other thing I share with Athill is the absence of a savings account) can be, in the immortal words of Maude Lebowski “a natural, zesting enterprise” (Maude, was of course referring to sex, something Athill also found zesty until she didn’t and had no problem saying so to her partner - nor with his continued activity with others).

Working into her seventies, gardening, painting, friends and family – and the odd lover – kept Athill very much alive and kicking at an age where women are supposed to be, at most, doting grandmothers. Even taking into account that her occupation as a literary editor is probably a lot more intellectually demanding and fulfilling than most, one has to applaud her spirit.

She is, however, very candid in stating that she can’t help her personality any more than a pessimist can and that her mainly positive outlook might simply be innate, but I believe that most people fall somewhere between the extremes, and especially for women, role models who enjoy old age might go a long way into putting any fears to rest (fears that might loom over us long before actual age sets in).

While not all of us can boast a spectacular record of longevity (Athill’s female relatives have often lived into their nineties, including her mother) we can still take a lot from “Somewhere Towars the End”. Indeed the skills of not taking things too seriously, of enjoying deeply that which we can still do, of seeing our flaws more clearly and yet, being kinder and more understanding with ourselves, would be precious at any stage of life.

I also appreciated that Athill isn’t one of those (hypocrites? zealots?) who claim that you should just stop whining and keep your head down. She does understand that some people get a rotten deal in their life circumstances:

“I can speak only for, and to, the lucky. But there are more of them than one at first supposes, because the kind of fortune one enjoys or suffers, does not come only from outside oneself. Of course much of it can be inflicted or bestowed on one by others, or by things such as a virus, or climate, or war, or economic recession; but much of it is built into one genetically, and the greatest good luck of all is built-in resilience.”

In short the best thing one can wish for is not money, health or even luck – being a born optimist is a better deal than any of that. What about the rest of us? Well, I guess we’ll have to fake it, ‘till we make it.

If there is a woman in your life beset by the age blues, whether she is 25 or 75, “Somewhere Towards the End” might just prove a welcome antidote. It manages to be both unflinching and positive and an absolute treat of a book.


IrisD said...

I'm reading it now. :) I did not have children (not by choice), and so I'm looking at insights from someone who is candid in sharing her life experiences. I read a short interview with Athill in the New York Times, where she stated that at some point in her earlier years she was perhaps nervous or uneasy about being alone, but that she had come to understand that she actually quite liked herself. I don't know if optimism and this level of like of self is something that can be cultivated or if you are born with it, but if there is a chance I can borrow some for myself, I'll do it.

inês said...

Thanks for your comment ;)I believe some people are just born optimists - and I'm so jealous of them...but I also think there is always room for improvement and Athill is a heck of a role model.