After reading a review of this book when it came out in 2000 I wanted to read it. Then it slipped out of my mind. And then I would remember it when I came across references to book editing but now could no longer remember the title of the book or the author's name. (It must have been along in there somewhere that I began extensive keeping-of-notes as reminders, only to find myself with so many notes -- disordered, scattered, and often, when found, indecipherable -- that going through them to find something was arduous, and often futile.) Then, not long ago, Diana Athill brought out another memoir and ... lo!
It is a delight. Breezy, beautifully written, charming. You can't help thinking that it would be great to have had Diana Athill as a friend (not that's she's dead yet, but ... her most recent memoir is titled Somewhere Towards the End -- note the italicized the!) Here's a sample anecdote from Stet:
The director of Andre Deutsch Publishing, a firm of which Athill held a small share of ownership, was, of course, Andre Deutsch. Athill writes of "the desperately boring ordeal" of hearing from him about his several love affairs, which seemed always to end in a heart broken, and of her frequent lending, over a period of years and years, of a sympathetic ear. And then:
"At about the time he was going through his paroxysms of jealousy ... I fell in love with a man who had the courage, when he realized what had happened, to tell me that he was unable to fall in love with me. Even then I was grateful for his honesty because experience had already taught me a good deal about broken-heartedness, and I knew that the quickest cure is lack of hope. If mistaken kindness allows you the least glimmer of hope you snatch at it and your misery is prolonged: but this man (this dear man whom I continued to like very much after I was cured) made it impossible for me to fool myself, so I was able to set about getting better without delay and in the end was left without a scar. But although the process was steady it was not quick, and for about a year I had nothing to take my mind off sadness but my work, so that my evenings were often desolate ... Think[ing] of all the listening [to Andre about] his love troubles ... surely after all that I could bring myself to confess that I was going through a bad time and that an occasional evening at the cinema with him and the others would be very welcome.
"So I did -- probably, after all the screwing up to it which had gone on, in a tiresomely self-conscious voice. And what he said, very crossly, was: 'Oh for God's sake! Don't be so sorry for yourself.'"
Somewhere Athill mentions the English poet Stevie Smith, whom I, after a couple of attempts, have found to be unreadable, but the mention of Smith served to remind me that one of her poems has one of my favorite titles, which one could easily think had been thought up by Dorothy Parker: Not Waving But Drowning. (Though it's not exactly clear, despite its being the end-phrase of a few lines of slight disparagement about certain poets, it seems Athill agrees with me at least somewhat, writing that she "considered that 'Not Waving But Drowning' was the best known of Stevie Smith's poems because it was the best of them."
For me, though, the most fascinating part of Stet is a chapter devoted to V.S. Naipaul, whose books she edited (but whom she found to be so fastidious in his work that he needed only slight editing). I have read a great amount of material about V.S. Naipaul, am fascinated by the history of his rising from the dusty unworldly streets of Trinidad to a Nobel laureateship. Generally, by all who are acquainted with him and who have written about him, Naipaul is apparently a first-class ---hole ... arrogant, rude, mean ... unlikable. (I find it uncomfortable to think of the dislike of the man who wrote The Enigma of Arrival, as perfect a "novel" as I've read, an all-time favorite ... and I put the word novel in quotes because the book strikes me as so authentic as to surely be not fiction but rather a chunk of exact memoir; repeated reading of it -- three times -- does not dissipate my pleasure; perfection does not cease to give pleasure.)
In 2001, the also-excellent writer Paul Theroux, after decades of close friendship with Naipaul, published Sir Vidia's Shadow, a devastatingly cruel portrait of Naipaul. The treachery was stunning, shocking; while reading the book I often needed to pause and wait for my brain's blood circulation to slow. Naipaul must have thought to regard Theroux as the Quentin Crisp character in The Naked Civil Servant regarded the gang of tough teddy-boys who'd viciously beaten him up in a London street: "I seem somehow to have offended you gentlemen!"
To stack cruelty atop viciousness, Theroux's book seemed timed to come out just as Naipaul's name began to be regularly bandied about as a potential recipient of literature's top prize.
Diana Athill's thoroughly believable account of Vidia Naipaul's character -- published a year before Theroux's -- is more succinct by far but hardly less devastating, and, while Athill is far superior in presenting a cogent understanding of the reasons behind the development of Naipaul's character -- as opposed to Theroux's simple depiction of it -- Athill's account lends credence to Theroux's just as Theroux's lends credence to hers.
After a few paragraphs about Naipaul's long-suffering wife, Athill writes: "... whenever I needed to cheer myself up by counting my blessings, I used to tell myself 'At least I'm not married to Vidia'."