Her book, Instead of a Letter, is the story of how she was jilted by her fiance and of what life was like for her in the years afterwards. It is cool, witty, lucid, judicious, candid and so so sad. You get the sense that sadness was the air she lived in for a long time, unconsciously, the way a fish lives in water. And yet this doesn't sit heavily with you because of her objectivity and the total authority of her prose.
In this interview with The Guardian, published today, she is funny and hugely sane. The interviewer keeps bringing up Philip Roth. Well, Roth has published a new book that has been widely praised. Good for him. But this still leaves me with the feeling that the interviewer (or an editor) thinks Philip Roth a more interesting subject than Diana Athill. Well, he isn't.
The article also mentions, in passing, Athill's partner Barry. "Barry" is Barry Reckord, a West Indian playwright (Jamaican or Guyanese, I'm not sure) who is a very old friend of my Uncle Anton. Barry wrote a very successful play ages and ages ago, it may have been the first crossover West Indian play in London. At a party at Anton's years ago I met another playwright, actually a TV writer, who had a quite successful situation comedy on, also with West Indian characters. I shall not name him. Anyway he and Anton told me about Barry, I don't remember why we got onto the subject but I do remember Anton telling me that Barry was still writing plays -- it was just that they were impossible to produce, because they tended to feature certain recurring preoccupations and themes that just would not do on stage. Anton is very fond of Barry, respects his achievement, and really would have liked to put something on. But no matter how he tried to encourage Barry to branch out, the same topics kept coming up. He described these to me and it was one of the funniest evenings I have ever spent in my life. I was howling with laughter.
It was some time after that, I mean years, when I realized who the woman was that Barry was living with. What a strange world. I only like her the more for her steadfast affection for this odd person. It seems to me completely real in some way, the way that all true generosity of heart, when you meet it, is more real than the stuff that people bargain it away for.