Diana Athill, Full of Desire Until the Very End

Diana Athill’s memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, was published in 2008 when she was ninety-one years old and anticipating just a few more years of living. But Athill lived a decade more, dying last week in London at the age of 101. She had, in fact, been nowhere near the end, but instead she lived many seasons more of new experiences, unexpected wonder, and ample opportunities to write.

photo: Eve Vermandel

Athill was a literary editor for years before she turned to writing fiction and a series of memoirs. She edited Philip Roth, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, and V.S. Naipaul, among others. It is thanks to Athill that Jean Rhys was able to complete and then publish the amazing (one of my favorite books ever), Wide Sargasso Sea.

And yet instead of focusing on her wide and varied career as both editor and writer, obituaries published after Athill’s death present a portrait of a woman obsessed with her wide and varied sex life; who suffered a waning of those sexual appetites as she grew older; but who found a kind of peace, even in the impotence of old age.

I only know Diana Athill through reading her many memoirs but the woman I met through those books was completely different from the woman portrayed in obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic. For me, there was nothing unusual or notable about Athill’s sexuality. She liked to have sex, she enjoyed many partners: why is that a big deal? Her sexuality, while vital and healthy, was hardly the most interesting aspect of her life.

Instead, what is so memorable about Athill is the extent of her engagement, from childhood through the very end, with life. She remained curious and excited about what every new day might bring for close to a century of living. Instead of being “about the waning of desire,” as the New York Times obituary described it Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, that memoir (and indeed all her memoirs) is about the persistence of desire, even as the objects of desire changed throughout her life. For Athill, desire was about being aware and engaged with people and places, and it was her lasting, unquenchable desire to live so fully in the moment, every moment, that makes her such a fascinating — and inspiring — writer to read.

I first read Somewhere Towards the End during my year of reading a book a day. I loved her memoir so much that I read it again on the day after I completed my year of reading. I then read her other memoirs, including Instead of a Letter and After a Funeral.

Diana Athill as I knew her was a woman who appreciated everything that life offered her; she took nothing for granted, but noticed and appreciated all sorts of joys, all kinds of people, and all manner of adventures. She took chances, made mistakes, picked herself up, and kept going not out of sheer grit but out of sheer love of living.

Athill was full of desire, yes, but not just for sexual adventures. She was full of desire for living, and for that, she is a hero of mine. Diana Athill should be celebrated and remembered not for the men she slept with but for how fully awake she was, during every season of her wonderful life.