Book Reviews Non-Fiction
Somewhere Toward The End
By AlidŽ Kohlhaas
Just how vulnerable we feel about death depends not just on age, but also on life experiences. If by chance the possibility of an imminent death of someone close suddenly intrudes itself into our lives, it will alter our ideas. How I view Diana Athill's book, Somewhere towards the End, may well differ from a week ago, when I had no idea of some painful news suddenly received. Athill, at 89 (she is now in her 91st year), has produced a remarkable little book about facing the inevitable end, which for her is far more immanent than it should be for someone considerably younger, and in this case far closer to me than the author. The book, however, is not one to give solace, nor will it guide anyone into accepting the declining years. It is exceptional because it comes from the pen of a strikingly unique individual, who at the same time seems highly ordinary.
Like Athill, my relation professes to being an atheist. Just what that means to either of them, I am not sure. I guess, I am closer to John Updike's thoughts, whom Athill quotes as having written, "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ambiguity, the ingenuity, the humanity (in the Harvard sense) of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?"
Yes, people have misused religion by using it as an excuse to execute terrible things, but this does not in itself make belief in God impossible. Is the Bible a collection of 'fairy stories' as Athill states, or are they stories created and recreated over eons through telling and retelling that are meant to give us guidance in life? Are they divinely inspired or only human tales? We'll never know, but that is where faith comes into the picture, however irrational that may seem to Athill.
But, Athill's book is not just about her atheism. It is about far more than that. It is an attempted lesson about life itself, how to live it, and how not to live it. She is remarkably frank about her sex life and leaves no doubt that she accepts the consequences of her lifestyle, even if there are moments when doubts creep in. These she very quickly pushes aside, perhaps showing unintentionally her English stiff upper-lip. She also leaves us with a few profound observations about art.
This highly influential editor of some of our greatest writers in the 20th century has lived the kind of life that is now defined by the phrase, 'sexual revolution'. She lived it long before the Boomers were even so much as a twinkle in their parents' eyes. Her independent lifestyle dates back to before it became fashionable for women to have careers. Not that she needed to make a living. She came from a pampered upper-middle class English background and could easily have slipped into marriage and motherhood. But, she quite deliberately chose not to follow this course after one painful rejection. For her that seems to be alright, but it leaves this reader wondering about Athill's fiber, if one may call it that. Had we all given up after one rejection, none of us would have married, which seems a sad thought.
Athill did not form a lasting relationship until well into her 40s. She and the playwright Barry Reckord, her long-time companion, drifted away from being lovers decades ago, yet have continued to room together in her flat. Throughout their relationship there had been indiscretions on both sides, but neither holds it against the other. She admits that being his mistress had freed her of the responsibilities of being a wife. Then when his marriage finally broke up, and he moved in with her, they developed a lifestyle that left each to follow separate ways when wanted.
That is until now. Irony creeps into her story because in her old age, she finds herself fulfilling those wifely duties as she nurses Reckord. He suffers from diabetes, and its resulting heart damage, which has caused her to slip into being his servant. I use that word because Reckord has refused to pay attention to his illness and so is the author of his own disability. He now selfishly burdens Athill, who is his elder by eight years, with the care giver role, which she accepts without objection. "He no longer ever volunteers conversation, and responds to other people's attempts with monosyllables," she writes. "Days and days go by without his saying anything to me but 'What are we having for supper?' and 'Will you take me to the library?'" One cannot help but feel that somewhere along the decades, Reckord used Athill, the more financilly stablethough by no means well offóof the two, and she, as she admits in regard to other events, was just too 'lazy' to make changes.
When Athill writes about her idea of what is good visual art, she finds that artists express their deepest meanings in drawings, something to which one can wholeheartedly agree. In her reading she now finds solace in mostly dead writers, having lost interest in new novels, and admits "I have gained much more from many non-fiction books . . . ." This from an editor of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Updike, Mordecai Richler, and V.S. Naipaul among many others.
It cannot be denied that the book is beautifully written, as one expects of her, offers images of old age we might not necessarily like to see, and yet, after completing Somewhere towards the End, I felt empty. It seemed to me that Athill has given us far too rational a book, one that avoids the real subject, namely The End. After reading her book I contemplated that I might have missed something in her writing; I am now convinced that I did not. After learning of the impending end of that someone related to me I can see that she, like him, has played the game of avoidance all her life, if this book is any indication. Both simply never resisted when they should have, giving in where they should not have, and fought against the stream when life told them to go with the flow as if to thumb their noses at society.
Stasiland - True Stories from behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder, has been moved to Archives
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