The interview with the legendary 93-year-old literary editor, memoirist and fiction writer Diana Athill conducted by Jeremy Lewis last Sunday at the first-ever Soho Literary Festival , and billed as 'Diana Athill's Pleasures and Perils', was a memorable and at times hilarious event. Lewis has known Diana since the late 1960s when he went to work at the publisher André Deutsch as a very junior editor; she was already renowned as one of the great editors of London. He remembered the Hungarian André Deutsch as a lovable and wonderful man, but at the same time as highly volatile and rather alarming. Athill was a "haven of peace and calm" in the Deutsch empire.
Athill is the author of six acclaimed volumes of memoir, plus the compendium Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill (Granta Books, 2009. She has also had success with fiction writing; in 1958, a year in which she wrote a flurry of short stories, she won the Sunday newspaper the Observer's Short Story Prize: "That was perhaps the happiest moment of my life, but it didn't make me think I could do anything with my stories," she told Lewis. A short-story collection An Unavoidable Delay appeared in 1962 and a novel, Don't Look at me Like That in 1967.
After the interview Athill signed copies of her latest publication Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend (Granta Books; the title is a play on the title of her first book of memoir, Instead of a Letter) which contains her letters to the American poet Edward Field written over a period of 30 years. The Daily Telegraph published an extract last week.
Jeremy Lewis has flitted between being a publisher, literary agent, reviewer and biographer and has written three volumes of autobiography. He is currently the commissioning editor of The Oldie magazine (edited by former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams), which presented the Soho Festival - although Lewis jokes that his job title is a sort of contradiction in terms as the Oldie doesn't actually commission articles.
Lewis's discussion with Athill was rich in reminiscences and anecdotes. She came from a very bookish family, with books everywhere, and was from an early age "tremendously hung up on books". As she grew up she imagined the best thing in the world to work in would be something to do with books "but it seemed, in the depths of Norfolk where I lived, impossible" to be say a writer or publisher. But she did think it would be nice to perhaps be a librarian.
Lewis asked whether like him she had drifted into publishing, or whether she had thought it was something she should do. "Pure chance" she said. She was working in "a very humble part of the BBC, never anywhere near a microphone" when at a party she met a little Hungarian man called André Deutsch who had been interned on the Isle of Man and was working for a publisher. He sat on the floor and caught her attention because he kept singing The Foggy Foggy Dew. "We got to know each other and we had a little affair". He told her he was going to become a publisher and asked if she would like to join him in his venture.
He founded first Allan Wingate, and later André Deutsch in the face of constant financial difficulties. Athill recalled the stink kicked up by the editor of the Sunday Times when Deutsch published Norman Mailer's first novel The Naked and the Dead. Mailer's language reflected that of soldiers fighting in Korea; in America it had been published with the word "fuck" replaced by "fug" all the way through. Even with this change to Mailer's text, no British publisher would touch the book- except for the young and impetuous André Deutsch. "We wanted in fact to restore 'fuck'" Athill told Lewis. Even with "fug" their publication of the book ran into trouble. The Sunday Times editor happened to pick up a review copy in the office of the newspaper's literary editor. He was outraged by it, and in an article on the front page of his newspaper denounced the publication of a book so vile that "no decent man could leave it where his women or children might happen to see it." Deutsch were served with an injunction against publication, but the Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross gave permission for publication.
She spoke of how her first volume of memoir Instead of a Letter (1963) was written out of a sadness in her past, which had left her with a sense of failure. "When that book was published - had finished being written, really - all that sadness vanished completely". She added: "I concluded from that that I wasn't a professional writer but I needed something horrible to happen to me and then I would write a book, to make it better."
After that "two nasty things happened, not to me but things that I knew about, and closely enough to be haunted by. I dealt with them, so to speak, by writing about them". One was the suicide (in her flat) of her Egyptian friend the writer Waguih Ghali (which she wrote about in After a Funeral,1986). The other concerned "that mad man" the African-American activist and writer Hakim Jamal, whose British girlfriend Gale Benson was murdered in Trinidad and who is the subject of Make Believe: A True Story (1993). She put the manuscripts of both books in a drawer and they weren't published until years later.
Later on "I realised bit by bit that I was able to write for fun, not just as a therapeutic exercise." She wrote Stet: A Memoir (2000) about her nearly five decades as editor of some of the most celebrated books in modern English-language fiction. The roll call of authors with whom she worked includes Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Elizabeth David, Gitta Sereny, John Updike and Mordecai Richler. She famously fell out with V S Naipaul. Earlier this year she laughed off his telling an interviewer that she writes "feminine tosh" .
Stet was followed by Yesterday Morning: a very English childhood (2002) and Somewhere Towards the End (2008), which won the Costa Biography Award.
Lewis observed that she is in danger of becoming a national treasure, and asked how she felt about suddenly becoming so famous, having been a "behind the scenes" person for most of her working life. She said "well, it is very very rum, it is odd, it's also rather funny". But she enjoys it: "I even enjoy this sort of thing" she said smiling at the audience. "It is much better than sitting at home in my old persons home where I now live and twiddling one's thumbs."
Lewis said: "One of the interesting things about you Diana is that you write very well about old age and you also write a lot about sex. I always thought of you in the old days as a very English woman - I was perhaps surprised at your being so..."
"I lived a secret life" she interjected. "I'd been brought up by a very respectable family and done all the things they wouldn't have approved of. I'd become an agnostic, voted Labour and gone to bed with people I wasn't married to. So I didn't make any fuss about it, I rather went underground. That was cowardly I think but on the other hand it made life easier."
Lewis reminded Athill that he had once asked her on the phone what she thought André Deutsch would make of her great success. Athill said: "I thought for a bit, and I said 'I think he would have taken credit for it.'"
At the question and answer session after the interview Athill was asked about her letters to Edward Field in her new book. She explained he was a very old friend of someone she had published, the American writer Alfred Chester (whose books include The Exquisite Corpse). She and Edward thought he was a brilliant writer, but "poor Alfred was so mad that in the end he went to Israel and he died" in 1971.
Chester had for a short time been very famous and Edward was trying to restore his reputation in New York. Edward knew Athill had been his publisher and wrote to ask if she had any letters or interesting information about Alfred that she could give him. She wrote back and thus their three-decade correspondence began. He came to London with Neil, his partner, soon afterwards "and the day we met it was very strange, lovely really, we knew at once that we were friends." They corresponded "because we had so much to say to each other".
There has been a resurgence of interest in the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali since the republication of Beer in the Snooker Club in December 2010 by Serpent's Tail, with an introduction by Athill. In addition, the publication of the novel in Arabic translation drew him to attention in the Arab world. Asked whether Ghali had been working on a second novel at the time of his death, and whether she might wrote more about him, Athill said he never wrote anything else after Beer in the Snooker Club. "I said everything I had to say about him in that book [After a Funeral] and there is nothing more I could say."
Asked who her favourites among her own authors were, Athill said "as a person, probably the person I liked best was Molly Keane, the Irish novelist. A lovely person, I loved her dearly. And I was very very fond of Mordecai Richler, such a nice man, absolutely unchanged by success, he really went on being himself. Jean Rhys I was tremendously involved with." Asked about other favourite writers she said "I'm mad about Hilary Mantel, W G Sebald was a wonderful author, William Dalrymple, and I suppose of all the books I've ever read it would have to be the obvious things like War and Peace."
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Friday, September 02, 2011
update: 19 Sept 2011:
The pictures & notes below were posted on 2 Sept. But today I came across the photo above that shows all the drawings - they have an amazing impact.
Last night on BBC1 news at 10pm Jeremy Bowen reported from the hell that was Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, now empty of its prisoners. "Torture was routine, sometimes prisoners disappeared, and now you can just walk in," Jeremy said. As he wandered into one cell the camera showed two walls covered with drawings and writing. "Even here one inmate didn't hide his defiance" Jeremy said. "He signed his name, Mohammed Bin Al Amin above his dreams of freedom".
The camera panned down from the signature to a haunting face gazing out through bars clutched by the subject's hands. One can only imagine the conditions under which the drawing was done. Powerful testimony to the unquenchability of an artist's spirit. It must be the work of the famous artist from Misrata, who was seized by Gaddafi forces from his Misrata studio on 18 February together with his poet brother Elhabib Elamin, and taken off to Tripoli. The brothers were released a few days ago when the prison was liberated.
Above: Mohammed Bin Al Amin after his release: below, Elhabib Elamin.