Writing on sex and death at 91

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.


Naipaul and The Enigma of Arrival

Reviewing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul in the Times Literary Supplement, AN Wilson is absolutely right when he says:

  • Naipaul is one of the best journalists;
  • The Enigma of Arrival is a masterpiece.

The Enigma bored me when I first read it many years ago, but now I realise how good it is. Just don’t approach it as a novel. It is slow, there is no plot development, no colourful characters.

But few writers have written so intimately about how they developed as writers.

Naipaul writes about his journey from the Caribbean to England, then selling off his house in England to go back to the New World to write about it, and finally returning to England. He writes about his insecurity when a publisher rejected the book, expecting an advance from which he had gone off to the Caribbean and North America. Running short of money, unable to concentrate on a book he had started writing in Canada, he decides to return to England as he has no audience in America.

Back in England, he finds himself a congenial environment and is able to write again. He describes the experience:

Everything about the house was welcoming and good… I felt protected, isolated, far from every wounding thing I had known. For the first time in many weeks I felt at ease.

That afternoon… I looked for the first time for weeks at the manuscript I had tried to get started in Victoria… I found it better than I had during the writing. I even saw the sentence where it had come alive — a sentence written out of concentration, from within the mood created by the words. That critical creative moment had been missed by me in Victoria, perhaps because of my anxiety about what was to follow in the writing; and perhaps as well because of my anxiety about what was to follow Victoria.

Now, recognizing the validity of that good sentence, I surrendered to the pictures the words created, the other pictures they trailed…

Writing strengthened me; it quelled anxiety. And now writing restored me again. My book was given back to me. I began to write slowly, day by day…

Without the book, I do not know how I would have gone through that difficult time. With me, everything started from writing.Writing had brought me to England, had sent me away from England; had given me a vision of romance; had nearly broken me with disappointment. Now it was writing, the book, that gave savour, possibility, to each day, and took me on night after night.

I had intended to stay for a week or so in Gloucester. I stayed nearly three months, unwilling, apart from everything else, to cut myself off from the magic of the place.

Writing doesn’t get more intimate than this. One can see the writer at work and his creative process. 

Written after his sister’s death

The Enigma of Arrival is a must-read for anyone interested in writers and their work. It has been called a thinly veiled autobiography. But the last section, A Ceremony of Farewell, is undisguised autobiography. Here Naipaul writes about the death of his younger sister, Sati, in 1984. He writes about leaving his Wiltshire home and flying back to Trinidad for the religious ceremony officiated by a pundit who happens to be his cousin, the son of his father’s brother. He writes about the Indian community in Trinidad and how they provided the material for his earliest stories. And then, on the last page, he reveals why he chose to add this account of his sister’s death to The Enigma of Arrival. He had been thinking of writing such a book for years, he says, but he wrote it only after his sister’s death. He explains:

It forced us to look on death. It forced me to face the death I had been contemplating at night, in my sleep; it fitted a real grief where melancholy had created a vacancy, as if to prepare me for the moment. It showed me life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory. And that was when, faced with a real death, and with this new wonder about men, I laid aside my drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast about Jack (a character in The Enigma of Arrival) and his garden.