"That I’m in my nineties and still compos mentis is encouraging to people."
After the Garden Party I decided to have a one-on-one with Diana Athill. There was so much to discuss, especially the nitty-gritty about her ‘feud’ with the Noble Prize for Literature winner V.S. Naipaul.
At 91, Athill became the oldest winner of a Costa Book Award for her sixth volume of memoirs Somewhere Towards the End an autobiographical of old age. She holds a formidable place in the London literacy world and her ability to handle difficult manuscripts, not to mention difficult writers, is legendary.
‘The Americans were easy to work with,’ she says. ‘The heavy editing had been done in the States. You had them to lunch when they came to London and it was extremely fun. John Updike was a lovely man. We became great friends.’
Athill was a founding director of the independent publisher Andre Deutsch and worked for 50 years with authors like Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and the arrogant, attention-seeking V.S. Naipaul who recently remarked in an interview, ‘Women writers have a narrow view of the world and it comes out in their writing.’
And about Diana Athill, he said, ‘My publisher, who was so good as an editor, lo and behold, when she became a writer, it was all feminine tosh.’
‘I cannot say his remark made me feel bad. It just made me laugh,’ said Athill. ‘I don’t think he can be taken seriously. He’s a very good writer, why such an irritable man? When I stopped admiring him so much, I started writing feminine tosh.’ She went on to say that he was the classic case of what editors call high-maintenance. Sometimes that means more editing but also a full-time psychiatric social worker.
‘My friendship with Naipaul goes way back. In 1975, I read the manuscript of his eighth work of fiction Guerrillas which concerned political psychopaths in Trinidad. I knew something about the people who inspired the story. One of them was briefly my lover! The work seemed underdeveloped and incoherent and I committed the sin of telling Naipaul that it wasn’t his best work. So, he withdrew his book from Deutsch. For me, the sun came out and I didn’t have to like Vidia anymore. Free at last!’
Several things become immediately apparent about Diana Athill. Her speech is so magnificently annunciated it makes the Queen sound common by comparison. She is poised and elegant and has a fondness for shawls and clunky necklaces. She is welcoming but has a natural reserve. Her hair is very short because she hardly has any left ‘just a spider’s web covering a pink scalp and my dear man in Regent’s Park who cuts it agrees it’s not wig time yet.’
On December 21, 2014 Diana Athill will celebrate her 97th birthday. She still writes every day.
‘I am endlessly told I’m an inspiration. It’s so silly. Alan Bennett, the British playwright, once told me that once you’ve passed 90, you only have to eat a soft-boiled egg and everyone tells you you’re wonderful. It just gets so boring!’