When Diana Athill's maternal grandmother was dying a long and painful death at 92, Athill writes, she "turned her beautiful speckled eyes towards me one afternoon and said in so many words: 'What have I lived for?' "
It is this question, which Athill turned on herself, that begins her engrossing memoir, Instead of a Letter, first published in 1962. This led to more books about her singular life and times, including Stet (2000), about the British editor's 50-year career publishing such giants as John Updike and Margaret Atwood, and Somewhere Towards the End, her observations on aging. At 91, that book made her a bestselling, prizewinning author and Officer of the British Empire. Two years later, we can savor her first two memoirs: Instead of a Letter, about her childhood and a lost love, and After a Funeral (1986), about her relationship with a charming, unstable Egyptian writer she calls Didi, who committed suicide in her flat in 1969.
Athill, now 93, has not merely lived an interesting life and observed it. She has always been a wonderful storyteller, as masterly about suspense and pacing as she is brutally perceptive about other people, post-Empire British social history and herself.
Instead of a Letter feels a bit overdecorated at first. But soon she drops in a nugget of foreshadowing indicating the wartime death of the man she believed to be the love of her life and, later, a shocker that previews "twenty years of unhappiness" for this girl we've come to trust.
In both books, we journey through the life of a sexually adventurous unmarried woman who co-founded, almost by happenstance, an important English publishing company. It was by a similar fluke that her life became entangled with Didi (actually novelist Waguih Ghali). During their five-year friendship, he turned out to be a gambler, drinker, "parasite" and deceptive depressive. He left her his diary, the inspiration for After a Funeral. "Well-edited," he wrote in his suicide note, "it could be a good piece of literature." Athill is incapable of anything less.