In her latest memoir, “Alive, Alive Oh!” British author Diana Athill offers an acute and vibrant portrait of the ups and downs of a nonagenarian’s existence.
“Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter”
by Diana Athill
W.W. Norton, 180 pp., $24.95
Diana Athill, 98, still has a few things to teach us about growing old with dignity and humor and grace.
Her latest memoir, “Alive, Alive Oh!” follows the unlikely literary celebrity she achieved at age 90 with the publication of the prizewinning best-seller “Somewhere Towards the End.”
In this collection of astute and sparkling essays, Athill tries to identify “the things that matter” after living to almost 100.
It’s not her love affairs, though she had plenty. “About halfway through my 70s I stopped thinking of myself as a sexual being,” she writes. “It was like coming out onto a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle.”
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What remains are “memories, thoughts and reflections”: of her grandparents’ garden, where an apple tree provides “the nearest I ever came to a mystical experience.”
Of women’s changing fashions — even for a girl born in 1917, “pinkness and sparkle” were everything. And of her reluctant decision to move into a retirement home, an essay that includes a hilarious account of a day spent planting rosebushes with a few other nonagenarian residents, one of them blind.
“One good thing about being physically incapable of doing almost anything is that if you manage to do even a little something, you feel great,” she observes.
One of the most powerful essays recounts a pregnancy in her 40s, a brush with death that left her profoundly grateful to be alive. Another chapter, titled “Lessons,” offers up a few: “Avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness,” she says. In her case, that meant no children and affairs with married men.
But she has few, if any, evident regrets.
Rather, the life she describes is one of abundance — although not material — where every sorrow is offset by sweetness of all kinds — friends, food, fashion, art, literature, travel and rambles in nature.
The book’s title recalls the lyrics of a popular song about a Dublin street vendor, Molly Malone, who wheels her wheelbarrow “through streets broad and narrow, crying cockles and mussels alive, alive oh!”
It’s an odd image for Athill, who was born into privilege, educated at Oxford and had a distinguished career at the BBC and in British publishing.
And yet it isn’t. Both the fictional Molly and the real Diana are out there in the thick of things, mixing it up, acutely aware that all living things, whether mussels or humans, are destined to die.