Novellas in November: Short Nonfiction

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the theme is short nonfiction and these are some I’ve read in previous years.
  1. Alive, Alive Oh and Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (21 December 1917 – 23 January 2019). She was a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century at the London-based publishing company Andre Deutsch Ltd. This book contains her memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approached her 100th year, covering events from her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, her post-war life, visits to Florence, and in the Club Mediterranee in Corfu in the 1950s, and the friends and lovers she has known upto 2009 when she moved into a home. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life. And it is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. I loved it.
  2. Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary by Hilary Mantel, another short memoir. I read this in 2011 after Hilary Mantel’s talk at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose had been cancelled in the previous summer.  She had to cancel that because she wasn’t well – I didn’t know just how ill she was. Ink in the Blood reveals all – how she had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations. Illness she found knocks down our defences, revealing things we should never see, needing moment by moment concentration on breathing, on not being sick and being dependent on others for your well-being. Writing was Hilary Mantel’s lifeline – it was the ink, as she wrote in her diary, that reassured her she was alive.
  3. James Herriot’s Cat Stories is a collection of ten stories clearly demonstrating his love of cats. In the introduction James writes that cats were one of the main reasons he chose a career as a vet. They have always played a large part in his life and and when he retired they were still there ‘lightening’ his days. This is a short book of 158 pages with illustrations by by Lesley Holmes.

I’ve recently read Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and I’ll post a review later.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (published in 2015) contains memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). I quoted the opening paragraph of this book and a teaser paragraph in an earlier post, First Chapter, First Paragraph.

It’s only a short book (168 pages), but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life.

She writes about her Great Grandfather’s garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, which she used to love visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, when her grandparents lived there. Her writing is so clear and precise, describing in detail its exact layout and expressing her delight in her memories of it.

In other chapters she describes post-war life and her visits to Florence, and in particular the Club Mediterranee in Corfu in the 1950s; her experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was struck by the disparity between the local people and the tourists/incomers; and the miscarriage when she was in her early 40s, when she nearly died. It was heart breaking to read this remarkably candid account both about what happened and how she felt, her detachment, her resentment that she had lost the baby, even her relief, and finally her gratitude that she was still alive, and her love of life:

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before. (page 87)

It is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. She writes about her decision to move into a home, persuaded by a friend who lived there and about how much she enjoys living there. And her main luxury now is her wheelchair, which she finds has unexpected benefits, such as when she was at an art exhibition – the crowds fell away from her in her wheelchair and she was able to lounge in perfect comfort in front of Matisse’s red Dance.

Of course, she writes about death and dying, as ‘death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.’ She doesn’t find this alarming, and remembers when she was close to death after her miscarriage that her feelings were of acceptance: ‘Oh well, if I die, I die‘. Death is not something she fears, although she has some degree of anxiety at the process of dying and recognises that whereas it’s ‘unwise to expect an easy death, it is not unreasonable to hope for one.

This book has given me much to think about, including this paragraph:

Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now it comes out, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. (pages 5 – 6)

I loved it.

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

One of the books I’ll be reading soon is Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill OBE. From what I’ve read so far it promises to be very interesting. Born in 1917 Diana Athill helped Andre Deutsch establish his publishing company and worked as a literary editor for many years. She is also a novelist and has published several memoirs.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter begins:

‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits’: I have forgotten who it is who is supposed to have said that, but it is a good description of a state quite often observed in a retirement home, and considered pitiable. Disconcertingly, I recently realized that I myself (not very often, just now and then) might say those very words if somebody asked me what I was doing. It is not a welcome thought, but less dreadful than it might be because I now know from experience that the state is not necessarily pitiable at all. It is even pleasant – or it can be. That probably depends on the nature of the person sitting. To me it has been, because the thinking turns out to be about events in the past which were enjoyable, and when the mind relaxes itself it is those same events which float in and out of it.

Blurb:

What matters in the end? In the final years of life, which memories stand out? Writing from her retirement home in Highgate, London, as she approaches her 100th year, Diana Athill reflects on what it is like to be in her nineties, and on the moments in her life which have risen to the surface and sustain her in her later years.

She recalls in sparkling detail the exact layout of the garden of her childhood, a vast and beautiful park attached to a large house, and writes with humour, clarity and honesty about her experiences of the First and Second World Wars, and her trips to Europe as a young woman. In the remarkable title chapter, Athill describes her pregnancy at the age of forty-three, losing the baby and almost losing her life, and her gratitude on discovering that she had survived.

With vivid memories of the past mingled with candid, wise and often very funny reflections on the experience of being very old, Alive, Alive Oh! reminds us of the joy and richness to be found at every stage of life.

Teaser Tuesday newTeaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat. ! Just do the following:

‘¢ Grab your current read
‘¢ Open to a random page
‘¢ Share two (2) ‘teaser’sentences from somewhere on that page

My teaser is from page 29:

It annoys me when someone describes this country in the late 1940s and 1950s as being dreary, an opinion usually based on the continuation of rationing for some years after the war’s end. People who see it like that can’t have lived through the war. Those of us still alive who did so see it differently.

It’s a short book – just 168 pages – but she seems to have packed so much into it.