Diana Athill has had a most interesting and varied life, and the title she has chosen for her autobiography is proofreaders' jargon for "Let it stand". In other words: no regrets. It's a fine title. As a grand old lady of British publishing, Athill can look back on 50 years of work with the great Andre Deutsch, and many close-working relationships with writers such as VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Brian Moore. One of the distinguishing features of Athill's book is its honesty, both with her colleagues and with herself. (She has already been scolded by another reviewer for revealing that she had an affair with Andre Deutsch, and once kissed one of her authors). Her portrait of Brian Moore is not always very flattering, and as for Naipaul, it is with a sigh of relief that she admits that they are no longer friends, and she is free to admire him simply as a writer, if not as a man. And there is a whole chapter devoted to a forgotten and tragic character called Alfred Chester, whom Athill edited for a while. He ended up in Israel living virtually as a hermit, until he died of heart failure brought on by drink and drugs. It was all "horribly sad". The final sense, however, is one of tremendous energy and enthusiasm for all things bookish, and one can relish the grand, throwaway manner. Of her early girlhood, she recalls simply, "Reading was what one did indoors, as riding was what one did out of doors".--Christopher Hart
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Stet is the proof-reader's word for "let it stand". Diana Athill's STET is a well-named example of the kind of publishing memoir that we sadly lack in Canada. Now eighty-seven, she was a co-founder of André Deutsch Limited and its chief editor throughout decades of success until its sale in 1985. During WWII she had worked in the Overseas News Service of the B.B.C. André, then a recent immigrant from Hungary, had been briefly interned as an enemy alien, but released to begin his climb to publishing eminence as a salesman for a minor firm. They began to work as a team in 1945 when they founded Allan Wingate Publishing. André rented the ground floor of a house near Marble Arch, and they moved in with a skeleton staff and $3000 capital-"it was generally held that no publishing company could make a go of it with less than 15,000 pounds." Most of the work was done in one large front room. She remembers registering surprise one lunchtime when she looked around to find that three others, one of them dealing with a woman and two children, had all been working, completely engrossed, around her: "So there we were, the strain and gloom of war gradually fading away behind us, starting out on a delightful adventure supported and exhilarated by the energies and abilities of the man who had launched it. Even if the ride had its bumpy moments there was no question of wishing to climb down."
The first half of STET tells the story of their publishing venture, the second relates her adventures with specific authors. Overall, she says, "a friendship between a publisher and a writer is ... well, not impossible, but rare." The tasks of an editor are multitudinous: she edited, copy-edited, proof-read and looked after advertising, including ad design. André bought books, thought up books, dealt with authors, printers, binders, book-sellers, making at least one all-important trip a year to American where he picked up many of their most successful books. "He had learnt his way about his trade so rapidly and so thoroughly that it was not fanciful to describe him as someone who had found his vocation." He also nagged his staff unremittingly-she describes him as "perhaps the most difficult man in London." Her vignettes are the meat of the book-André's rejection of Orwell's Animal Farm because he was by no means certain that he would be able to start a firm, the extended farce that accompanied the banning and final publication of Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and its aftermath: "overnight we began to be seen as a brave and dashing little firm." Before long, however, because of chronic lack of funds and André's propensity for rash "gentlemen's agreements ," Allan Wingate was liquidated and André Deutsch begun. This time they had a growing and lasting success until the mid-eighties when, with André's health as well as his temper deteriorating and recession bedeviling their finances, the firm was sold and both Deutsch and Athill retired.
The André Deutsch imprint attracted many best-selling authors, among them Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Philip Roth, John Updike and Vidia Naipaul. Part II, roughly the last half of STET, is a candid memoir of Athill's relationships with authors, an extended essay on the trials and triumphs of a markedly individual and often difficult group of people. There is a warm glow of pleasure to be had in reading her praise of Richler and Moore, as men and writers. We share in both her amusement and amazement at the foibles patiently endured and at the continuing strangeness of people whose work we know well but of whose individuality we have had no idea. Because of the transparent subjectivity of his works, it will surprise no one to know that Naipaul is an unremittingly thin-skinned, touchy and generally difficult man and writer, perhaps her most difficult challenge. Over the years, André Deutsch published eighteen of his works, every one a triumph of editorial tact and patience. Finally, it is with both pleasure and satisfaction that one reads such a conclusion as STET's: "I wake up every morning liking being here...I also wake up knowing that I have been extraordinarily lucky, and a good chunk of that luck came with the job. When I was moved to scribble 'STET' against the time I spent being an editor it was because it gave so many kinds of enlargement, interest, amusement and pleasure to my days." Clara Thomas
(Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada
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