‘Somewhere Towards the End’

Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:

Book Thirty years ago the literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley brought out a memoir called The View from 80. It was, as you might guess, a slender volume about old age, much of it emphasizing the “grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be” approach to the advancing years. I had to assign the book for review and, after some thought, called up the distinguished and elderly scholar Douglas Bush, long a fixture of the English department at Harvard. I had every reason to expect Professor Bush to confirm an image of old age as a time of retirement and happy retrospection, of favorite volumes reread before the fireplace, of glasses of brandy shared with friends while reminiscing over the good times, a period, in other words, of serene pleasures and quiet satisfactions.


Bush's piece was an angry cry of rage at these familiar clichés. Old age was cruel and bitter, a time of ashes, not warming fires. He wrote that he could hardly read anymore, and when he could, even favorite books seemed stale and unprofitable. His doctors had cut out drink; his diet was restricted; his body gave him nothing but trouble and misery. A once formidable memory was going, and with it the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a lifetime of scholarship. Those rosy images of a cultivated and leisurely Otium were all mirages. The so-called sunset years were at best tedious and at worst an ordeal.

Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill's account of growing old, lacks Bush's passion but does underscore that, on the whole, the later years are a time of making do with less of everything except aches and pain. Only writing — a talent that the now 91-year-old Athill discovered relatively late in life — affords some modest pleasure to this former editor for the English publisher André Deutsch. To readers Athill delivers far more than modest pleasure: Her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting, for whither she has gone many of us will go as well.

More here.