Review: Stet, by Diana Athill

Nicholas Lezard wishes he was older and born to idleness after reading Diana Athill's charmingly skittish autobiography, Stet


Diana Athill

(Granta, £7.99)

There aren't many occasions when you wish you were much, much older, but I felt a pang when I read this confession of Athill's: "Although for all my life I have been much nearer poor than rich, I have inherited a symptom of richness: I have a strong propensity for idleness. Somewhere within me lurks an unregenerate creature which feels that money ought to fall from the sky, like rain... although I never went so far as to choose to do nothing, I did find it almost impossible to do anything I didn't want to."

At which point (precisely speaking, on page 6 of Stet ), I felt that I was going to be very happy indeed in this woman's company; and that it was rather a shame that she was born in 1917 and I wasn't until nearly half a century later. (This thought, which I had been carrying tenderly throughout the whole book, was prodded again into life by this remark, on page 242, about her friendship with Molly Keane: "One feels almost regretful on recognizing exceptionally congenial qualities in a newly met person, because one knows one no longer has the energy to clear an adequate space for them." There is something rather special about a writer who, you can't shake the illusion of feeling, somehow connives with readers to create serendipitous moments like that.)

The word "stet" is Latin for "let it stand", an editorial instruction to the printer reversing a correction or deletion made by an earlier, over-enthusiastic editor. Diana Athill was an editor, for quite a long time, at André Deutsch, a splendidly independent publishing firm that has since gone the way of most others of its kind. Her explanation for the title is poignant, exact: "This book is an attempt to 'Stet' some part of my experience in its original form... 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." At which point the idea of God as a supremely incompetent editor, wilfully deleting all kinds of things that should stand, has entered the mind and not left it again.

For while this is, in some respects, a quite conventional autobiography, it has a tone and scope that make it very unusual indeed. Autobiographies by non-famous people have something blind or desperate about them, which under all but the most exceptional circumstances means they have to be published at their own expense; and Athill, although well-known and honoured in the trade (which means, among other things, that she has the respect of some of the best writers in the world) knows this full well. This gives Stet an almost skittish charm, as if free of its own obligations. It's certainly hard to believe that it was written by an 80-something year-old.

Half the book is about herself and the rise of Deutsch after the second world war; the other half is about her relationships with some of her writers: Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, V S Naipaul. Your enjoyment of these accounts is not dependent on prior knowledge of these authors' works. She is, frankly, a tell-tale and a gossip; but gossip, as she points out, is the writer's métier, and she has waited for people to die before telling us what she knew or thought. ("Whenever I needed to cheer myself up by counting my blessings, I used to tell myself: 'At least I'm not married to Vidia'" - ie, Naipaul.) Funny, acute, wise: as Timothy Mo said: "She doesn't write well, she writes wonderfully well, rather better than most of her writers."


Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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