Samara O'Shea

Instead of a Book

I first learned of Diana Athill last year when a friend sent me this article: In Life’s Latest Chapter, Feeling Free Again. Diana had a remarkable career as an editor—helping the British publisher André Deutsch establish his publishing company in the early 1950s. She has edited the works of Margret Atwood, Jean Rhys, John Updike, and Simone de Beauvoir.

When Diana retired at the age of 75, she went on to write three successful memoirs (a nice reminder that it’s never too late). She had dabbled in memoir writing a bit in her younger years, but not to the same success as her later ones. Her first book called Instead of a Letter (1963) is about her fiancé who left her for another woman during World War II and then died in combat, so she was never able to confront him. But it was her post-retirement book Somewhere Towards the End (2008) about aging that was a critical and commercial success—winning the National Book Critics Circle award.

At the age of 91, Diana is not done. The Telegraph reports that she is publishing a collection of “letters written between 1981 and 2007 to the American poet Edward Field, to whom Athill was first introduced through their mutual friendship with the eccentric American author Alfred Chester, whom she published in the Fifties and Sixties.” The collection is cleverly called Instead of a Book.

I have read Diana’s first book (from 1963), and I’m excited to get my hands on this new one. As The Telegraph notes, “Letters, of course, provide a completely different form of self-revelation from memoirs. Gossipy, amusing, confiding, Athill writes about friends and family, her tribulations with decorators and newfangled technology; her unabashed delight in the late flowering of her literary career – ‘What could be more enjoyable than an appreciative audience!'”