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Reading Diana Athill in Mogadishu

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The books: Make Believe and Instead of a Book, Diana Athill

The place: Mogadishu 

I first read Diana Athill when my ex-boss, now-friend R. pressed Stet into my hand, maybe ten years ago; I have been a devoted fan of hers ever since, burning my way through her various memoirs, which have the advantage of being both slim and plentiful. And then every so often I go on Amazon and I find something of hers that I have somehow failed to notice – I assume things from her past are being reissued, rather than her still churning out masses of new material in her mid-nineties, but who knows, because she is clearly semi-divine in nature – and then I get to buy it and burn through it in its turn. Hurrah!

I have mixed feelings about memoir as a genre, in that often what people think will make for good memoir – excitement and drama and a peculiar life story – do nothing of the sort, while what does make for good memoir – sharp observation (what Athill refers to as the ‘beady eye’) and (without wishing to sound like too much of a hippie) generosity of spirit – is overlooked. But Athill falls very neatly into the latter camp, and is in fact the best memoirist I’ve ever read. I suspect that in large part this is linked to the length of her books – much as I love a huge sprawling epic, Athill’s books are short and tight and entirely lacking in superfluity.

The other thing Athill’s books have is an utterly searing honesty, coupled with an extremely endearing inability to take herself seriously. Athill writes with a sort of brisk cheerfulness about heartbreak and sex, drugs and suicide, aging and abortion and all sorts of other things behind. I’m not sure how much of this is related to the fact that Athill is primarily writing in late middle age or old age, looking back on her life with a sort of dispassionate perspective that I dearly wish I could selectively deploy on my own life right now (would that it were available in a kaleidoscopic form), and how much is just Athill herself. There are plenty of excellent memoirs written by people whom you would happily punch if you found them in the room with you; Diana Athill, on the other hand, is someone with whom I would dearly love to sit down with the beverage and confectionary of her choice.

One of the things I have on my Life List is to write to authors whose books have meant a lot to me. I really should start with Diana Athill.

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A rare trip to the beach, and to visit the Bancroft puppies, in situ under a container. Just about managed not to steal one, or several

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Written by Jess

September 16, 2014 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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