Magazine article The Spectator

In the Editorial Hot Seat

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Editorial Hot Seat

Article excerpt


by Diana Athill

Granta, L12.99, pp. 256

Diana Athill waved her wand and turned me from a frog into a prince, or at least from an aspirant writer into a published novelist. It was May 1977. I had hand-delivered the manuscript of The Monkey King to 105 Great Russell Street. I was 26, Diana was 60.

She sent me a letter I still find touching and asked me to phone for an appointment. Looking back on our first meeting, it was vintage Diana: high intelligence, 100 per cent sincerity, pessimism about the prospects of literature in the marketplace amounting to defeatism, and great vagueness. When I phoned a month later to ask if my book had been accepted she said, `Oh, yes, didn't you realise it? We'd better send you a contract.'

Reading this memoir of her professional life is like having her in front of me. Some writers' authorial voices are quite unlike them; Diana's is a distillation of herself. She doesn't write well, she writes wonderfully well, rather better than most of her writers, if they were using the same material. It wasn't for nothing she won the Observer short story competition the year after Muriel Spark - the prize going on new curtains. In all honesty, however, this memoir can only be of interest to a coterie of insiders. Athill's reputation will rest on Instead of a Letter and After a Funeral which are minor classics.

Even without her ability as a writer, Diana would have been remarkable for her record as a talent-spotter. With the help of Francis Wyndham and Esther Whitby, she performed the same favour for Mordecai Richter, Brian Moore and V. S. Naipaul as she would two decades later for me. And though she respected good writing she was a great puncturer of pretension, always refusing to call her friend Brian Moore `Bree-ahn' and acidly insisting on Bryan. Her rediscovery of Jean Rhys in the Sixties launched the greatest literary comeback of the century and she would do the same again for Molly Keane in the Eighties. As I remember it, though it is not described in Stet, Molly submitted Good Behaviour first to Collins, who wanted an editorial change, and, when the author proved in Diana's words `justifiably arrogant', Deutsch snapped the novel up.

Everybody makes mistakes and Diana is honest about hers, including letting go of Philip Roth just before he wrote Portnoy's Complaint. …

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