Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse (2011)

Still haven’ t met Sandra? I briefly introduced her here, and she has contributed four posts to this 45 Days of House of Anansi Project. This will be her last appearance here in this capacity, but you will continue to see her in the comments sections, so please watch and see when the link to her own corner of bookishness becomes live (she’s working on it!) and stop by to say hello.

For now, please enjoy her thoughts on Diana Athill’s stories. Thanks, Sandra.

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Granta Books, 2011 (via House of Anansi)

Reading Diana Athill is, for me, like having a cup of tea with a good friend at an old garden table with the first leaves of fall dropping softly and the sun warming the air just enough to keep you there the entire afternoon.

Athill’s preface gives the same feeling. She writes that these stories “recall the special flavour of the thrill you experience when first you make things happen with words on paper” and that “the discovery that I could write changed my life for the better in a very profound way, so they mean a great deal to me.”

The preface was written in 2010 while the stories go back much farther (late fifties) but there is an immediacy to them, an enthusiasm and energy that urges the reader on to the next one.

In “The Real Thing”, Athill begins with this delightful sentence: “I went to the dance with Thomas Toofat.”

Impossible not to read on.

The young narrator informs us that “There’s nothing more withering than dinner with grown-ups before a dance” and remembers when she was twelve hearing her mother and aunt saying they were glad they had got out of going to a dance and she herself thinking it was the most tragic thing she had ever heard “because if you’re so old that you don’t even want to dance” then she couldn’t see “that you can want to do anything”.

Her conclusion was that if you didn’t want to do anything then “you might as well be dead.”

In this same story our narrator is asked by an older more experienced gentleman whether she preferred to be “flattered, or amused, or disconcerted?”

Her reply? “I was disconcerted, of course, but I didn’t show it. What I said – and I still think it was very good – was: ‘What I really like best is to be enraptured.’”

And the conversation continues in the same engaging manner. She gets her first kiss from Thomas Toofat, all the time thinking that Thomas Hardy said that first kisses are always disappointing.

Truly delightful and highly entertaining.

There is also sadness in this collection such as that between Jane and Stephen when Stephen returns from summer vacation and tells Jane that “perhaps we shouldn’t see each other like this any more, because look what a state we get in.” And Jane felt as though she had been “wrenched in two. Her present self was sobbing in the bath” while her other, “future-self was watching” and hoping she might recover but also hoping she would always remember “that it couldn’t be more terrible. Please, please promise that you will never laugh.” Poignant and aptly titled, “No Laughing Matter”.

“The Return” is a story for which Athill won five hundred pounds and validated her belief in her ability to write. It is an interesting adventure that two Englishwomen have on a vacation when two men, Christos and Spiro take them out in their boat. It is cinematic, funny and sad simultaneously.

“A Weekend in the Country” is a powerful examination of what a person wants. When faced with the prospect of a good relationship with a man who is committed to country living and values she cannot accept and which would mean giving up the life she had established for herself in London “where she stopped being miserable”, Elizabeth’s new identity is severely tested.

Granta Books, 2008 (via House of Anansi)

“Midsummer Night in the Workhouse” once again brings out Athill’s fun side. Cecilia Mathers is spending time at an artists’ retreat, Hetherston Hall, and simply cannot get down to serious writing. Mrs. Lucas, whose home is Hetherston Hall and who oversees the running of the retreat, leaves signs about to instruct the residents. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM HANGING HATS ON THESE ANTLERS. THEY WERE MR. LUCAS’S PRIDE. The various residents such as Philip Dunn, painter, Charles Opie, whom Cecilia calls Bouncer and who is “there for his celebrity”, Mr. Doherty, poet, Laura Preston and Mrs. Borrowdale, both writers, and Salviati, another painter, are a disparate group. Cecilia gets more and more bored and discouraged until one night she goes out for a walk and stumbles into a herd of heifers, is rescued by Charles Opie who proposes that she have sex with him and who uses an expression that hits Cecilia like an electric shock. This story has an hilarious cinematic ending and deserves the position as title story.

At this point in the collection, I discerned an ever so slight change in tone: a little darker and characters who are farther along in life and/or have more life experience. “For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound” concerns Kate Beeston and her husband Robert. David Field lives 10 miles away and Kate has met David’s wife Penelope only occasionally. Here’s a little of the final paragraph: “Well, anyway,” she thought, “there is a man in the world I could love.”

Roger Paul goes on strike from being himself in “An Afternoon Off”. He goes to a film starring Fernandel (France’s top comic actor between 1930 and 1970/Wikipedia). Before the film had progressed very far, Roger “began to feel the emptiness of the afternoon cinema sucking at his attention.” “There was only one other person in his row, a girl three seats away.” They exit the cinema at the same time and he invites her to tea. After tea he felt depressed and guilty for not having called the office regarding his half-day. He remembers an appointment he had booked at the office. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience?

Or maybe an experience like that in “An Unavoidable Delay”? Rose and Paul met on a train and when it stops for twenty minutes in Venice, Rose decides to disembark and take another train the next day. She planned to send a telegram saying “unavoidably delayed.” The preface indicates that this was the first written in this series of stories.

“The Unavoidable Delay” is followed by “The Island” in which Madeleine Cross, “a little drunk”, leaves her husband Martin at a party, something she had never done before. (Like Rose in the previous story and also like Roger Paul in the story before that!). On her way home “she had to cross a busy street…at a point where it divided, islanding a church with a graveyard and thrusting a wedge into the traffic.” Madeleine stopped there and absorbed the stillness. All the time she kept wondering where Martin was, imagining that he should have followed her. When does he catch up? Is she disappointed? Is he angry or concerned?

In “Desdemona”, the characters are not given names. In their first encounter both are intoxicated and have only just met. Their second encounter involves less alcohol and more conversation: he is an engineer on a ship and his home is Australia. “To begin with she felt like Desdemona listening to Othello.” His stories and/or facts were entertaining. His opinions were another matter. She called him her “unselfconscious old thug.” Athill ties the ending to the title quite neatly.

“A Hopeless Case” is the reverse situation of The Island in that Philip walks out on a party, meets up with Lilian and expects Sarah, his wife, to be home before him. And she is but Paul’s reaction surprises even himself.

“Buried” is a story of a brother, Guy Cooper, and his sister Enid Klein who travel to a neighbours to dine and are in an accident on the way home. It examines childhood memories and sibling relationships which last a lifetime.

All of these stories bring a kind of comfort, even the more difficult among them. I suspect the secret is in Athill’s voice, its honesty and energy.

On the back of the paperback edition of Somewhere Toward the End (winner of the Costa Biography Award in 2008) is this quote from the Observer: “There is a sense throughout Athill’s work that you are making a new friend as much as reading a new story…a delight to read.”

Athill’s memoir or Athill’s fiction: equally delightful.

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Project Notes: 
Day 31 of 45: One more day left in this theme. I’ve been really lucky to have Sandra contributing some posts because there has been a lot of Anansi reading going on. I’m still reading, but everything is under way now, even those I have planned for the final days, and I’ve even started to think about January!

And you? Have you read any of Diana Athill’s work? Or have any other short stories caught your attention lately?

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4 comments to Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse (2011)

  • So much for me reading along in solidarity–the month has slipped by once again and I’m still thinking of what I need to do. Purely by chance, however, this is the one book I ordered and am glad to hear that you liked it Sandra. I like your tea drinking comparison and maybe that is what I had in the back of my mind when I decided on this collection of stories. One for next year anyway! :) Glad to hear you’ll be blogging–I always enjoy reaidng your comments on BiP’s Alice Munro posts!

  • Sandra

    Thanks Danielle. Get that tea pot warmed and ready as soon as you can and prepare to be thoroughly entertained. You will read this one more than once I bet. Thanks for your encouragement regarding the blogging and the Alice Munro posts. I am really looking forward to the Dear Life project next month. Hope you will be joining in that.

  • These passages are beautiful, and though I haven’t read any of the author’s work yet, you make me want to go out and grab both of the books that are mentioned here. Very interesting contribution today!

  • Sandra

    I do hope you will try Athill, zibilee. I began with her memoir Somewhere Towards the End because I had been intrigued by a review and by what the Guardian calls “her shameless honesty”. I constantly return to her work and always find her voice both a comfort and an inspiration. These stories were a treat at the same time as they added to my picture of the person.

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