Observer review: Stet by Diana Athill

Autobiographies of literary figures can be self-important, however Stet by Diana Athill is one written for all who love books

Stet
Diana Athill
Granta, £12.99

Memoirs of the literary life, however fascinating to those involved in it, often run the risk of appearing clubby and parochial to anyone outside the book world. All that 'How well I remember my first lunch with dear old Tom Eliot back in 1931 when I was editing The Scratcher ' has a limited appeal, unless the author is someone as flamboyantly public as Martin Amis.

But for those who love books and are curious about the business of writing, the recollections of prominent figures in English letters can offer intimate recent histories of the changes in writing and publishing, and a wealth of anecdotes; one thinks particularly of Karl Miller's Dark Horses, Jeremy Lewis's Kindred Spirits or Claire Tomalin's Several Strangers .

Diana Athill, who spent her life working as an editor with some of the most outstanding writers of the past half-century, claims to have no grand illusions about her memoir, Stet (Granta, £12.99): 'All this book is, is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it.' But her modesty is deceptive - this is a little gem.

Born in 1917, Athill spent the war working for the BBC and then left to help the formidable André Deutsch set up his first publishing company on a shoestring. The book is, in part, a homage to Deutsch, who died earlier this year, and who emerges as a determined, bold, irascible, often insufferable and highly charismatic figure, but it is also a chronicle of a long-vanished age of publishing, before the conglomerates took over, when it was still possible to run a company from one rented room with your ideals of literary quality intact. 'It is sad to think we did not appreciate the luxury of not having to ask ourselves, "Is it commercially viable?" in those happy days before that question set in,' she says, wistfully.

Through all the vicissitudes of trying to keep the company afloat while fending off creditors and the ill-judged and often incapable assortment of people Deutsch employed, Athill and Deutsch built a remarkable list: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mordecai Richler, Simone de Beauvoir, V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, among others. They gained a reputation for courageous publishing when they were served an injunction against publishing Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, after the literary editor of the Sunday Times discovered that it contained a bowdlerised version of the word 'fuck' and wrote an apoplectic article protesting that 'no decent man could leave it where his women or children might happen to see it'.

There is an endearing quaintness to Athill's prose, but a wonderful worldly candour too, and wit, which undoes any notion of her as a prim Miss Marple figure. Sonia Orwell was 'an intellectual snob without having, as far as I could see, a good enough mind to justify it'. Of the Sixties, she remarks: 'Most of the people I knew had been bedding each other for years without calling it a sexual revolution.' In the chapters on 'her' authors, particularly the brilliant, pitiful Jean Rhys, there is a real tenderness and affection.

Stet ('let it stand', a copy-editor's mark) is a nostalgic, funny and valuable record of contemporary writing's childhood, written unashamedly for those who care about books.

Robert McCrum is away

Contributor

Stephanie Merritt, Deputy Literary Editor

The GuardianTramp

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