Luise Rinser; conversations with Loki Schmidt who, apart from her pioneering environmental work, was Gerhard Schmidt’s partner for 68 years; an autobiography by Inge Jens partner of Germany’s recently-deceased man of letters Walter Jens. An article in Die Zeit brought 90 year-old Anglo-German author of 30 (mainly childrens’) books Judith Kerr to my attention.
Diane Athill is 96 and still going strong – with several volumes of powerful memoirs written over several decades which I’ve totally missed. This says a lot not only about me – but about UK literary circles. I’ve just started her Somewhere Toward the End which is one of the clearest and most honest reflections about living I’ve ever come across. The review article puts it nicely -
Her writing has wit, bite and honesty. Such qualities are rare enough in any memoir and so are especially worthwhile in one that deals with the lives of the elderly – people we often either patronise or ignore.
The opening chapters deal very poignantly with her recollections of love - and her discovery of a neglected female Expressionist painter. Ian Jack - editor of Granta - writes very eloquently of his experiences of editing her work -
As the editor of Granta I also became the editor of her three last books. Very little needs to be said about that. The typescript arrived, a few suggestions for changes were made, she absorbed them with her quick editorial brain, and a slightly amended typescript was soon in the post. Editing her was pure pleasure because I loved reading her; it was like having someone speak into your ear, someone humane and self-amused and wise that you wanted to hear. "Good writing" is difficult to define, and definitions differ according to taste, but you know it when you see it, which is rarer than publishing companies would have you suppose. I remember my excitement when I read the first few pages of the typescript that became Somewhere Towards the End (Athill's choice of title and a good one, as her titles always are). The book arose out of a brief conversation and the exchange of a postcard or two: it seemed to me that while the memoir genre abounded in accounts of youth – the "coming-of-age narrative" is a literary cliché of our times – very few books have let us know about life at the other end of the road. In fact, other than self-help guides (take a cod-liver oil capsule every day) and apart from the late novels of Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth, I could think of none. There are, of course, books about the process of dying by victims of cruel and slow terminal disease, but writers have been shy of the subject of just being old, as if shame and indignity had replaced wisdom and experience as the best-known qualities of great age. Our conversation hardly amounted to an editorial briefing and I had no word of progress for a couple of years. Then a few early pages arrived and with them the first vivid sense of what it is like to become old, like reports from another country that we shall all, if spared earlier elimination, shortly be moving to.Jack's concluding section is an important comment on current writing -
In different hands, the book could have been filled with a sentimental longing for the past, brittle cheer towards the present, or the religious consolation of the future. None of those things could ever have appealed to Athill. Instead, Somewhere Towards the End is a beautifully turned series of episodes, none of them sermonic, in which the author reveals how she has come to terms (or not) with what she calls "falling away" and the unavoidable fact of death. It was, wrote the late Simon Gray – no stranger himself to intimations of mortality – both "exhilarating and comforting" in its good sense, candour and lively spirit. Every passage is rooted in specifics. On the second page, she describes her new tree fern (£18 from the Thompson & Morgan plant catalogue) and her doubts that she will live long enough to see it reach mature height: a small thought, but it immediately takes us inside the mind of someone going on for 90. She has "got it right", and continues to get it right throughout the book, in the sense that we utterly believe that this is how life is and was for her.
we should have more of them....more people who write only when they feel they have something to tell us; more writers driven by the scrupulous need to make us see clearly and exactly what they have witnessed and felt.