Diana's publicist and I had been haggling for months over an interview date. The Christmas holidays and my travel dates, coupled with the 99-year-old Diana's protracted flu and the case of her dentures being mistaken for trash at the hospital, meant four months went by until we finally met.
Diana sat opposite me, her sparkling eyes matching her gleaming new teeth. We were in her bright, cluttered room in the suburb of Highgate, an affluent London neighborhood now scattered with empty Russian homes. Pink magnolia blossoms peeked through the window. "My magnolias," she said, chuckling. Stacks of books and manuscripts sent by hopeful writers and friends adorned all surfaces; Diana's precious advice remains highly respected and sought after.
Diana Athill is a revered editor, having worked with Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, and many others over her decades-long career. She was a prolific writer, too. Diana's unconventional life choices are reflected in her bawdy and humorous memoirs and short stories. She just published her latest memoir, A Florence Diary, a charming recollection of her 1947 holiday to Italy. Diana never married nor had any children, except for a miscarriage she had while living with Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, which she's spoken of quite candidly. Her notorious romantic partners include Waguih Ghali, a depressed Egyptian writer who committed suicide in her flat, and Hakim Jamal, an American radical and cousin of Malcolm X. Suffice to say, Diana has had an eventful life.
Over the course of three hours, Diana, with her strong Rs and dramatic pauses, guides me through her unbridled and honest views on politics, greed, love, and writing. Age has neither made her soft nor wistful; she maintains the same cheerful yet prosaic temperament evident in her writing. This should not give the impression that she is jaded, merely pragmatic. In person she is a balm, her thought-provoking words as therapeutic as they are instructive.
On a somber day after the Westminster attack in London, so goes our conversation:
Anya Raza: You've lived through many conflicts: WWII, the Cold War, IRA bombings. Do you feel like things have gotten worse recently?
Diana Athill: They have. Before World War II began, there was a terrible feeling in the air. One knew that war was coming. Now I have not quite the same ominous feeling, but I rationally think that this business of West and East is going to get worse. I'm glad, to tell the truth, that I shan't be alive for very much longer. I personally don't want to see what's going to happen next.
WWII was very dangerous, but in a different way. It was very disagreeable, but it wasn't so frightening because you could understand it. You knew that when the war ended, it was going to be over. Mind you, it went on for six years, and I can remember thinking, Oh, God, I wonder if this is never going to end. But then when it finally was over, there was this wonderful feeling of everything being OK.
AR: Does this mean you were interested in politics?
DA: Not as much as I should have been. I wasn't really by nature a political person. When I was at Oxford, all of us knew that England was in a bad way. That there was a great deal of unfair poverty and dreadful things happening to coal miners. The politically minded among us thought that the answer would be communism, and they all became communists. I didn't refrain from becoming a communist for any really intelligent reason. Well, there was one bit of intelligent reason: I did not like the teaching that "the end justified the means," which you were supposed to adopt if you became a communist. I thought it was very dangerous and wrong. But basically I didn't become a communist because I was a frivolous and idle girl, and I thought it would be a lot of hard work and not much fun.
AR: [Laughs.] I'm sure no one held it against you.
DA: Sometimes I feel rather ashamed of myself. I feel as if I walked by and didn't stop and think. It's too late now. I'd like to have been one of those ladies who was tying themselves to fences of American camps during the war. I was pleased when people marched, I approved of them marching, but I didn't do it myself. I think that it's no good saying, "Oh, it's futile, so I won't do it," then it does become more futile, so one should do it! I ought to write an article called "Walking By," a guilt article. I think I will do that one last small little squeak to speak out, looking back.
AR: So you do think collective action can influence politics and society as a whole?
DA: I think that really it's the only thing that can be done, so it should be done, and I'm ashamed I didn't do it. People nowadays are all becoming so money-minded, so materialistic. Greed is very, very powerful. Greed is the worst thing.
AR: Greed seems to be the dominant motivator for most people, unfortunately. Moving on to something more cheerful — fears. When you were younger, did you have a fear of something that now, when you look back, you can see it was unfounded?
DA: When I was at school, I remember my headmistress saying to me, when I was being very lazy, "You have to be prepared, perhaps you have to earn your living." I said, "I'm going to get married." She said, "You may not, you know. There aren't that many free men about." And I was shocked! I thought, How can she say anything so awful?! I suppose I was frightened of the idea of not getting married.
AR: I think a lot of young women still have that fear.
DA: I think they do. I think that it still feels that you failed in some way. Failure, which is sad and foolish.
AR: But life had something different in store with you. What role did men play in your life when it became clear you weren't going to get married?
DA: Oh, very important! I didn't think in terms of settling with one. By my 40s, I hadn't the least wish to get married as long as I had a nice chap to live with. I think that without my knowing it, the fact that my parents' marriage was unhappy had rather taken the bloom off marriage for me. I liked men, but I didn't trust most men. I think I had a pretty severe blow about men when my first love left me for someone else.
I do know that if I stopped and looked at myself and said, "What is my life?," I would have said to myself, "It is a life of failure." Simply because I'd grown up in a family and at a time when my job was to get married and have children, and I had failed.
AR: It must be so hard when you experience betrayal to trust men again.
DA: Well, you see, I didn't, really. I fell madly in love still, but that was just physical. It didn't stop me falling in love. Didn't stop me having affairs, and I liked men. I enjoyed having affairs; they cheered me up a lot. Until I met Barry, I did not trust anyone enough to think: This is it. Barry never actually in all those years said "I love you." What he did say once, I remember this vividly, we had been dancing together, and he said, "Do I love you?" I thought I could safely say, "Yes, darling, you do." It was such a nice moment, because he did.
AR: That sounds terribly romantic. Do you think dating has changed since when you were younger?
DA: I think people are more sensible now. Mind you, I think an awful lot of people who don't actually marry but live together are doing exactly the same thing. Which is, when you come to think of it, a pretty mad thing — spending your whole life with another person so much on top of them! Not easy at all! Men are very peculiar. You know we share DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos? One of the things in a chimpanzee's way of life is that there's the male, surrounded with females, which exist for him, entirely. That's very, very convenient to the male.
I have a theory that as we evolved, men really chose to hang on to that bit of being an ape. It's all they're doing, really. They're still being apes. Whereas I think women perhaps changed much more, because chimp ladies can only mate when they come on heat. In between, they are busy looking after the babies and grooming their gentlemen, whereas human ladies now can mate at any time. I think it was a mistake, actually. I don't think we ought to have wanted that. I think it may have been that we were trying to escape from the male domination. The male wanted to hang on, and they've succeeded in hanging on. The female, on the whole, has been rather feebly wanting to escape ever since, possibly.
AR: So it's in men's DNA to be unfaithful. Do you find stories of infidelity quite common?
DA: Very common. But you see, I am easygoing about just pure physical infidelity. I've come to the conclusion that if given a chance, a man will probably fuck somebody else sooner or later. I would not break up my marriage discovering that my husband, on a trip abroad, had an affair with someone. I would choose not to know. I think. I'm pretty sure.
AR: I suppose you don't believe in monogamy?
DA: I don't, really. I would want to go on being faithful to my husband though, if I liked him. If we were all right together, if we were understanding each other well, sharing the same interests, liking the children, I wouldn't fuss about that. I think that some marriages can survive it. Barry was against marriage. As the years went by, he and I, we stopped being lovers eventually. We ended up just being friends. Then, this is a marvelous piece of luck for me, because then he got this girl, Sally. This time it wasn't a little affair. It was quite a big affair. She was spending most of the time at our place, so I said, "Oh, my dear, why don't you come and live here?" Six years we lived together, all three of us, just as friends. I loved it. She is, to this day, one of my best friends.
People thought that relationship was very odd. They thought that we were mad. But we three really understood each other and knew each other. If Barry and I had still been sleeping together it wouldn't have happened. I wouldn't have, of course, accepted it. It would have upset me. But we hadn't been, and I wasn't going to say he couldn't sleep with anybody else because he wasn't sleeping with me. It didn't feel like an emotional betrayal at all. I knew exactly what was happening. I knew why he felt like he felt.
AR: If you could tell younger women a piece of advice when it came to men, what would it be?
DA: I wouldn't say avoid men. I would tell them to not be romantic. Relationships should be based on value and fact, on how you get on, on what things you enjoy together. I think romance has caused more unhappiness almost than anything. People who have these tremendous expectations, they've invested everything in this relationship and are expecting complete happiness. You won't get it.
AR: I suppose the advice that I'm hearing is to be more selfish and pragmatic as a woman. By pursuing one's dreams and happiness, indirectly you're reinforcing the relationship because you're thinking more like an individual. Would you agree?
DA: You can contribute to a relationship by doing something which you like doing and that you're good at, which is important. Provided he thinks it's interesting, of course.
AR: Which brings us to your writing. I'm writing a novel right now, too, actually, my first. How did you start?
DA: I really began to write entirely as a healing exercise. I didn't realize that, but that first book I wrote came out of the blue, a good many years after my unhappiness. I had been living carefully enough, working at a very interesting job, having lots of friends. But all during that time, I do know that if I stopped and looked at myself and said, "What is my life?," I would have said to myself, "It is a life of failure." Simply because I'd grown up in a family and at a time when my job was to get married and have children, and I had failed. There was this underlying thing of failure deeply buried. I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write that book." It happened. It was a very uncanny experience, and it came easily. And when it was finished, I was healed.
DA: Absolutely. There was no sign of that hidden feeling of being a failure, none at all. I was OK. From then on, I was a happy person. It was quite a long time I thought that healing was the only thing that made me write. But if you're writing that kind of thing, there is absolutely no point in doing it unless you try to get it exactly as it really was. That makes you prepared to say anything. People say, "How can you admit to things that are so shaming or so upsetting?" It was no problem at all. I had to do it because that was part of the procedure.
AR: Were you and Barry very supportive of each other's work?
DA: We were very interested in each other's work. He had a gift, you know. He could write a very witty play, but he became preachy. In his later years, his preaching would creep in obsessively.
AR: Is that the advice that you would give to a young writer?
DA: Avoid preaching. Be honest and don't get obsessed if you can help it. Obsessions don't work.
AR: How do we avoid getting obsessed? Is the answer just get on with it? Finish it?
DA: Get on with it, finish it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Anya Raza is working on her first novel and documentary and moonlights as a development economist.