Diana Athill was one of the great twentieth century editors. She was also my first UK editor, since Jack McClelland of McClelland and Stuart – who’d acquired the international rights to my first novel to be published, The Edible Woman – sold the book to André Deutsch Ltd.
André Deutsch was a real person, and Diana was his partner. You wouldn’t have known this if you’d visited their premises: André, a smallish man, sat in a large room behind a desk the size of a conference table, and Diana – an imposing presence, stately and by no means petite – was crammed into a sort of broom closet. So it was in the world of books, in those days. As Diana herself said in her beloved series of candid memoirs, if you were a woman then you felt lucky just to be working in publishing at all.
The tasks at André Deutsch were similarly distributed:
André made the business deals and the messes and pranced around like Best in Show at Crufts, and Diana edited the books, mollified the authors with chat and very black coffee, and cleaned up André’s messes as best she could, like a dutiful sweeper. Deutsch was open to offshore writers – Mordecai Richler from Canada, Brian Moore, originally from Ireland, V.S. Naipaul, originally from Trinidad – so it was an obvious publisher for Jack to choose. I did not realize it then, but I made Jack and André nervous. I can’t imagine that the consumption of a woman-shaped cake, as featured in the book, would have cheered either of them up. It was the end of the sixties, and the past two decades had been dominated by male writers. Young women who wrote were regarded as freakish, and in England this was compounded by a generally dismissive attitude towards ‘colonials’.
Diana did not share these biases. She was gracious and encouraging in every way. Undoubtedly she found me odd – I was odd – but she never expressed this.
We parted company because André made one of his messes, and this time Diana could not clean it up. He was famous for lowballing young authors whose stock had gone up in the world, and so it was with me; but my newly acquired agent, Phoebe Larmore, would have none of it, and she and André had words on a London Underground platform. I have never known what those words were – they must have been something – nor did I ever receive the letter of regret that Diana sent me: it went astray. But when I won the Booker in 2000 I thanked her, and then we had a happy reunion.
Diana was admired by all who knew her, and also by all who read her memoirs, for her honesty, her plain but elegant style, her lack of pretenses, and her stoicism in the face of ever-narrowing possibilities. She was a model of how to age, not that aging is something we do by choice. ‘Gracefully’ doesn’t quite cover it, but it will have to do for now. I am very fortunate to have had her in my life.