Sunday, 3 February 2013

Book of the Month: After A Funeral (Diana Athill)

Diana Athill, a respected literary editor of the twentieth century, is also a celebrated memoirist. In 2000, at the age of 83, she published to great acclaim a memoir of her years as an editor at the publishing company Andre Deutch (Stet). In 2008 she won, at the age of 91, the Whitbread (now Costa)Award for her memoir, more a reflection on growing old, Somewhere Towards the End. The memoirs of Athill—a total of six—attract adjectives such as ‘painfully honest’, ‘searingly painful’, ‘breathtakingly truthful’, ‘astonishingly candid’ etcetera.

After a Funeral, which was published in 1986, when Athill was 69, can be easily pigeon-holed into any one of the above categories. It describes a period in Athill’s life, in the 1960s, when she took under her wings a talented Egyptian writer in exile. The writer, referred to throughout the memoir as ‘Didi’, became Athill’s lodger for a number of years, until, on the Boxing Day of 1968, he took an overdose of sleeping tablets in Athill’s flat, and died ten days later.

In six chapters Athill lays bare the five years of sometimes pleasant, often turbulent, but never less than wholly absorbing relationship she came to have with Didi.

Athill recounts the excitement with which she went to a dinner party in the summer of 1963, as she knew Didi would be there, too. Athill had loved a novel Didi had written. The book was funny and in it, Athill felt, the author had been able to capture the quirks of the human behaviour, apparently effortlessly. The book, she thought, was the real thing, and she was curious to meet its author. And Didi did not disappoint. True, he was a ‘stiff, small man’, who looked ‘more like a goat’, was ‘dressed formally’, and was ‘gravely courteous’. However, once the party got going, Didi regaled people with anecdotes about Germany (where he was living in exile at the time) and German people. He was well informed on politics and trends in public opinions.

Over the next two-three years, Athill got to know Didi well. He came from a once rich and influential family in Egypt. His mother married young and her husband, Didi’s father, who was much older than her, died soon after Didi was born. His mother had ‘little time’ for him, and he was raised by his grandparents and an aunt. Although his family was rich—some of them very rich—he was a poor relation, and was generally treated as an embarrassment. The family also got most of his money via lawsuits. A cousin remembered Didi as a boy who was ‘always very angry and shouting’. As he grew up and his political awareness expanded, Didi hurled himself into the nationalistic ‘Away With the British’ movement. However, when the revolution happened, he soon was disillusioned with it too, as it was not left-wing enough for him. After his Egyptian passport was withdrawn, Didi made his way to Germany, as he was unable to get a work permit in England. In Germany, he lived in Hamburg, and led hand-to-mouth existence by doing one soul-destroying unskilled or semi-skilled job after another. Matters were not helped by his gambling and drinking; both ran completely out of control and took over his life.

This was the state of affairs when Athill met Didi, and decided that he needed to be rescued from his demons.

 What follows is an unfeigned, at times high-minded, but always (there is no escaping it) painfully honest account of a degringolade. Athill holds nothing back and, in her efforts to appear as much transparent and reasonable, quotes liberally from the voluminous diaries Didi left behind for her in addition to his suicide note. Indeed, as you read page after page, chronicling Didi’s apparently devious, cruel, manipulative, and frequently irrational behaviour, you can’t help noticing how unreasonably reasonable Athill’s response to it was. As you read Athill’s heroic attempts to ‘understand’ Didi and her quasi- psychological explanations of why he turned out to be how he turned out, you might wonder whether her almost inhuman reasonableness was making a bad situation worse. (Yep, it all goes back to Didi’s less than happy childhood, Athill hints. In a moving end to the memoir, Athill writes: ‘It was not intolerable that he [Didi] had killed himself. It was intolerable that he had been right to do so—that he had no alternative. It was intolerable that a man should be so crippled by things done to him in his defenceless childhood that he had been made, literally and precisely, unendurable to himself.’)

The picture of Didi that emerges out of this account is of a tortured soul. The man is depicted as a walking catastrophe. Maybe he was genetically programmed to be that way; may be the absence of a loving and nourishing parent figure in his ‘defenceless childhood’, as Athill suggests in the memoir, made Didi an emotional cripple; it seems he was unable to form long-lasting, mature relationships. This handicapped him greatly in his relationships with women, whether non-sexual (as with Athill, for the most part) or sexual. When he came to live in London in Athill’s flat, Didi wasted no time in forming a big circle of friends, rather several circles of friends, which he attempted to keep separate, partly, you suspect, because he was sponging off all of them, and was (understandably) anxious that they did not meet; but he had very few close friends. People felt sorry for him; people, especially middle-aged women, wanted to mother him and many, like Athill, rescued him repeatedly; but he would not dare to let them penetrate the carapace and witness the black hole inside. His relationships with those, who dared to come closer to him, was inevitably marked with emotional extremes.  Didi was apparently one of those men who literally fell in love; and repeatedly. Whenever a love affair began he was convinced that he had found his soul-mate; that the woman was the best thing that had happened to him. When he fell out of love (usually after 2-3 weeks) the same woman became ‘stupid’, ‘boring’, and ‘disgusting’. The reader is informed that during almost all of the five years that Didi lived with Athill, he never offered to pay rent; repeatedly asked her (and her cousin, and quite a few of her friends) for money, giving barely convincing excuses, which he then proceeded to lose in gambling or blow on alcohol; and told repeated lies and gave false cheques to (ineffectually) cover his lies. A classic trap of alcoholism, you might say. In his diaries, he was full of disgust and self-loathing for his behaviour, yet could not stop fleecing people. 

All of this account seems calculated to encourage the reader to form the impression that, talented Didi might have been, living with his was less pleasurable than a spending a night in a vermin-infested cellar.  So why didn't Athill show him the door at the first available opportunity? Why did she allow this man, who didn't seem to be in a hurry to produce anything to follow up his d├ębut novel, and was, into the bargain an emotional and financial drain? Athill, from time to time, attempts to understand her own motives behind taking Didi under her wings in a manner that is (here we go again!) candid. Athill was in her late forties when she first met Didi, who told her that he was 13 years younger than her (when he was only eight years younger, as Athill discovered after his death and which she feels obliged to inform her readers). Athill says that in middle aged woman who are also childless, the sexual impulse is almost always mixed with the mothering impulse. This, she feels, is the reason why the toy-boys of middle-aged women are rarely impeccable. Because if these young men were impeccable, they would not attach themselves to older women. But they are peccable and need rescuing. Whatever else you might say about Didi, if Athill’s account is to be believed, the inescapable conclusion, about half-way through the memoir, is that he needed rescuing pretty much all the time. Athill candidly admits that she was sexually attracted to Didi, and, being in an ‘open’ relationship at the time with a man she calls ‘Luke’, she was, as they say, up for it. Didi successfully resisted Athill’s charms, saying that he did not want their friendship to suffer, although, in—another candidly described incident—Athill tells how Didi came into her room one night when she was legless after an evening of heavy drinking, and ‘penetrated’ her. The whole incident is described in a manner that gives it an eerily surreal quality, and you wonder that what Didi did wasn’t close to statuary rape. Athill, however, is very clear that she did not regard what Didi did as a violation and, in as much as she could remember, enjoyed the experience!

Athill comes across in the memoir as exceptionally tolerant of all of Didi’s misdemeanours, which would have crossed the threshold of most people’s patience by the width of Siberia; but what she could not countenance was Didi finding her loathsome and phoney. A whole chapter is devoted to a three-week trip to Yugoslavia Athill undertook with Didi and her friends, during which it would appear that Didi and she got on each other’s nerves all the time. This trip and the contretemps must have rankled enough in Athill’s mind for her to go into the minutiae of who said what to whom and when and how almost twenty years after the trip. As you read this chapter (which barely manages to rise above the level of school-ground politics) Athill allows, albeit inadvertently, a glimpse into the quirks of her own character.

After A Funeral was published eighteen years after Didi’s tragic death, and it would not be a misrepresentation to say that Didi’s was a long forgotten name by then, the only novel he published having been out of print for a number of years. Athill obviously continued to have feelings about the tragic life and death of this tragic unfortunate man; the memoir ends on the note: ‘this record has been written for him [Didi], and for people who are going to have children.’ It is therefore curious that she chose not to reveal the real identity of Didi. Didi in real life was the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali. Ghali published only one novel in his life, entitled Beer in the Snooker Club, recently reissued in paperback (and available in paperback) after being out of print for many years. Ghali is described in the ‘product description’ as a ‘plain spoken writer of consummate wryness, grace and humour’. A ‘reader’ who has reviewed the novel provides the additional information that Ghali belonged to the extended family of a former UN secretary of state. When Ghali killed himself in 1968, this became his only published novel. In her memoir Athill informs us that Ghali worked for a long time on another novel; however, during one of his psychological crises which resolved miraculously on that occasion after he read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, he destroyed it, realising, so he told Athill, that what he had written was not up to scratch. At a later point in the memoir Athill seems sceptical of this claim, as Ghali was an inveterate hoarder and found it near impossible to throw away anything. However, since this unfinished novel has never been published we have to conclude that either Ghali really destroyed the manuscript, or Athill—to whom he bequeathed all of his written material—decided to respect the dead author’s wish. And seeing as it was Athill who was instrumental in publishing Beer in a Snooker Club (it was published by Andre Deutch), the old dame must have had a good reason to not publish the unfinished novel. Either way, it is a shame. Beer in the Snooker Club is a superb novel, and one would have loved to read his second offering, even if unfinished, of this talented, if deeply flawed (as per Athill’s account), writer.