Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir

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Overview

Winner of the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography and a New York Times bestseller: a prize-winning, critically acclaimed memoir on life and aging —“An honest joy to read” (Alice Munro).
Hailed as “a virtuoso exercise” (Sunday Telegraph), this book reflects candidly, sometimes with great humor, on the condition of being old. Charming readers, writers, and critics alike, the memoir won the Costa Award for Biography and made ...

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Overview

Winner of the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography and a New York Times bestseller: a prize-winning, critically acclaimed memoir on life and aging —“An honest joy to read” (Alice Munro).
Hailed as “a virtuoso exercise” (Sunday Telegraph), this book reflects candidly, sometimes with great humor, on the condition of being old. Charming readers, writers, and critics alike, the memoir won the Costa Award for Biography and made Athill, now ninety-one, a surprising literary star.
Diana Athill is one of the great editors in British publishing. For more than five decades she edited the likes of V. S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, for whom she was a confidante and caretaker. As a writer, Athill has made her reputation for the frankness and precisely expressed wisdom of her memoirs. Now in her ninety-first year, "entirely untamed about both old and new conventions" (Literary Review) and freed from any of the inhibitions that even she may have once had, Athill reflects candidly, and sometimes with great humor, on the condition of being old—the losses and occasionally the gains that age brings, the wisdom and fortitude required to face death. Distinguished by "remarkable intelligence...[and the] easy elegance of her prose" (Daily Telegraph), this short, well-crafted book, hailed as "a virtuoso exercise" (Sunday Telegraph) presents an inspiring work for those hoping to flourish in their later years.

2009 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner- Memoir/Autobiography!

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Editorial Reviews

Emma Jacobs - Financial Times
“Life, not death, is her preoccupation…Reflections on old age, rather than on a long life lived are rare…It is rarer still for a woman to write such a book: so Athill’s candor and economic prose on religion, regrets, and sex are invigorating.”
N. Heller McAlpin - San Francisco Chronicle
“There is something terrifically comforting about a nonagenarian writing with clarity, wit and verve about getting old and facing death. . . . [Athill] evokes another grande dame of British letters in her uninhibited lifestyle and no-holds-barred, clarion voice: last year’s Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing.”
Michael Dirda - Washington Post Book World
“Unusually appealing. . . . To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well.”
Susan Salter Reynolds - Los Angeles Times
“A great gift. . . . This is a warm, inspiring book.”
Dwight Garner - The New York Times
“Welcome and original.”
Erica Jong - The New York Times Book Review
“She writes as a person of wide-ranging learning, a generalist, a lover of men and animals and a garden enthusiast, a person intoxicated with life.”
People
“Bracingly frank…joyful rather than grim… she offers clear-eyed wisdom of the grandma-you-wish-you’d-had variety.”
Laura Miller - Salon
“To paraphrase Shakespeare, wisdom is bred in neither the heart nor the head, but in the bones that carry us through the decades. A few very talented artists, like Diana Athill, may persuade their old bones to yield up a glimpse or two of what they’ve learned.”
Carole Angier - Literary Review
“Jean Rhys said that literature was a lake, and what mattered was to contribute to it, even if only a trickle. She contributed a narrow boiling river. Diana Athill has contributed a cool clear burn.”
Barbara Fisher - Boston Globe
“Athill writes…with clarity, calm, and common sense.”
San Francisco Chronicle
There is something terrifically comforting about a nonagenarian writing with clarity, wit and verve about getting old and facing death. . . . [Athill] evokes another grande dame of British letters in her uninhibited lifestyle and no-holds-barred, clarion voice: last year’s Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing.— N. Heller McAlpin
Los Angeles Times
A great gift. . . . This is a warm, inspiring book.— Susan Salter Reynolds
The Costa Award Judges
“A perfect memoir of old age—candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and above all, beautifully, beautifully written.”
The New York Times
Welcome and original.— Dwight Garner
The New York Times Book Review
She writes as a person of wide-ranging learning, a generalist, a lover of men and animals and a garden enthusiast, a person intoxicated with life.— Erica Jong
People
Bracingly frank…joyful rather than grim… she offers clear-eyed wisdom of the grandma-you-wish-you’d-had variety.
Salon
To paraphrase Shakespeare, wisdom is bred in neither the heart nor the head, but in the bones that carry us through the decades. A few very talented artists, like Diana Athill, may persuade their old bones to yield up a glimpse or two of what they’ve learned.— Laura Miller
Literary Review
Jean Rhys said that literature was a lake, and what mattered was to contribute to it, even if only a trickle. She contributed a narrow boiling river. Diana Athill has contributed a cool clear burn.— Carole Angier
Boston Globe
Athill writes…with clarity, calm, and common sense.— Barbara Fisher
Washington Post Book World
Unusually appealing. . . . To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well.— Michael Dirda
The New Yorker
“A spry dispatch on the condition of being elderly.”
Financial Times
Life, not death, is her preoccupation…Reflections on old age, rather than on a long life lived are rare…It is rarer still for a woman to write such a book: so Athill’s candor and economic prose on religion, regrets, and sex are invigorating.— Emma Jacobs
Michael Dirda
To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well…A refusal to sugar-coat and a commitment to utter frankness, coupled with an engaging style, make Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End unusually appealing, despite its inherently cheerless subject.
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
Ms. Athill's book is welcome and original because she is such a robust, free-thinking, nonmawkish presence on the page. She catalogs the indignities of old age while reminding us how much joy can be sucked out of a physically diminished life, joy that often comes from unexpected places…We are all amassing big stakes in our own ends, and Ms. Athill's frankness and good cheer in the face of that fact are comforting. Still, she hopes her own disappearance from this planet "does not come too soon." Anyone who's read her will be in complete agreement.
—The New York Times
Erica Jong
[Athill's] memoir is captivating because of her fearlessness of death, her sense that death is another adventure in her adventurous life.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

When it comes to facing old age, writes Athill, "there are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer." As the acclaimed British memoirist (who wrote about her experiences as a book editor in Stet) pushes past 90, she realizes that "there is not much on record on falling away" and resolves to set down some of her observations. She is bluntly unconcerned with conventional wisdom, unapologetically recounting her extended role as "the Other Woman" in her companion's prior marriage-then explaining how he didn't move in with her until after they'd stopped having sex, which is why it was no big deal for her to invite his next mistress to move in with them to save expenses. She is equally frank in discussing how, as their life turns "sad and boring," she copes with his declining health, just as she cared for her mother in her final years. Firmly resolute that no afterlife awaits her, Athill finds just enough optimism in this world to keep her reflections from slipping into morbidity-she may not offer much comfort, but it's a bracing read. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Daily Mail
[A] little literary gem, penned by a marvelous, feisty old character whom, quite honestly, I’d just love to have as my grandmother…What a treasure.— Val Hennessy
The Irish Times
An astute editor, she writes with precision and clarity, using one word to convey an idea that a lesser writer might expand into a paragraph….[Athill is] an enlightened woman.— Mary Russell
Alice Munro
“An honest joy to read.”
Ann Hood
“With the wisdom of nine decades, Diana Athill gives us a memoir that faces aging unflinchingly. From the end of sexual desire to her thoughts and fears on dying and God, Athill deals with growing old with bravery, humor and honesty. What a woman! What a life! What a gorgeous book!”
Val Hennessy - Daily Mail
“[A] little literary gem, penned by a marvelous, feisty old character whom, quite honestly, I’d just love to have as my grandmother…What a treasure.”
Mary Russell - The Irish Times
“An astute editor, she writes with precision and clarity, using one word to convey an idea that a lesser writer might expand into a paragraph….[Athill is] an enlightened woman.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
The old write to us from the past in language that seems to be clearer, less cluttered than our own. Think of V. S. Pritchett or Penelope Fitzgerald in their 80s, Patrick Leigh Fermor or P. G. Wodehouse nearing their 90s, all models still of accuracy and economy on the page. We should credit not their years, perhaps, but their time. Such writers inhabited a pre-electronic era when words were carefully expended and sentences retained a classical elegance. The opening of Wodehouse's 1935 novel The Luck of the Bodkins is a famous example: "Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French."

And here is Diana Athill, in her new memoir Somewhere Towards the End, recalling the Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti: "He had a central European's respect for the construction of abstract systems of thought about the inexplicable, which is uncongenial to many English minds, and which caused him to overvalue his own notions to the extent of publishing two volumes of aphorisms." In one sentence, we have an immediate perception of Canetti's ego and his world, of British intellectual habits and of Athill's cool eye.

Such graceful compression, along with Athill's wit and honesty, make this slim memoir of her 91 years and her reflections on old age and death seem like an afternoon of easy conversation. Beneath this effortless, chatty style, however, lie decades of training. For over 50 years, Diana Athill was one of the 20th century's most respected book editors. Working with her friend and colleague Andre Deutsch, whose firm was the first to publish V. S. Naipaul, Mordecai Richler, and Brian Moore, among others, Athill edited John Updike, Stevie Smith, Margaret Atwood, and the like. She described that time in her previous memoir, Stet, and her childhood in the sweet recollection Yesterday Morning, the latter written when she was 85. There are echoes of both books here, but Somewhere Towards the End -- being about the end -- is necessarily more distilled. The novelist Jean Rhys, for example, materializes briefly but vividly when Athill recalls a phrase that Rhys used "usually about being drunk: 'I was a bit drunk, well very.' She never said 'I was a bit sad, well very' about being old, but no doubt she would have done if she had not hated and feared it too much to speak of it."

Athill, at least on the page, neither hates nor fears being old. Frustrated often by the daily reality of decline and saddened by the prospect of leaving a beloved life, she is, above all, practical. Never smug and never inspirational ("Perish the thought," you hear her say) she begins her memoir with the mild disappointment of ordering a tree fern for her garden, receiving a tiny seedling, and realizing that she will never see it grow to maturity. In the book's postscript, however, she concludes "I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying." She leaves the reader to supply the echo: "It was worth living." It clearly was and still is.

Born in 1917, Athill grew up on her grandmother's country estate in Norfolk (her father, a British Army colonel, was often away, and her mother had strayed romantically). At five, she fell in love with the gardener's son. "I doubt whether I ever spoke to Denis, but I did, with great daring, spit on his head out of the lavatory window." It was the first of many attachments, the most painful, perhaps, being an early engagement, abruptly ended by Athill's fiancé. "[I]t was not until Paul jilted me that I saw that women, too, could be cheered up by sex without love," she writes, breezily describing some wartime and postwar affairs. When Athill was 44 she met the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckford; the two became lovers and then lifetime companions, Athill's patience being tested not by his affairs (she, too, indulged) but by his deteriorating health. Yet even their shared journey through an often Kafkaesque medical world is described with refreshing candor: "And my word, the difference ?225 can make!" Athill observes when Reckford pays to see a private consultant.

Vivid and affecting descriptions of sickness and death -- chiefly the death of her mother -- occur toward the end of the book, but they are not its culmination. This memoir meanders, in the best possible sense, and we happily follow its graceful digressions. Recollections of love, sex, and waning sexual appetite spark thoughts on religion and atheism. These, in turn, prompt musings on bed and sleep when Athill reports that Anthony Burgess, in his introduction to a book on beds that she edited, "...said he loathed them because he was afraid of going to sleep and needed to outwit his fear by letting sleep catch him unexpectedly in a chair or on the floor." Athill the atheist, by contrast, adores her bed: "From which it may correctly be deduced that I myself have never been enough troubled by [death] to want to envisage an afterlife." The prospect of immortality is, we suspect, not only too fanciful but too grandiose for this sensible woman, who regards our doomed species as "differing from the dinosaurs only in contributing a good deal more than they did to our own fate."

As an editor and as a friend to artists, Athill encountered some monumental egos. Indeed, as a child of the British Empire, she was born into a monumental ego, that of the ruling class. But this "tribal smugness" was tempered, in her view, by three rules: "...one was supposed not to be a coward, not to tell lies, and above all not to be vain and boastful." And not, presumably, to write a confessional memoir. Athill is regarded as a pioneer of this somewhat debased genre, yet here, once again, she elevates it with deceptive ease. "I can speak only for, and to, the lucky," she cautions when describing her late-life consolations -- friendship, books, art, music, her garden -- and the largely merciful deaths that she has witnessed. Examining not her conscience but her character, she regrets chiefly "a stubborn nub of selfishness somewhere in the middle which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one's whole self," and "whenever having had the guts to escape the narrowness of my life." That last description rings false, only because Athill has convinced us too well of the opposite. --Anna Mundow

Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and the "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Irish Times.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393338003
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/7/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 234,092
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Diana Athill’s New York Times bestseller, Somewhere Towards the End, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of several memoirs, including Instead of a Letter and After a Funeral, Athill lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

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( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 11, 2009

    Wonderful Vocabulary & well written

    A review of this book would definately depend on the age of the reader. Those over 55yr would relate & completely understand some the writers references, but younger readers may only feel compassion for the aging woman. Either way it is well written & you often forget the age of the author. I liked her personality and hope I am that literate at her age!!

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Magnificently Wise Memoir

    A Magnificently Wise Memoir

    I cannot presume to review the ultimate reviewer. It is with deep humility that I offer only a personal recommendation on this magnificently wise memoir.

    Diana Athill writes her memoir with brutal candor, brevity and poise about the inevitable, a destiny reserved for everyone. Her prose, lyrical and sanguine, fashioned upon the editorial anvil that has polished the likes of V.S. Naipaul, thwarts all sentimentality and romanticist propensities. She paints her trials and tribulations of aging into a mirror, in which we see ourselves.

    It is a catharsis on her sexuality with impish admissions, and the acceptance of sexual dissolution as she travels past the point of no return in her late middle-age. Writing about utterly personal experiences is a sign of comfort with self; particularly, all those weaknesses that the rest of us spend our life trying to keep in the closet. Here in this book, she expounds on the virtue of acceptance of these foibles that we all possess and live fulfilling lives. The book is replete with nuggets of wisdom on various experiences from sexuality, caring for others and their medical maladies, parents' mortality, independence and driving, creative work, having no children to gardening distractions, and most of all, the morality of living.

    Memoir is a favorite format of mine, especially in the first person. A deft writer like Ms. Athill can open the doors and give us a privileged peek into the labyrinths of her personality and her life. The murky depths of personal experiences of others often reflect our own ironies and offer a comforting affirmation and corroboration of the path we all will follow. Here the author, a lifelong editor of manuscripts and purveyor of proper usage, illustrates her insecurities and inadequacies in an earnest, unadorned and unpretentious prose, interestingly rendering herself strong and content, ready for the last station in life. It is a poignant, yet joyous read in celebration of what we are, and not what we aught to be. I recommend this wonderfully enlightening memoir with utter sincerity.

    Raju Peddada

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2009

    Horrid

    Absolutely scattered and full of uninteresting chapters in the author's life. I bought this book on the basis of a review. I will definately make sure that person's opinion does not influence me again. I've stuck out some bad books, but this one lost me half way through. It won't be joining my library.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2009

    Not worth the money

    This book was given a very positive review in People magazine. It was purchased based on the positive review; however, the person who review the book must have read only the first six pages. I wouldn't spend the money on the book--get it from a library if you want it read it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    Dull reading

    At age 80 I tried my best to read on but I gave up about half way thru.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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