Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Book Review Club (February)

Please visit Barrie Summy
for a full listing of other book reviews.

Somewhere Towards the End
by Diana Athill

Ivana Kobilca, Coffee drinker, 1888

All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. Being 'over seventy' is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up. (Athill, p. 14)

Diana Athill's recent autobiography is neither guidebook or How-To book, but it does provide detailed insight into one woman's thoughts about growing older and dying.

At what age do most people become concerned (or obsessed, even) with this so-often suppressed subject? Sure, there are many articles about plastic surgery and the like, but how often do we really stare the fact of our physical decline in the face?

For me, it was the approach of 40. Definitely.

(Is this an early, late or fairly average age to start fretting about getting older? I wonder about these things and it slightly bothers me . . . just like it bothers me that I cannot help but look at other women near my age and wonder how old they are. Of course, it's not the speculation that matters; it's the implication of the comparison that is bothersome. Do I look older or younger than I am? Who will arbitrate?)

When I became 40, I felt almost exactly like Athill felt at 70: I was middle-aged now, and it was time to take stock. There is the surprise that the first 40 years have gone so quickly, particularly since I still feel the same as ever, and then there is the disturbing idea that one is half-way through life already . . . or maybe even more. When John Updike recently died, my first thought was, "Oh no, he was too young to die." (76 seems to be getting younger all the time.)

When I turned 40, one friend had died of cancer that year and another was seriously ill with it. Many of my friends had parents who were ill, or dying, or dead. It is an inescapable fact that the older one gets, the more one's life - just as a matter of proportion - will be taken up by paying the piper. A lot fewer babies, a lot more funerals. We've danced all night, and now we have sore, aching feet. (Athill complains about the deterioration of her feet.)

Athill speaks candidly on a number of discomfiting, if not downright taboo, subjects: sex, atheism, dead bodies, the burdensome chore of care-giving, worn-out body parts. The startling thing, I think, is that she deals with all of these subjects in such a no-nonsense way. Her tone is intelligent and sensible, and even when she reveals information of a most personal nature, she manages to sound rather dry and matter-of-fact about the subject. One realizes that the "taboo" bit, then, is largely down to her age. Athill was 89 as she wrote this book. Not only does her age give her a different perspective, but it is inescapably a perspective more personal than theoretical.

Diana Athill was born in 1917, and thus her life has spanned most of the last century -- not to mention a decent glimpse into the current one. She is particular sort of English person - a recognizable "type," which still exists but is probably not made anymore. Athill describes her character as a mixture of bone-deep security -- derived from growing up with the knowledge that one was English and upper middle-class and therefore one of the "best kind of people" -- mingled with an almost total lack of self-absorption or regard. She describes this as a Do Not Think Yourself Important teaching that was drummed into pretty much everyone of her generation. This healthy ego, combined with a lack of modern "ego" (in the sense of needing to sell oneself), enables Athill to be remarkably frank on the subjects of money, success and the meaning of life. I found her voice completely compelling -- and often thought-provoking.

Athill doesn't try to give advice or "tips" on making the most of old age, but she does describe the things that have helped her or people she knows. There is one anecdote, in particular, which stayed with me. When speaking of a painter, who had endured many difficulties but still retained an interest in life, Athill made this observation:

She was an object lesson on the essential luck,

whatever hardships may come their way,

of those able to make things.

I didn't find this a depressing read, not at all; in fact, it was rather bracing. I did think, though, that I better get cracking!


Reya Mellicker said...

I'm curious to read this book. I read a review in the NY Times (I think) in which they said this is not one of those "you're gonna love old age" books. They described her younger life, how crazy and flirtatious she was, etc. Being old is really hard for her. Hmmm. Maybe I'll let you and others read it and just tell me about it. Sounds like a downer.

I'll be 56 in about a week. Every year I believe more and more that everything about aging is humbling. There are some benefits, but the changes in the body are really startling.

Some of the stuff I used to worry about incessantly I no longer care about, that's good. Boys on the subway are now polite to me in ways they never were before.

Other than that, though ...

I don't fear death at all, in fact I'm kind of curious to see what the experience is like. But all the stuff leading up to it - that, I dread!

Anne said...

Great post, Bee.

Of course, it's not the speculation that matters; it's the implication of the comparison that is bothersome. Do I look older or younger than I am? Who will arbitrate?

Agreed. Also bothersome (to me): that it matters at all--to me, and to others.

I don't fear death at all, in fact I'm kind of curious to see what the experience is like. But all the stuff leading up to it - that, I dread!

Agreed here as well. Death, eh. But the idea of losing my mental faculties (one of my grandmothers has Alzheimer's) or being physically unable to be active in a way that keeps my spirits up and keeps me fit is indeed dreadful. I feel like I wouldn't be me anymore.

I'm only 26, so presumably I have a while to take advantage of my active body and with-it mind. That doesn't stop me thinking about these things, though.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you are too young to worry about dying, but I know what you mean about turning forty. Antill’s book sounds interesting. I enjoyed how your review interweaved with your life and personal reaction into her words. Those are the books that resonate. I should visit Barrie. A book review club is a great idea.

Brave Sir Robin said...

This topic seems to come up more and more often among my small circle of peers.

I still feel the same as ever, and then there is the disturbing idea that one is half-way through life already

Indeed!!I am 46, and my two closest friends have already hit 47. At 46, one can still take comfort that one is closer to 45 than that other milestone, but at 47, there is no denying that shudder 50 is around the corner. I can't be approaching 50! I can't!

(btw - Anne 26 is the most perfect age you will ever be. You are old enough that everyone you know considers you a true adult, but you are young enough that mistake can still be chalked up to youth.)

I am not at all afraid of death, but I too deeply fear that the last part of the ride may be rough and unpleasant.

Bee said...

Reya - I didn't find Athill flirtatious at all, but she is very upfront about her sexuality . . . and I suppose that she could be described as an adventuress, or at least not very conventional, in that way. She also talks about the cessation of sex . . . and how that has some benefits,too. It is not a depressing book; in fact, the biggest focus is on how the creative impulse and intellectual interests can keep a person engaged with life. She is realistic about the ageing process, though - and of course that has its dreary side.

Anne - Yes, I wish that I didn't mind about what my physical (ageing!) self looks like . . . but I do. Athill says that there is a certain point at which you get old enough to not care much. Emphasis still on the "much," though. I admired, so much, Athill's intelligent and completely lucid brain . . . at 90! My family is riddled with Alzheimer's, and like you, I fear that.

Sarah - It's not so much that I worry about dying, but I have a healthy respect/fear about how quickly time is starting to pass. (Also, we won't all get our 80 years. Carpe diem, and all that.) Creative engagement is key -- that is the main message I took from Athill.

BSR - You CAN'T avoid the unpleasant bits. Athill acknowledges how lucky she has been, in terms of her own health and life-span, but "death" becomes a bigger and bigger part of life the closer you get to it. She has a very brave, no-nonsense attitude to it, really; as I said, I found it bracing.

kathy holmes said...

Loved the quote! But I remember feeling "middle-aged" when I turned 35. LOL! Then I turned 40 and life just got better. Loved the 40s and hoping to appreciate each decade. It is interesting how people react to different ages - 40 scares women - 50 scares men.

Barrie said...

I've been looking forward to your review posting, and, yay, here it is! Oh, Bee, what an awesome review. I love how you relate Somewhere Towards the End with your own life and feelings about middle age. And I have a really good sense of the book now and feel that I must buy it. Thank you so much for joining in The Book Review Club.

Bee said...

Kathy - Yes, you are probably right. I think that men don't notice that they are getting old (or unattractive) until long after the process starts! Good on them, though . . . women are way too hard on themselves.

Barrie - Thanks. And thanks for the being the brains behind the outfit.

sandy Levin said...

Ah. When do start to feel old? For me it was in my 50's. I was an empty nester, started having major illnesses, became a caretaker for my mother, started people my age die.

However, There are more and more times that I still feel young - relatively speaking. I love to travel and meet friends for coffee and exercise.

Here's to our health. May be grow older and wiser.

Beth said...

Sounds like a must-read for me and perhaps for any woman who would like to grow old gracefully, naturally and with dignity. I am so tired of being bombarded with ads as to how to look younger - and so frustrated with myself when I actually read or listen to them!

(Love the image accompanying the post.)

herhimnbryn said...

Oh thankyou for this. As I now work with older people, I find myself thinking, ' this coould be you, this could be you.'

I shall put in request for this book at the library.

Bee said...

Sandy - Hopefully, there is a really good (and long) bit between early middle age and properly old. With a little bit of luck and the right attitude!

Beth - Little daughter and I were watching Stephen Fry's series about visiting America. Did you get that in Canada? Anyway, he went to a charity benefit in Houston (my hometown of sorts) and I was freaked out by the faces of all of the super-rich. So plastic! I couldn't bear it. Beauty is definitely in what you know, how you act, what you can do.

herhimnbryn - What do you do with older people? I'm intrigued. (And I hope that you do get to read the book.)

Maggie May said...

wonderful post!!! so much to absorb.

Gifted Typist said...

I think we should listen to the wisdom of older people. They have so much to say, yet we block them out for the fresh faces of youth who are pretty to look at but have nothing to tell us.

Anonymous said...

I can tell that I'm going to find out about a lot of wonderful books through the book club. Thank you for your wonderful review. I'm quite intrigued with the story now.

D.A. Riser said...

Bee, you do a wonderful job of weaving through Athill and her life. I haven't read the book, but such books always make me self-reflect -- for that day, anyway ...

Tomorrow, though, now that's another opportunity to get old.

Pearl said...

Very interesting. I'd not heard of this.
I just turned 48, and it's really only hit me in the last couple weeks, really, that I'm older, that I've hit my peak of beauty (probably a number of years ago, but a gal can dream), that my memory seems to not be as good as it was.
Gogol Bordello has a song, something like "I Would Never Be Young Again", and I have to agree. I'm happy to trade in my firm skin and flat belly for emotional stability and contentment.

Bee said...

Maggie May - Thank you!

Gifted Typist - You are so right. I was in the hairdresser's the other day, looking at one of those glossy gossip magazines. They have several young and bimboesque women offering their "take" and advice on several subjects . . . and really, they've got nothing to say.

Blueviolet - Yes, it's one of the ironies of blogging . . . we are always hearing about wonderful books, and yet never having enough time to read them because of the hours spent reading blogs instead!

D.A. Riser - Thanks -- and thanks for visiting.

Pearl - There are definitely some good trade-offs for getting older . . . but the body wearing out is not one of them! My mother (who fights the good fight) says that you can pretty much hold your own until the 60s. So we've got a few years yet. :)

ArtSparker said...

I think I was most concerned with death (so far) as a teen and in my twenties...if being morbid counts? And lately (I'm in my fifties) I mostly want the time for making more, there are so many images and ideas to get down on paper or in digital form.

Loss of mobility scares the bejesus out of me - as a single woman, not being able to do for oneself seems very frightening.

Bee said...

ArtSparker - Yes; even the idea of losing one's "face" (one's superficial beauty) pales in comparison to the idea of losing one's independence. If we are lucky, time does become more precious! (How awful to NOT feel this way.)

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