By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Instead of a Book: Letters to A Friend, Diana Athill, Granta Publications, Pp 328 (HB), £20.00
Diana Athill is a familiar name in the literary world. Not only for her own writings but also as the editor of some of the brightest starts in the galaxy of authors like V S Naipaul, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike. Diana was described as ‘the doyenne of English letters’ by The Guardian. She had kept up regular correspondence with several people and was at her frankest best with Edward Field. Diana is now 93 and Edward is around 87. Though Diana had wanted to publish her letters to him only after her death, she relented considering both their ages. The result is a beautiful volume Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend. In her introduction she says, “An open nature invites an open response: right from the start I knew that to Edward I could say anything, and this it was that made these letters fun to write. It also makes them a true portrait of a happy relationship — from which, being still around, I have been able to remove things hurtful to other people (there were very few)…”
Neil in his introduction talks of Diana in such warmth and affection that can only be reserved for a lifelong friend.
Diana writes just about everything to Edward. Barry Reckord, the Jamaican playwright is mentioned very often in her letter. They lived together for forty years, till he grew old and his niece took him back to Jamaica. She describes with earnestness evenings at celeb functions and her several interviews to magazines and journals. These were written immediately after the event give her spontaneous reactions. In her letters she is as graceful as she is in person. Gentle, humorous and playful.
As letters written by a contemporary editor, novelist and author they are full of names, almost all of them linked to the literary world. Interestingly Diana’s first book in 1962 was called Instead of a Letter, wherein she sought to explain herself to someone she loved. Into her nineties, she does not need a book to convey, her letters would do. It is a book worth picking up. It speaks of a friendship that many of us may be searching for.
(Granta Publications, 12 Addison Avenue, London W11 4QR)