A once-in-a-lifetime literary love-in

Next week in Toronto, Diana Athill, 92, and Alice Munro, 78, will have a lot to gab about

A once-in-a-lifetime literary love-in“Too Much Happiness” is how organizers are billing next week’s much anticipated on-stage conversation between Alice Munro and the acclaimed British editor and memoirist Diana Athill in Toronto. It’s the obvious choice, being the title of Munro’s new book, a collection of stories her devotees feared they’d never read after she flirted with retiring three years ago at age 75. And felicitous sums up the mood of anyone who scored a $100 ticket for the sold-out show, a PEN benefit that kicks off the International Festival of Authors.

But Life Class, the title of the 92-year-old Athill’s new book, a collected edition of her memoirs, provides the more apt framework for the night. The reference is to Athill taking up life drawing in her 80s, of which she writes: “What you are looking at is precisely life, that inexplicable and astounding cause of our being, to which everything possible in the way of attention is due.”

Such keen observation suggests Athill and the famous lady from Clinton, Ont., will have a lot to gab about. Both women write with astounding insight and candour about what matters most—love, sex, friendship, family and, increasingly, loss and death. Though their biographical differences seem polar, an eerie connectivity exists between the two. Munro can evoke a lifetime, a universe in a story; via her memoirs, Athill has rendered her entire life via stories as compelling as the best fiction—the very sort of vibrant, emotionally resonant universe to which Munro’s landlocked heroines try to escape.

Among Athill’s many talents is a gift for intimacy, both personally and professionally. After Oxford, she became an editor at publisher André Deutsch, befriending authors Brian Moore, V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys.

Her enduring publishing connections led to the idea for a summit between the two great literary dames. Last April, Athill was lunching with Sarah MacLachlan, the president of Anansi Press, and her husband, Noah Richler, in London. Athill is an old Richler family friend, having edited Noah’s father, Mordecai. Conversation turned to Munro. In her 2008 memoir Somewhere Towards the End, Athill writes of “going off” novels later in life. Yet she names Munro (with W.G. Sebald and Chekhov) among “the fiction writers whose minds one falls in love with regardless of the kind of book they are writing.”

MacLachlan set about bringing the two together. Speaking from her London apartment, Athill says she was “overwhelmed” and “honoured” by the invitation. As for what they’ll talk about she hasn’t a clue. “It’s much more interesting to people if it’s spontaneous,” she says. But she does want to meet Munro ahead of the event, which will be podcast, “so we can size each other up.”

Athill is known for her wry wit and a confident self-effacement she traces to her “unfashionably happy” privileged childhood, “whose central teaching was Do Not Think Yourself Important,” the toff version of Munro’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” She and Munro share a disciplined approach to language, she notes: “We use it to be exact as possible rather than to be fanciful or showy.” What Athill loves about Munro is her “extraordinary empathy,” a quality evident in her own writing. “She’s not so much interested in storytelling as she is in the people. Which is why she goes on being so very good—she gets right to the bottom of them.”

Athill is one of the few candid enough to critique Munro. “I like her earlier stories more than I like the new ones,” she says, before singling out the story “Dimensions” in the new book, about a woman whose husband murders their children, as “brilliant” and “as good as any story I’ve ever read.” The newer, darker stories are “more deliberate,” she believes: “This is a pure hunch, but my feeling is that the earlier stories were always based on something factual that she’d seen or heard. Now she’s writing from a wide experience but she’s getting an idea and thinking that might work into a story.”

Of the publication of the 667-page Life Class, she’s “very flattered,” she says. “But I find it very embarrassing. It’s so fat. I don’t think anyone is going to want to read it.” Munro might disagree. The Canadian author’s American editor sent Munro a copy of Instead of a Letter, Athill’s first memoir, last fall. (“I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking the liberty,” says Athill.) Munro sent a note back, saying she loved it: “I never do reviews, but can say—and you can quote—that it’s an honest joy to read.” She underlined “honest joy” twice.

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