Diana Athill is 91 years old and won the 2008 Costa prize for biography for her memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, where she talks about her love affairs, her work as a book editor, and what it means to be growing old. She helped Andre Deutsch – who was briefly her lover — establish his publishing house and edited writers such as VS Naipaul, John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys.
It was she who said when Naipaul left Andre Deutsch after she criticised his novel, Guerrillas: “It was as though the sun came out. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more.”
Click on this link for a YouTube video of an extraordinary interview she gave to the BBC on sex, old age and death. There she says:
When I was young, no one wanted to talk about death at all. Everyone was in full reaction against Victorian morbidity. And no one went to funerals… I hadn’t seen a dead body until I was 17… But it has completely changed now. It is as though a taboo has been removed. I suppose it’s because, with all getting old, everyone is suddenly thinking,‘It could be me next.’ I have found that, once this book was written, it became to my astonishment one book I have written that has really sold like hotcakes.
Is there a secret to successful ageing?
I would say it is a matter of pure luck. If your health holds out, there is no reason why it should be horrid…
I had a better time since I was 80.
Because in a way things matter much less. You don’t mind what people think about you. You are not embarrassed so easily… And when anything particularly good happens, it comes like a super treat because you weren’t expecting it. This book doing well has been for me an enormous treat from beginning to end. Still is. Look at me here (smiling)…
People ask quite a lot about when did sex stop being interesting. That rather obsesses people. Because when you are still a sexual being, the thought of stopping being a sexual being is quite painful. But of course, when it happens, if you stop wanting something, you don’t want it any more, so if it’s not there, you don’t mind.
Sex, Andre Deutsch and Philip Roth
She had sex in her 60s but “it was done with” by the way she was 70, she says in another BBC interview, available on audio.
There she talks about her relationship with Andre Deutsch. She found it annoying that he used to stay up at night reading The Times newspaper. He was extremely self-centred, she says. But they continued working together.
She also talks about how Philip Roth was dropped by Andre Deutsch for poor sales. Roth went on to write his biggest bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint.