In 1963 Diana Athill published an autobiography called Instead of a Letter, which has gained an enduring reputation. Its latest 'rediscovery' was in the United States in 1984, when a reviewer in the Washington Post said: 'Only a few totally honest accounts of a human life exist...To see the truth of your own life you must first have gotten beyond ...
In 1963 Diana Athill published an autobiography called Instead of a Letter, which has gained an enduring reputation. Its latest 'rediscovery' was in the United States in 1984, when a reviewer in the Washington Post said: 'Only a few totally honest accounts of a human life exist...To see the truth of your own life you must first have gotten beyond all illusions about yourself, and probably about the world, as well. She is also a gifted writer - and if one may judge by this book, an enchanting woman.' This caused a friend to chide Miss Athill for writing nothing further (except for one little-noticed novel). Miss Athill then divulged that she had in fact written two 'documentaries', one in the late 1960s, one in the early 1970s, which were 'in a drawer somewhere'. She was persuaded to disinter them, and this astonishing book is the first of them. It is the story of how and why an exceptionally charming man killed himself. He was an Egyptian who had been exiled by Nasser's regime because he was a Communist, and he wrote one very good novel. She calls him 'Didi', a name not unlike that given by his family to the real man. His gifts were considerable, but were undermined by depression, which made him self-destructive: a gambler, a drinker, a wrecker of relationships - and a friend impossible to drop because of his extreme vulnerability. Miss Athill, having by a narrow margin steered clear of being in love with him, took him on and supported him for his last three years, gradually learning how little she or anyone else could do to avert what Didi called 'the one authentic act in my life': his suicide, which took place at her flat. Their friendship remained complex and intense even after any resemblance to a love affair, as usually understood, had long evaporated. For this reason Diana Athill knew that he could not write about Didi as a detached observer. The interaction between them was part of the story, so she would have to include herself in it if it was to be bas near the truth as she could get it. It is this which gives her book its powerful immediacy and humanity.
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