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SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END: Diana Athill



Diana Athill preferred black lovers as she found black men more interesting than white. She never married, despite offers, but was quite content to be the ‘other woman’ in a number of relationships.

Not really the sort of thing you expect to be told by a 92 year-old? Ah! But that’s the point, at 92 Athill doesn’t feel that it matters very much. This isn’t a full-on biography, her life has been covered in earlier works, such as ‘Stet’ on her 50 years as editor at Andre Deutsch to such authors as Jean Rhys and Margaret Atwood, as much as a sweeping look back and a penetrating glance at the short distance forward. It’s that short distance which interests her. She documents the major things that she has lost, like ceasing to exist as a sexual being (and sex was important to her) and the meagre gains old age brings (and these only if one is lucky to be in reasonable health). She doesn’t give advice to the old but shows what works for her - keep busy, ‘make something!’, resist despondency - and even at the most unexpected moments life renews itself.

Death holds few terrors for her and she holds steadfastly to a breezy atheistic outlook that regards religion as ‘fairy tales’ and ultimate origins as probably beyond our primitive minds. But of course, the manner of departure is a concern and here she quotes Woody Allen’s line, ‘I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens’. The end when it comes, she accepts, will be grim and frightening. The best we can hope for is that it will be short.

She has few regrets (although there is a touching apology to a cousin who would probably have appreciated her help at one point) but admits to ‘a selfishness’ and ‘a nub of coldness’ at her centre, which no doubt enabled her to have a career few women of her generation did. Despite the ‘selfishness’, she cared for her mother at the end and for a companion who had long ago ceased to be her lover. The Literary Review regards Diana Athill’s contribution to the ‘lake of literature’ as a ‘cool clear burn’ while The Guardian praises her ‘shameless honesty’. The combination of the two as she faces death with wisdom and fortitude makes it a delight to read.

Copyright ©2009 by Steve Davies,

The Bay Bookshop, Hout Bay, South Africa

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* What Athill said:
"My father used to walk out of the room when people tried to talk about death. He just couldn't bear it. But now I think the fact that I'm in my 90s and still compos mentis, and able to write and have a nice time, is encouraging to people. They can look at me and say, 'There is somebody who is old - which I am dreading - but there, it's not so bad."

Interview with Kira Cochrane, The Guardian, 2009

"I know that my brother agreed with me that once past eighty one has no right to complain about dying, because he said so. I guess that if I am given the time for it, I too shall feel at least a little of it, and hope to remember that it is simply what one has to pay for what one has enjoyed."
(Somewhere Towards the End)
.

Somewhere Towards The End

Costa Biography Award Winner 2008 www.costabookawards.com


Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state. There is as little reason to deplore the one as there is to be pleased over the other.
Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi


RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Books light up the microcosm of a human heart. I have always found that books recommended to me by others have the double advantage of the pleasure of the book itself and gaining an insight into the mind of another.

Prepare to open a door to a realm of fascination.

Consuelo Roland

_______________________________

RECOMMEND A BOOK ON THE INTERPLAY OF LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH...

Contribution Guidelines

death and dying

death and dying

AS I LAY DYING

By William Faulkner
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Review: For most of the book the mother's decomposing corpse is carted around on a wagon by her single-minded family, on a bizarre quixotic journey to carry out their father's promise to bury her with her people in Jefferson, Mississippi.

In Faulkner's hands simple images of a coffin, a wild horse, a rickety wagon, buzzards like turkeys and a gramaphone can create a reality so powerful it doesn't leave you for days or even months, or ever.

Addie Bundren, the mother, is safely dead. Her sons and daughter are not. Along the way Faulkner shows society's quandaries around death, the ludicrous power of individual emotions and desires, and the perplexing nature of sanity. The last line is awesome.

Recommended by Consuelo Roland

As I Lay Dying


Note: Faulkner borrowed the title As I Lay Dying from a line in Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey.

death and dying

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"CASH
It's like there was a fellow in every man that's done a-past the sanity or the insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment."(As I Lay Dying).

* What Faulkner said:
"I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall."

death and dying

death and dying

SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH

By David Rieff.
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Review: An unflinching portrayal of a personal calamity; the facts are presented in chronological sequence without claims of having gained any special understanding. No self-help spiritual guide this one, but a thought-provoking testimony as Rieff attempts to come to terms with the death of a mother he clearly idolised. Is it during the long moment of the dutiful loving watch that we finally stare mortality in the face?

Recommended by Consuelo Roland

Swimming In a Sea of Death

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"VII
But no one who knew her more than casually was surprised that my mother, who had never reconciled herself to any essential thing, would die unreconciled to her own extinction and that hers would end up being the opposite of an easy death."
(Swimming In a Sea of Death)
.

death and dying

death and dying

DYING: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR THE JOURNEY

By Peter Fox and Sue Wood.
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Review: Many people allow fear of their own mortality to colour the way they treat the terminally ill. This adds to the increasing loneliness of someone who is dying. By talking about death, by accepting we are all mortal and will all die – that in fact, dying, like being born, defines us as human – we can ease the fear and loneliness. This book allows us to approach that process in a calm and containing way.

Recommended by Bev Rycroft

Dying

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"Journals
There is value in keeping a journal during this time of inner struggle and reflection. (Significantly, 'journey' comes from the same root word.) An exercise book next to the bed, for the patient, can track the experience as it happens. Recording developments on the spot can be a relief, and can boost awareness of what is going on. The carer may choose to keep a journal too."(Dying: A Practical Guide for the Journey).

death and dying

death and dying

A SURVIVAL KIT FOR THE HEREAFTER

By Belinda Silbert.
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Review: An easy read on how to kick-start your spiritual evolution from the perspective of a psychic counsellor. You may choose to use or lose but it clearly and matter-of-factedly presents an alternative realm of thought on death, reincarnation and the hereafter.

Recommended by Consuelo Roland

Survival Guide

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"Reincarnation
People often believe that the Hereafter is a cure-all. If you are a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim you probably believe that heaven or paradise automatically heals every physical, mental and emotional defect, almost as if the act of dying shunts you through some enormous godly car-wash. You come out perfect on the other side.
This is simply not the case."(A Survival Kit for the Hereafter).

death and dying

death and dying

I DREAMED OF AFRICA

By Kuki Gallman.
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Review: The autobiographical tale of a woman who leaves Italy, her country of birth, to follow a childhood dream to live in Africa. One of the most memorable tributes to a dead lover/husband and mother's tributes to a dead child I have ever read; she puts her pain into bald words of loss and grief, without literary artifices to shield us, to keep their memories alive. This is not a book about regrets; for Gallman our time on this earth is part of a cycle of life and death. The essence of what her son meant to her and the qualities of his own inalienable soul are captured in final rites so full of communal love and dignity that the joy of his life force bursts from the pages. Single-handedly, with her moving descriptions of carefully choreographed and lovingly executed funeral ceremonies Gallman gave me a new regard for funerals as necessary rituals of passage for the living to honour the dead.

Recommended by Consuelo Roland

I Dreamed

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"The Last Snake
I ran towards the grave and stopped, a few steps off. Prostrate on it was Mario. Arms and legs spread wide, hands dug into the soil and faded flowers, body shaken by heartrending sobs. I retreated in silence. He was his father.
Soon after, a mad gallop shook the earth, frantic hooves bit the dust, and off went Mario on Emmanuele's horse, riding like the Apocalypse. He came back at night. Next day he left, and I have never seen him since."(I Dreamed of Africa)

death and dying

death and dying

SKYLINE

By Patricia Schonstein Pinnock.
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Review: One of the handful of books I'd take with me to a desert Island and read again and again to remember what it is to be human. It stands out as a rare book that made me cry real tears on a damp Cape winter afternoon. Some tears seems more authentic than others. Read it - it belongs on that special bookshelf of books that have given you a new perspective on life.

Recommended by Consuelo Roland

Skyline

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"Chapter 1
Outside the traffic is screaming. It doesn't always scream; sometimes it howls, sometimes it runs smoothly, sometimes it sounds like a woman singing. Tonight its screaming and filling the flat with rush and panic.
She draws on her cigarette, holds the smoke inside. The traffic is crying now and its sorrow pours onto the veranda and in through the windows, splashing everything with tears. The traffic is the wail of a Madonna stripped and bleeding."(Skyline).

death and dying

death and dying

THE ROAD HOME

By Rose Tremain.
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Review: Still grieving the death of his wife in Poland, Lev travels to London as an economic migrant. He takes on menial jobs to earn enough money to support his daughter and mother, who are struggling to survive in his slowly dying home-town. As readers, we grieve with Lev, and will him to succeed. A beautiful story of life, love and belonging defeating despair.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

The Road Home

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death and dying

death and dying

MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES

By Gabriel Garcia Marques
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Review: On the edge of death, a 90-year-old man reclaims his right to love and life in the form of a gift of 'wild love' with an adolescent virgin. Again, don't be alarmed. This is not an ode to a dirty old man; it is the story of a sad, unloved, lonely man who dreams of living before dying.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

Memories of my Melancholy Whores

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death and dying

death and dying

BEING DEAD

By Jim Crace
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Review: That we are all part of something bigger, and that each of us is unique only in relation to the people we love, is the theme at the heart of this unusual crime story, in which death exposes itself in minute detail. Not for wobbly tummies.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

Being Dead

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Excerpt
"For while his hand was touching her, curved round her shin, the couple seemed to have achieved that peace the world denies, a period of grace, defying even murder. Anyone who found them there, so wickedly disfigured, would nevertheless be bound to see that something of their love had survived the death of cells. The corpses were surrendered to the weather and the earth, but here were still a man and wife, quietly resting; flesh on flesh; dead, but not departed yet." Being Dead.

† Jim Crace interview
www.identitytheory.com author interviews

death and dying

death and dying

THE NATIVE COMMISSIONER

By Shaun Johnson
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Review: The Native Commissioner is a perfect example of the healing power of fiction. Based on the story of his own father, Johnson tells the story of a young boy coming to terms with the man his father was, a state employee faced with the complexities of apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, and leading to his suicide.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

The Native Commissioner

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Quote from author
Sam Jameson, eight years old at the time of his father George’s death, decides, some forty years later, to go through the box of his father’s papers which his mother had passed on to him. In trying to piece together the life of a parent he never really knew, Sam discovers a sensitive, inherently kind but insecure man. George has seemingly spent his working life as a native commissioner conscientiously carrying out his duties, but has never quite been able to come to terms with the white man’s place in Africa. As his doubts deepen he is overwhelmed by despair . . ..

death and dying

death and dying

WAYS OF DYING

By Zakes Mda
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Review: The story of Toloki, 'an eccentric and dignified professional mourner' as he crosses South Africa in his quest of healing, and the people he heals. Magic realism, humour, friction and love are all part of the mix.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

Ways of Dying

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Excerpt
"Death lives with us everyday. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying?
It works both ways. Good-bye, Toloki.
Good-bye, Noria.
Just one more thing:please take a bath. Just because your profession involves death, it doesn't mean that you need to smell like a dead rat." Ways of Dying.

death and dying

death and dying

AGAAT

By Marlene van Niekerk
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Review: The story of Milla and Agaat unfolds slowly and painfully as Agaat cares for the dying Milla. Reliant on each other for everything for most of their time together, it is only when Milla's disease makes her completely dependent on Agaat, that the true nature of their relationship is exposed. In the face of death, love and hate can be interchangeable.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

Agaat

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death and dying

death and dying

THE CEMENT GARDEN

By Ian McEwan
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Review: The story of A bizarre tale of four children and their panicked attempt to deal with the death of their mother. With no sense of their place in the world, the story is a startling study of survival in the face of their deepest fear.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

The Cement Garden

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death and dying

death and dying

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

By Lionel Shriver
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Review: Can we love someone who kills? This is the question at the heart of this shocking story - the love or lack thereof of a mother for a son who has committed the ultimate horror. But facing the truth within her is the only way either of them can survive.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

About Kevin

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death and dying

death and dying

IF NOBODY SPEAKS OF REMARKABLE THINGS

By Jon McGregor
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Review: It is usually only when the unexpected, the unspeakable, the unignorable, happens, that we start to notice those things of beauty that surround us. In this simply beautiful story of a street which is visited by a terrible event, McGregor shows us in exquisite prose, the remarkable things that surround ordinary people, and in doing so encourages us to take notice of what's really important.

Recommended by Anne Donald, KALK BAY BOOKS

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

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death and dying

death and dying

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death and dying

death and dying

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