INSTEAD OF A LETTER, by Diana Athill. W.W. Norton & Co., 237 pp., $14.95 paper.
AFTER A FUNERAL, by Diana Athill. W.W. Norton & Co., 199 pp., $13.95 paper.
When Diana Athill's maternal grandmother was dying a long and painful death at 92, Athill writes, she "turned her beautiful speckled eyes towards me one afternoon and said in so many words: 'What have I lived for?' "
At least that is the way Athill remembers the moment, and who would want to doubt her? It is this question, turned on herself, that begins her engrossing memoir, "Instead of a Letter," first published in 1962. This led to more books about her singular life and times - including "Stet" (2000), about the British editor's 50-year career publishing such giants as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and "Somewhere Towards the End," her celebrated observations on aging, which, at 91, made her a bestselling, prizewinning author and Officer of the British Empire.
What a gift that, two years later, we can savor her first two memoirs - "Instead of a Letter," about her childhood and a lost love, and "After a Funeral" (1986), about her complex relationship with a charming, severely unstable Egyptian exile, a writer she calls Didi, who committed suicide in her flat in 1969.
Athill, now 93, has not merely lived an interesting life and observed it. Clearly, she has always been a wonderful storyteller, as masterly about suspense and pacing as she is brutally perceptive about other people, post-Empire British social history and herself. "Instead of a Letter" feels a bit overdecorated at first - as descriptive and leisurely as an English costume drama. But soon she drops in a nugget of foreshadowing, a throwaway line indicating the wartime death of the man she believed to be the love of her life and, later, a shocker about him that previews "twenty years of unhappiness" for this girl we've come to trust as lively and hearty.
In both books, we journey through the life of a sexually adventurous unmarried woman - "if not a career woman, at least a woman who had found a career" - who co-founded, almost by happenstance, an important English publishing company with Andre Deutsch.
It was by similar fluke that her life became entangled with the much-younger Didi (actually novelist Waguih Ghali). As she explains at the start of "After a Funeral," she had invited him to a dinner party "because I loved a book he had written." During their five-year friendship, he turned out to be a hopeless gambler, a drinker, a freeloading "parasite" and deceptive depressive who, increasingly, treated her like a grotesque, a "pathetic old spinster."
Why would anyone put up with him? As she explains, not entirely convincingly, her "vanity" made her want "to feel that I am a nice person rather than a nasty one." He left her his diary, the inspiration for this memoir and justification for her loyalty. "Well-edited," he wrote in his suicide note, "it could be a good piece of literature." Clearly, Athill is incapable of anything less.