Longer review of Instead of a Letter: A Memoir by Diana Athill. I'm starting a project to read down my many unread biographies and memoirs. I didn’t know who she was but will read just about any memoir that looks interesting and I enjoyed this. She was an editor and one of the directors of the London-based publishing company Andre Deutsch Ltd., and has written short stories and other memoirs.
In this book she writes about her family and the privilege in which she grew up, with an awareness of how lucky she was both to be unaware of poverty till her family's fortunes changed (and it was genteel poverty at that) and to have had happy memories of time spent at her grandparent's estate with family and later at Oxford. She fell deeply in love with a young man who she grew up with, and they were engaged. He went off to war, then his letters trailed off and she didn’t hear from him for two years, when he wrote asking her to let him out of their engagement because he wanted to marry someone else. She writes well about the misery of this time, and how she eventually came out of it. It took her a while to discover that she could be happy with her life, too.
She writes with a self-knowledge that I found fascinating. For instance, she loathed the war and says she felt almost an indifference to how it would end, because both English and Ger-man humans had been capable of making it happen. So she decided she wouldn’t do war work in any form unless forced. She says:
“This refusal to take any part not forced on me seems to me now an unmistakable measure of smallness of spirit. To remain detached from the history of one’s time, however insane its course, is fruitless even on the private level, since only by living what is happening (whether by joining it or by actively opposing it) can the individual apprehend its truth.... There can be no separateness from the guilt of belonging to the human species – not unless the individual withdraws into a complete vacuum and disclaims participation in the glories as well. There are two honest courses when war strikes: either to make some futile but positive gesture against it and suffer the consequenc-es, or to live it – not in acceptance of its values, but in acceptance of the realities of the human condition. I did neither, and I have no doubt that I was wrong.”
After the war she and her friend Andre Deutsch formed Allan Wingate publishing, then Andre Deutsch. They worked with some major writers of the 20th century and she had close relationships with many of them. Truly a fascinating life. This memoir is from 1963. Born in 1917, she’s still alive, and another of her memoirs came out in January of this year!
So then I read stet, also by her: Another memoir, this one from 2000, about her life in publishing and editing. She mentions the pleasures of learning a subject by editing the work of a writer who’s passionate about it.
Here she is talking about book buyers:
"People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books, are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can foresee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers' headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting."
After a man who bought the company sold its archive, she says:
"It was sentimentality to feel the loss of that intractable mountain of old files so keenly – we had kept copies of essential matter such as contracts, and never suffered in any practical way from the absence of the rest; but it did, all the same, give me a most uncomfortable feeling. A publishing house without its archive – there was something shoddy about it, like a bungalow without a damp course." [British for foundation insulation.]
If reading these two was an attempt to get rid of books, it was a dismal failure because I just ordered several more of her books. In the second half of this one she's talking about writers with whom she worked, and is making me want to read all of them. One is Jean Rhys, who I’ve never read, but I have Wide Sargasso Sea around here; maybe I'll get to it.
I'm also reading Discovering Scarfold, by Richard Littler, which is a weird parody/horror/not sure thing about an English village stuck in the 1970s.
Also Demonstrations of Physical Signs in Clinical Surgery by Hamilton Bailey. I got the 1948 edition at an estate sale, because of the illustrations. It's a textbook for doctors describing all kinds of diagnostic methods for things like fractures, lumps, swelling, etc and it is fascinating. What makes it weird is that it's profusely illustrated with photos and all the patients' faces are shown, without their eyes blocked out. So you have these pictures of a motherly old lady smiling at you, illustrating carcinoma of the breast.