If you, like me, are an easy sell when it comes to books (all things being relative of course), have pen and paper in hand if you read Diana Athill's memoir, Stet: An Editor's Life. She talks about books and writers in a way that is going to make you want to read them (or at least jot them down) even when you thought you didn't have an interest. Good books do that to you. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stet, which in case you're curious, is an editor's notation to a typesetter to "let it stand"/or disregard previous changes made to a text.
Athill writes in such an engaging manner. She's knowledgeable yet self-deprecating and writes with such a fresh voice. Coming out of the war years she joined André Deutsch in founding the publishing firm, Allan Wingate, which later became simply André Deutsch. For over fourty years Athill worked with the mercurial Deutsch who was the publisher and she took on the role as editor, and she had a real talent for it. Once they set the romance aspect of their relationship aside, or rather the possibility of romance, they generally got on quite well.
It was interesting reading about the publishing world (post-WWII through the 1980s) from a woman's perspective. Not surprisingly she made less money than her male counterparts and ended up with either the smaller office or none at all, but Athill seemingly is not bitter about these situations, and perhaps it's simply the era she was raised in. As a matter of fact she seems to have enjoyed a positive outlook on so many aspects of her long and interesting life. Even in Austerity Britain, which has always been portrayed as dreary and bleak and full of shortages, Athill seems, if not exactly cheery, certainly as though no problem was insurmountable. It's with this same attitude that she seems to face the rest of her life's problems.
Stet was chosen as the Slaves most recent book group choice (the only book, by the way, that I managed to finish on time last month). As I read it earlier in March (and didn't take notes, so therefore details are fading quickly) and as everyone will be sharing their thoughts here or on their blogs, I think I won't try and touch on everything she wrote about (impossible with nonfiction in any case), but share a few bits and pieces that I found interesting. I dog-eared many pages in the copy of the book I read.
Norman Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was Allan Wingate's most important book. Six London publishers had rejected it despite the "wave of excitement" on which it arrived from America. At the time Allan Wingate was still a little too small to be anyone's first choice of publisher. The problem was Mailer's use of natural language, which for young soldiers meant an inordinate amount of use of the F word. They took it on and it became a bestseller. They were seen then as a "brave and dashing little firm worthy of serious attention from agents." By the way they substituted "fug" and "fugging" for the offending word. This is one of the authors I had never thought of reading until now.
Athill writes about a lot of authors and books and what she learned from them. Some of them aren't even particularly notable and weren't bestsellers at the time they were published. They are memorable however, because of the "voice" of the writer. She talks about two in particular by authors Morris Stock and Daphne Anderson.
"They brought home to me the central reason why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of life: of its consuming darkness, and also--thank god--of the light which continues to struggle through."
The stories she tells about her work with books and writers are really fascinating. One of the more absorbing editing tasks that came her way was a book by Gitta Sereny called Into That Darkness. Gitta was fifteen and living in Austria when Hitler came to power. She had been sent to school in France and spent the years of the German occupation looking after abandoned children. After the war and because of her experiences during it, she felt she needed to find someone capable of explaining "how presumably normal human beings had been brought to do what had been done."
"I could write at length about Into that Darkness, but it would make more sense for those of my readers who don't know it to get hold of a copy. The reason why working on it was so important to me was that its subject engaged me so completely."
Another book for the wishlist.
The first half of the book is about Athill's experiences in publishing in general, but in the latter half she writes about six authors with whom she had very close working relationships. I already mentioned her friendship with Irish writer Molly Keane. She puts into words how I feel about V.S. Naipaul (one of those authors who I feel like I should read, but just never seem to get around to).
"...at a certain point many people in the wider reading public start to feel that they ought to read a writer--but it was always obvious that he was not going to make big money. An old friend of mine who reads a good deal once said to me apologetically--'I'm sure he's very good, but I don't feel he's for me'--and she spoke for a large number of reading public."
She manages to cast Jean Rhys into a very sympathetic light. I've heard so many critical (a kind way of saying negative) observations about her that it was starting to become a little off-putting to think about reading her books. I do, though, want to read her books and have a biography of her as well. I want to read both Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler (recent desires by the way), as in just a few brief pages she creates these wonderful 'character' studies of them.
A good part of the appeal for Athill's memoir is the stories she tells and the way she writes about her authors, some of whom were not terribly likable, but extremely interesting to read about. It's a reminder that Athill wasn't just an editor but was a writer, too. I had already acquired her book of short stories,Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, a novel called Don't Look at Me Like That and more recently Letters to a Friend, which is a book of correspondence.
I have this feeling that if you are lucky enough to be seated next to Athill at a dinner party, it would be an evening filled with sparkling conversation. Reading Stet is (almost) the next best thing. Definitely one of my great finds (authorwise certainly) this year.