Thursday, November 3, 2011

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse

At the beginning of October, as part of the New Yorker Festival, a friend and I saw a panel about 'the writer's writer,' which involved authors Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss what they thought the term meant and offer up some examples of who they thought of as a writer's writer. They all had a lot to say, but for me the standout insight came from Lahiri, when she said talked about writing that first work. You don't realize what it is, she said (I'm paraphrasing, of course), so you're only writing it for yourself and that gives the work this kind of pure energy and purpose and delight that can get lost after success and pressure for your next book invade your writing space. For Lahiri, a writer's writer is someone who, book after book, can recapture the innocence of purpose of writing their first book. I thought about that idea of innocence and purity a lot as I read Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, a new collection of Diana Athill's earliest stories.

Athill, now in her nineties, is one of those legendary British editors – she's worked with Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others – and, an accomplished novelist and memoirist in her own right. But, as she writes in the preface to this new edition of her short stories, she never planned to be a writer. Then, one day while she was out for a walk with her dog, a man flirted with her shamelessly and it reminded her of another many she once knew, and she decided to write a story about him. From there, she says, the ideas started flowing; many of them were based on personal experiences until all of a sudden she'd think of something else and the story would become fiction. 

This writerly process is reflected in the story for which the collection is named. in "Midsummer Night in the Workhouse," a young writer is struggling for inspiration. Her first novel was a great success, but she hasn't been able to come up with anything else and finally, after her editors discovered how poor she was, they sent her to a kind of artists' retreat. Ostensibly, with food and lodging looked after, she was supposed to be freed up to write, but instead she languishes – everyone else in the house is hard at work and she simply wanders around, helping in the garden a bit and reading the admonishing notes left by the woman who owns the house. Much like Athill, though, something happens in the story to remind her of an old love affair, which she decides to write. As she's jotting down details, she is surprised to find herself rewriting the actual affair – that is, not sticking to the facts, but adding in details that didn't happen, thereby crafting a new story. It's all a bit breathless, but it seems as if Athill might be describing a bit her own early process in a fictional setting.

The energy of worry and excitement drives the majority of the stories in Midsummer Night, allowing each narrative to catch you up individually. Although the majority of the stories are about young-ish women, and all of them involve romantic relationships in one way or another, each one is crisp in the way to stands alone from the stories preceding and following it. Themes of youth and sex and London run through Athill's stories, providing a thread on which to string these stories together and a unifying sense of time and space that allow a mood to settle when you read the collection as a complete work. However, these were not stories written with a collection in mind, and although I enjoyed reading them all together in a line, I can also see myself coming back to read them again, one at a time, in my own sequence.

At the New Yorker Fest talk, Diana Athill's name didn't come up among the panelists' lists of writers' writers, but I think that's because, more than that, she's a reader's writer. That sounds obvious maybe (I mean, shouldn't all writers be that?), but what I mean is that her work, and specifically Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, is the kind you can read over and over again without feeling you've heard it all before. Although her writing is straightforward and fairly unadorned, she manages to slide in so many details and suggestions that I think at least half of them slide off on first-read, waiting for you to come back and soak them up later. Athill's stories are so much about the everyday, almost mundane, pieces of life that they seem new when held up for you to walk around. It's that innocence Lahiri was talking about – that anyone will care about these snippets of life – that make Athill's stories glow, making her a writer for readers and writers alike.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse
by Diana Athill
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press)

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