As the Baby Boom generation drifts slowly westward into the sunset, I think the next decade will see the rise of a niche genre in publishing – the memoir of aging. A class I’ve been teaching at the local comunity college, the Acquired Wisdom Book Club (note the marketing spin on that title), has been reading three of these memoirs: Carolyn Heilbron’s The Last Gift of Time, Ram Dass’s Still Here, and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End.
Based on this little sample, I’ve identified certain obligatory topics for the genre: one’s attitude toward death and its cousins, the act of dying and religion; caring for other old people in the form of relatives, friends, spouses, and longtime companions; maintaining relationships with the young; learning to give up one’s pleasurable activities, including quite possibly sex; and the psychological compensations, regrets, and epiphanies that arise in that country that is not for old men nor old women either. Hardly a cheering prospect. But a good writer can spin tribulations into art. Who’s the best of the three memoirists in our little course?
For my money there’s no doubt abut the prizewinner, Diana Athill, a British book editor who wrote her memoir at 89. She’s lived quite a life. Born in 1917, Athill worked for the BBC in World War II and saw her fiancee killed in that war. She had a a 40-year career at a small British publishing firm, editing the likes of Jean Rhys, John Updike, V.S. Naipaul, Elias Canetti, and Margaret Atwood. In the romantic sphere, Athill never married or had children, but, as she puts it, often served as “the other women” and was well suited to that role. She found her voice as a writer at 43, when she published her memoir of her failed engagement, Instead of a Letter, which became an early feminist text.
What makes Athill’s memoir a model of the aging genre?
Above all, her inimitable, authentic voice – that is , her sensibility. Athill is a brisk, common sensical Brit with an eye for the ironic moment and minimal tolerance for cant. Here, for example, is her take on death as filtered through the persona of Elias Canetti, a heavyweight intellectual she knew, who was fond of saying that he would refuse to die: “To me it was plain silly. It is so obvious life works in terms of species rather than of individuals.”And later in the book she ponders her own end in these words: “Whatever happens, I will get through it somehow, so why fuss?”
She is more concerned about one’s last days trapped in a fatal illness than about death itself, and she examines the final moments of various of her relatives for clues. Note the antic way she presents the death of an uncle, in a sentence whose rhythms nicely mirror its content:
…and their brother, a lucky man whose luck held to the very end, was on his horse at a meet of the Norwich Stag-hounds at the age of eighty-two, talking with friends, when flop! and he fell off his horse stone dead in the middle of a laugh. The eldest of my cousins had similar luck, falling down dead as she was making a cup of tea.
Athill is also unflinchingly frank in examining her own life – to the point where she accuses herself of “smugness.” And here she is on caring for a very sick ex-lover whose wife she has become in all but legal status:
Our life went back to being, in about equal parts, both sad and boring….One doesn’t in these stuations make a choice between alternatives because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. Perhaps a wonderfully unselfish person (and they do exist) gets satisfaction from making a good job of it. If you are a selfish one, you manage by contriving as many escapes and compensations as you can while still staying on the job. It is not an admirable solution, but I don’t suppose I am the only person to resort to it.
Reading Athill’s memoir often seems like sitting for tea and cakes with a wonderfully rambling raconteur. She skips from subject to subject in seemingly stream-of-consciousness fashion – one chapter moves from the end of sex to atheism to religious art to children’s books – but there is a literary structure embedded in her prose. Motifs appear and reappear later in new forms.
The book begins with Athill mentioning two regrets about being 89 – she no longer feels it would be right to acquire a puppy and she wonders about buying a tree fern because she’ll never see the tiny plant grow into a tree. The book ends with revelation that she has bought a tree fern:
it now has nine fronds about twelve inches long, and within a few days of each fron unfurling to its full length, a little nub of green appears in the fuzzy top of the “trunk” (out of which all fronds spout and into which you have to pour water). This little nub is the start of a new frond, which grows very slowly to begin with but faster towards the end – so much faster that you can almost see it moving. 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.
In recent years an industry of books, courses, and writing coaches have sprung up to help people write their memoirs. One of the standard pieces of advice is, Determine the climactic moment of your life up front and write your story as a lead-in to that event. Not an easy task, but not bad advice either for a beginner. It takes a writer of talent like Diana Athill, however, to inutit that writing about a real tree fern with precision is a grand ending for an aging memoir.
If you’d like to see Diana Athill chatting in the flesh, try this five-minute BBC video interview with her at age 91.