Book Review: Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir by Diana Athill

I decided to read this memoir because I am getting old. In a couple of years I’ll reach seventy. Although I can still walk miles a day and do my customary pull-ups, pushups, and power yoga when I exercise, my hips, knees, and shoulders ache more than they used to, and I feel tired almost all the time. There is no getting around the inevitable decay and death. So I thought that I would read what another writer had to say about it.

Diana Athill recently died at the age of one hundred and one. She wrote Somewhere Towards the End when she was almost ninety. For most of her life she was a publisher and editor, dealing with some of the world’s most famous authors, and then late in life she turned to writing. She had numerous affairs and eventually lived for decades in London with a Jamaican playwright, but she never married or had children. When I picked up the book I hadn’t realized she was British, but her English manners come out in a certain elegance of speech, such as using the word “one” when referring to herself as an example of people in general.

The book is comprised of more or less an equal amount of reminiscences and observations. She sets the tone in the beginning of the introduction by reflecting on a woman in a park walking some dogs she sees while gazing out her window. She considers that she would love to enjoy a new puppy but she doesn’t want to obtain one and then die while it is dependent on her. She then describes a tree fern she ordered through a catalog; it has the potential to grow into a mature tree, but it came as a few tiny leaves protruding from some soil, and she is concerned that she will never be able to see it as a full plant. (At the end of the book in a postscript, Athill notes that watching the tree fern grow even in its early stages is worth the purchase.) These two thoughts have to do with considerations of time. Old people become aware of something that the young are unable to grasp: that our time on this Earth is limited; that we will die just as everyone in the past that has ever been born has died. In the meantime, old people have to deal more and more with the inevitable deterioration.

Early on in the book, Athill devotes a chapter to the various affairs she has had throughout her life. She points out that she has never had a predilection for marriage or motherhood, but on one occasion, when she was in her forties, she got pregnant and decided to keep the child; she had a harrowing miscarriage during which she lost a lot of blood and almost died. In fact, she woke up in the hospital when it was over and was surprised that she was still alive.

Another early chapter deals with old people caring for their even older ailing parents. I did not find this chapter easy reading. It reminded me of my father, who hung on in a nursing home through advanced Alzheimer’s until he was ninety. At the end, my siblings and I were relieved for his sake when he died, because there was not much of him left.

In picking up this book, though, I had not been looking for dreary stories of deterioration and decay but for encouragement. That’s why for me the book picks up in the second half; that’s when Athill gets to the good stuff: namely, the activities she enjoys in her old age.

First of all, she likes being around young people. She didn’t have children of her own, but she had nieces and nephews and children of friends, which she describes as mirrors and inspiration. She also enjoyed taking up activities such as drawing, painting, and gardening. She writes of the value of driving for old people, although she tempers this with observations concerning at what point, due to deteriorating senses, they have to be willing to give up the wheel. She describes giving care to other older loved ones such as spouses, or in her case, her former lover and roommate for decades, the playwright Barry Reckord. He was younger than her but became terminally ill and died sooner.

Athill devotes a chapter to reading, which was one of her dearest pleasures in old age. As she got older, she lost interest in contemporary novels and read mostly nonfiction, and also reread classic books that she used to read when she was young. Her greatest pleasure in old age, though, was writing. She devoted her youth and strength to publishing and editing, but then she discovered that she was a writer as well, and this gave her intense pleasure and solace late in life.

All in all, I would say that I enjoyed this book, but as I mentioned, I liked the second half much more than the first, mainly because it was less morbid and more consoling and inspiring.

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