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Who did Athill really write this book for?
on 31 August 2012
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it's a touching memorial to a man who obviously meant a lot to Diana Athill. On the other hand, it's a knowing exploitation of that man's mental illness and suicide. Think about it: however altruistic/honourable the author's intentions might seem, she is ultimately the one who profits from this account of Didi's life (the troubled Egyptian author Waguih Ghali). She seems to have written this book a) to clear her own conscience and b) to indulge in the juicy, very "literary" topics of madness and suicide.
I'll admit that I was hooked on Athill's writing until the very end... it's an intriguing story, made all the more interesting by the fact that it really did happen. But when I turned the last page, I began to feel as though I'd been "played". This was gossipy, sensationalist writing at its very best and I'd been kept in my seat by the promise of a gruesome climax: Didi's final breakdown and subsequent suicide. I was being entertained at his expense. Did I really need all of those intimate, first-hand excerpts from his diary? Or a description of how Athill made love to him, just weeks before he took his own life? I felt as though I'd intruded on this man's private misery... which Athill was now airing in public, seemingly as a badge of honour: "an exiled artist killed himself in my flat - haven't I led an exciting, passion-filled life?".
This self-serving tone creeps in at other times, too - for example, when Athill uses foul language entirely without reason (even going so far as the "C" word at one point). I also don't trust anyone who uses the word "lover" too often. "My lover said this", "I talked it over with my lover"... these are self-conscious attempts to make herself seem liberated, open-minded and young at heart. I found it all quite pretentious, which - by the time you're almost seventy - really is a quality you should've grown out of.