Alive, Alive Oh! and Other Things That Matter review – Diana Athill’s joyously knowing memoir

The nonagenerian writer’s latest book is full of vivid reflections on her life and impending death

“There is one writer whose words on writing are always with me,” writes Diana Athill in her latest memoir. It is Jean Rhys’s two phrases – “I have to try to get it like it really was” and “You can’t cut too much” – that have stuck with Athill. “Those words have done a lot to keep me in order, but I can’t say that they inspired me.”

They may not have “inspired” her, but they have certainly given rise to some inspired writing. Athill’s signature is precise, crisp phrasing of the kind that has the reader scrabbling for something with which to underline it. The clean delicacy of a woodland in May is keenly felt in a description in which the “little new leaves on the branches above them were that first green, which looks as though made by light, and which will be gone in a day or two”. Leaves in Trinidad and Tobago are “like open hands, like elephants’ ears”, butterflies are a “zigzag drift”, a conch sounds like “a sea cow lowing mournfully for its lost calf”. So when she exclaims: “Oh, how hopeless it is to try to put paintings into words”, while the reader might be charmed by her frank acknowledgment of the limitations of her medium, they are also aware that if anyone can paint with words, it is Athill.

Alive, Alive Oh! represents something of a departure from Athill’s previous works, which have, on the whole, been structured around a fairly traditional narrative arc. This feels more like a collection of short stories: fragments of a life, rather than detailed memoir, which has given her the freedom to revel in the more minor details. In her chapter on the aftermath of the second world war, she writes about escaping, while on a £21 Club Med holiday, to a “tiny hidden beach”. As she was lying with her book in what she imagined was isolation, “crunch, crunch: slow – furtive? – footsteps approached”. Sitting up in dismay, she looked around, only to see nothing. She lay back down. “Crunch, crunch. This time I stood up. Still no one. Till another crunch drew my eyes down, and there was a large tortoise labouring his way through the grass towards the water.”

Athill’s dedication to getting it “like it really was” extends beyond vivid pictures of what she has seen into what she has felt and thought. As with her previous writings, we are treated to some of the frankness for which her works are rightly celebrated: she gives us her reflections on issues from colonialism (and her inescapable complicity in its continuance) to women’s shouldering of the care burden, to increasing social inequality (all the more “horrifying” to someone who has lived through the optimism of the postwar period).

But she wears her politics lightly. Athill’s moments of self-castigation (such as in her unflinching chapter on colonialism) do not grate as they might with a less skilled and honest writer. They merely serve to demonstrate that she does not exclude her own motivations and character when applying Rhys’s dictum. In this regard she rather emulates another writer she admires: “What is irresistible about Boswell,” she writes, “is his always wanting with passionate intensity to be a good man and making stern resolutions, and then recording this process with fascinated honesty, as though he were a naturalist recording the behaviour of some strange creature.”

Diana Athill
Diana Athill at Oxford, just before the second world war. Photograph: Ramsey and Muspratt

On the subject of breaking stern resolutions, Athill’s attitude to contraception may raise a wry smile in female readers. “From time to time, at the end of an anxious month,” she writes, she had “thought of” contraception: “If I’m let off this time I’ll never be such a fool again.” Most women may not have been quite as cavalier in this regard as Athill (she used no contraception for almost two years), but certainly most of us will have made that gushing pledge to be better when a late period finally arrives – only to break it the next time we are tempted.

But Athill was a fool again, and eventually, in her 40s, she became pregnant. Her customary precision leads us through the stages. The original indecision, the wish that it would all just “go away”. The decision to have another abortion – before finally realising “I suppose I am going to have this baby after all”, impractical though it was, given she “could live comfortably on what I earned with nothing to spare” and “would like to preserve these conditions”. And then “the blood on the toilet paper”. The pain. The “dull resentment” at blood that initially trickled down her thigh, before a “cold shock at the thudding gush, the sensation that a cork had blown. ‘Oh God, oh God’, I thought, ‘I didn’t know it would be like this.’” It is one of the most compelling chapters of the book, as well as, ironically given that Athill almost died from her miscarriage, one of the most life-affirming. “‘I AM ALIVE’”, she thought as she awoke from her operation. “It was enough. It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy.”

Death stalks the pages of this memoir from the joyously knowing title onwards. Athill writes to us from her old people’s home, where death “is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now”. But despite this, her latest offering feels anything but morbid, and this has a lot to do with her attitude to death. She records her response to almost dying from her miscarriage as being a casual “Oh, well, if I die, I die”. Weak from loss of blood, she was hardly in a position to conjure profundities, but her calm in the face of death is a long-held position, for which she credits Montaigne. “I can’t remember when I read, or was told, that he considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable can’t be too bad, but it was in my early teens and it struck me as a sensible idea.”

Athill explains that she shares the attitude of her fellow old people’s home occupants that a fear of death is “silly”. Death being in sight, she writes, “it has become something for which one ought to prepare”. She is reconciled to her inevitable death, and this is admirable. But I know I am not her only reader who cannot feel the same. And this latest book does not make the coming literary loss any less painful.

Alive, Alive Oh! is published by Granta (£12.99). Click here to buy it for £10.39


Caroline Criado-Perez

The GuardianTramp

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