Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir
By Diana Athill
Hardcover, 192 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $24.95
Near the park which my bedroom overlooks there came to stay a family which owned a pack of pugs, five or six of them, active little dogs, none of them overweight as pugs so often are. I saw them recently on their morning walk, and they caused me a pang. I have always wanted a pug and now I can't have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair. There are dog-walkers, of course; but the best part of owning a dog is walking with it, enjoying its delight when it detects the signs that a walk is imminent, and its glee when its lead is unsnapped and it can bound off over the grass, casting cheerful looks back at you from time to time to make sure that you are still in touch. Our own dog is as old in dog years as I am in human ones (mine amount to eighty-nine), and wants no more than the little potter I can still provide, but I enjoy watching other people's animals busy about their pleasures.
Brought up with dogs, I am baffled by those who dislike them. They have been domesticated for so long that cohabiting with us is as natural to them as the jungle is to the tiger. They have become the only animal whose emotions we can truly penetrate: emotions resembling our own excepting in their simplicity. When a dog is anxious, angry, hungry, puzzled, happy, loving, it allows us to see in their purest form states which we ourselves know, though in us they are distorted by the complex accretions of humanity. Dogs and humans recognize each other at a deep and uncomplicated level. I would so like to begin that process all over again with a little black-velvet-faced pug—but no! It can't be done.
And another thing that can't be done became apparent this morning. I had seen in Thompson & Morgan's plant catalogue a photograph of a tree fern which cost £18, reasonable for something so exotic. A few years ago I fell in love with the tree ferns in the forests of Dominica, and since then I learnt that they, or their cousins, can survive in English gardens, so now I ordered one from that catalogue by phone. It arrived today. Of course I knew that I would not receive a mature tree as shown in the photograph, but I was expecting a sizeable parcel, probably by special delivery. What came, by ordinary post, was a box less than twelve inches long containing a three-inch pot, from which four frail little leaves are sprouting. Whether tree ferns grow quickly or slowly I don't know, but even if it is quickly, it is not possible that I shall ever see this one playing the part I envisaged for it in our garden. I shall pot it on towards that end as far as I can, hoping to see it reach a size at which it can be planted out, but virtuous though planting for the future is supposed to be, it doesn't feel rewarding. It made me think of a turn of phrase often used by Jean Rhys, usually about being drunk: 'I was a bit drunk, well very.' She never in fact said 'I was a bit sad, well very' about being old, but no doubt she would have done if she had not hated and feared it too much to speak of it.
Jean was one of my object lessons, demonstrating how not to think about getting old. The prospect filled her with resentment and despair. Sometimes she announced the defiant intention of dyeing her pretty grey hair bright red, but she never did so; less, I think, for the sensible reason that it would have made her look grotesque than because she lacked the energy to organize it. Sometimes—very rarely—drink made her feel better, but more often it turned her querulous and tetchy. She expected old age to make her miserable, and it did, although once she was immersed in it she expressed her misery by complaining about other and lesser things, the big one itself being too much to contemplate—although she did once say that what kept panic at bay was her suicide kit. She had depended on sleeping pills for years and had saved up a substantial cache of them in the drawer of her bedside table, against the day when things got too bad. They did get very bad, but after her death I checked that drawer and the cache was intact.
My second object lesson was the Bulgarian-born, Nobel-Prize-winning writer, Elias Canetti, whose defiance of death was more foolish than Jean's dismay. He had a central European's respect for the construction of abstract systems of thought about the inexplicable, which is uncongenial to many English minds, and which caused him to overvalue his own notions to the extent of publishing two volumes of aphorisms. I never met him, but I knew those books because André Deutsch Limited, the firm in which I worked, published them. During the long years he spent here as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Canetti had taken so violently against the British, I think because they had failed to recognize his genius (the Nobel Prize was yet to come), that he determined never to be published in this country. However Tom Rosenthal, who took over our firm towards the end of its days, had once done him a kindness which he remembered, so he finally agreed to let us have his books on condition that we began with the two lots of aphorisms and followed the American editions, which he had approved, to the last comma, including the jacket copy. This left his English editor (me) nothing to do except read the books, but that was enough to get my hackles up. Many of the aphorisms were pithy and a few were witty, but as a whole what pompous self-importance! The last straw was when his thinking turned to nonsense and he declared, as he did in several of these snippets, that he 'rejected death'.
Later I came to know a former lover of his, the Austrian painter Marie-Louise Motesiczky, a woman who sailed into her eighties gracefully in spite of much physical pain as a result of a severe case of shingles, and a life-story that might well have flattened her. She deserves more than passing attention.
I met her by chance. Mary Hernton, a friend who was looking for a bedsitter in Hampstead, told me she had found a wonderful room in the house of an extraordinary old woman. The room, though wonderful, was not right for her purposes, but the woman had impressed Mary so much that she had invited her to tea and wanted me to meet her. What was so remarkable about her? I would see when I met her, and anyway Mary thought she had been Canetti's mistress: her shelves were full of books owned by him and the room had once been his. I did join them for tea, and I too was impressed by Marie-Louise. She was funny, warm, charming and indiscreet. When she learnt that I published Canetti she became excited, disregarding the fact that I had never met him, and plunged at once into telling me how they had been friends and lovers for over twenty years before she learnt that he had a wife and daughter. She knew it sounded improbable, but she had lived a secluded life looking after her mother, who had come with her to England from Vienna just before Hitler invaded Austria (they were members of a rich and distinguished Jewish family). Her seclusion seemed to have spared her the knowledge of Canetti's many other women: she never said anything to me suggesting that she knew about them, only that the revelation of his being married had brought their affair to a sudden and agonizing end. The more she told me, the more it seemed to me that Canetti and her mother, who had died quite recently at a great age, had consumed her life and had left her in emptiness...except that there was no real feeling of emptiness about Marie-Louise.
Mary had told me that she thought Marie-Louise painted, but when quite soon I visited her in her large Hampstead house, which was full of interesting objects and paintings, I could see nothing that looked as though it had been done by her. She did, however, make a passing reference to her work, so I asked if I might see some of it. I asked nervously—very nervously—because nothing is more embarrassing than being shown paintings that turn out to be dreadful. She led me—and this boded ill—into her bedroom, a large, high-ceilinged room, one whole wall of which was an enormous built-in cupboard. This she opened, to reveal racks crammed with paintings, two of which she pulled out. And I was stunned.
This sweet, funny, frail old woman was indeed a painter, the real thing, up there with Max Beckmann and Kokoschka. It was difficult to know how to take it, because one couldn't say 'Oh my god, you really are a painter!', while if one took her for granted as what she was, one would feel impertinent commenting on her work. I can't remember what I did say, but I must have scrambled through it all right because thereafter she was always happy to talk about her work, for which I was grateful. She was wonderful to talk with about painting, and it explained why there was no feeling of emptiness about her. She was an object lesson on the essential luck, whatever hardships may come their way, of those born able to make things.
There was, however, something to worry about, because what were all those paintings doing, languishing in a bedroom cupboard? It turned out that there were two or three in European public collections and that there had been a show of her work at the Goethe Institute not long ago, but still it was a ridiculous situation for which one couldn't help concluding that Canetti and her mother had been largely responsible. Both were cannibals, Canetti because of self-importance, her mother because of dependence. (Once, she told me, when she said to her mother that she was going out for twenty minutes to buy some necessity, her mother wailed 'But what shall I do if I die before you get back?') Though the fact that during the years of her life in England, German expressionist painting, to which her work was related, had been held in little esteem, may also have contributed to her abdication from the art scene.
But worry was wasted. Although she had been taken advantage of by her two loves, Marie-Louise was a skilful manipulator of everyone else. No sooner did she meet anyone than she began diffidently asking them for help. Could you tell her a good dentist, or plumber, or dressmaker? Might she ask you to help her with this tax return? Always in a way suggesting that you were her only hope. It was quite a while before it dawned on me that a considerable part of the population of Hampstead was waiting on her hand and foot, so that worry wasn't really necessary, and by the time I met her a young friend of hers called Peter Black was well on the way to convincing a great Viennese gallery, the Belvedere, that it must give her the major exhibition that she deserved. I was able to help her write tactful letters to them when she disliked the catalogue descriptions they were providing, which earned me an invitation to the opening. (I also, which pleased me even more, persuaded our National Portrait Gallery to reverse its rejection of her portrait of Canetti. They had told her coldly that they were not interested in portraits of unknown people, and—although I ought not to say it—the letter in which I told them who Canetti was without showing that I knew they didn't know, was a masterpiece. I wish I had kept a copy. The portrait is now there.)
The exhibition in Vienna was a wonderful occasion. Seeing those paintings hung where they ought to be was like seeing animals which had been confined in cages at a zoo released into their natural habitat. I am sure Marie-Louise did not wish to be pleased with anything that her native city did for her (it had murdered her beloved brother, who had stayed behind to help his fellow Jews), but although she made a game attempt at dissatisfaction with details, she could not conceal her pleasure at the whole.
At one of our last meetings before her death I asked her if Canetti had meant it literally when he declared that he would not accept it. Oh yes, she said. And she confessed that there was a time when she was so enthralled by the power of his personality that she had allowed herself to think 'Perhaps he will really do it—will become the first human being not to die.' She was laughing at herself when she said this, but a little tremulously. I think she still felt that his attitude was heroic.
To me it was plain silly. It is so obvious that life works in terms of species rather than of individuals. The individual just has to be born, to develop to the point at which it can procreate, and then to fall away into death to make way for its successors, and humans are no exception whatever they may fancy. We have, however, contrived to extend our falling away so much that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster round procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself, 'Why not have a go at it?' So I shall.
Excerpted from Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir by Diana Athill. Published by W.W. Norton & Co. Copyright Diana Athill, 2009