Diana Athill is perhaps best known for her memoir Somewhere Towards the End, but Letters to a Friend could eclipse it. It's a collection of letters written between 1981 and 2007 to the American poet Edward Field. Athill was first introduced to him through their mutual friendship with the eccentric American author Alfred Chester, whom she published in the 1950s and '60s as an editorial director at André Deutsch, the London publishing house, a position she held from 1952 to her retirement four decades later. Athill is now 94, happily living in an "old people's place," as she calls it.
"Usually when someone's letters are published the writer is dead," Athill writes in her introduction. "In this case there was a problem: Edward is six years younger than I am.... If he waited until I was dead he might be dead too." At first Athill demurred, but Field insisted their correspondence was worthy of publication and she finally relented.
Each letter is an unalloyed delight; articulate to the point of eloquence, and candid, even about the naughty bits and her frustration with her long-time lover, Barry Reckord (a Jamaican playwright now deceased). They were together for years, in a relationship so open that, at one point, Athill invited one of his girlfiends to live with them.
Field shares Athill's letters with his partner of more than half a century, Neil Derrick, who lives in New York. Derrick, also a writer, was blinded by an operation for a brain tumor and he listens as Field reads each letter aloud. Athill cheerleads the couple when they decide to put their heads together and write a commercial novel, and revels in their success when they pull it off. She is in France on the occasion of Princess Di's funeral and watches every second of it, mixing her compassion for Di's boys with her contempt for the royal family. She has little sympathy for Di, writing that she was a "foolish, flighty, unhappy girl being turned into a saint just because she was pretty, and affectionate to children and sad people." She describes Di's brother, who promised that he would protect Di's boys from the royal family, as "a man whose marriage collapsed in an ugly way and who went to live in South Africa and who has, I think, the face of a bad tempered pink pig."
No, this scribe does not pull her punches, but every letter in Letters to a Friend is a small masterpiece; chatty, companionable and very, very intelligent. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: An epistolary memoir filled with Diana Athill's wit and humor, celebrating a 30-year friendship.