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Book Review: After a Funeral by Diana Athill

What to do about the guest who overstays his or her welcome? Moreover what to do about the guest who stays on for not just a few hours but several years? Such is the dilemma that once faced publisher and writer Diana Athill. After a Funeral is Ms Athill’s bitter-sweet account of her relationship with an impoverished Egyptian national in London in the mid-1960s, a man who would become the ‘lodger from hell.’

Athill, that most middle class of English women, confesses early on in the book that she can’t resist foreign men. Indeed, like many of her class and background she’s a sucker for anything 'exotic.' And there’s nothing quite as exotic as a foreign lover, is there? While the vast majority see past skin colour, the white middle class liberal is obsessed to such an extent it makes one wonder if there is something psychological going on, an urge to conquer their own prejudices by actively pursuing that which appals them.

A few years into the future Athill would undergo another chaotic affair, this time with Hakim Jamal, the black power activist who styled himself as ‘God.’ Perhaps her desire to possess 'exotic' men really did stem from some kind of middle class neurosis. Who can tell?

After meeting ‘Didi’ (Waguih Ghali) at a dinner party the author falls in love with this rather sensitive, younger Egyptian émigré. Or perhaps she fell in love with the idea of such a scenario, because as ever with Ms Athill much of what follows is pure whimsy. It’s almost as if, by taking in exotic waifs and strays, the author is fulfilling a rather odd maternal fantasy (Athill had no children and remained unmarried until her death). Ever eager to shock, at one point she muses about motherhood, wondering if, had she been a mother, whether she might have been tempted to make her son a lover . . . how terribly subversive.

As with Jamal, Athill provided the feckless Didi with a roof over his head. The Egyptian, like the Bostonian would after him, becomes a ‘kept man.’ According to the author Didi is a talented writer, a man who appreciates ‘elegance’ but it totally lacking in any kind of discipline. He drinks, gambles and womanises. But despite having a harem of women, the young Egyptian despises his own promiscuity, scorns himself but can’t mend his ways. Like Jamal, Didi is essentially a bum albeit a sophisticated bum.

Much of the book is spent with Athill analysing her rent-free lodger’s ever increasing dark moods. Soon, the relationship between hostess and guest becomes fraught. It seems that Didi might have been suffering from a neurological problem, a condition that worsened during his time under Athill’s roof. Although landlady and lodger’s relationship remained platonic, on one occasion a drunken Didi added Athill to his list of conquests – an event she relates with customary detachment. Athill would surely have made a superb psychologist.

And so the relationship deteriorates and Athill isn’t sure what to do. While she admires this complex, psychologically disturbed character, she is acutely aware of her lodger’s self-destructive trajectory. Furthermore, she is powerless to do anything about this intense and claustrophobic situation. When Didi walks out, he always returns. It’s as if this odd couple can’t live with or without one another. But what is the precise nature of their relationship? Landlady and tenant? Mother and son? Friends? In the three or so years they lived together, it appears neither party really knew.

As his (mental) illness progresses, Didi’s self-loathing increases. The author is barely able to cope and reading her analyses does become a little . . . challenging, her own weariness infecting the reader or so it feels. Certainly, it’s a rather grim tale and the author’s introspection becomes more profound as the book goes on: Why does Didi behave the way he does? Is it her fault? After a while it becomes a little, well tiresome. As such After a Funeral is an inferior work to Make Believe, Athill’s account of her Hakim Jamal period. It’s too obsessive, too self-indulgent, too mawkish.

The urge to shout: "Well, sweetie, you did want an exotic foreign pet," is at times overwhelming.

What a strange, intense little psychodrama is presented here. After a Funeral is a peculiarly static piece of work. Outside of Athill’s drawing room nothing much happens. Tortured soul or not, Didi comes across as an egotistical man, utterly selfish and without much to recommend him. His suicide, described with characteristic dispassion, when it does finally arrive (January 1969) feels like the only possible solution. Indeed, the author's relief is almost palpable. If Didi comes across less than heroically, what to make of Athill and her impeccable middle class sensibilities?

Although it might at times feel like a fiction, it’s worth while remembering that events described in this slim volume really did happen – at least I think they did. She certainly knew how to pick ‘em, Ms Athill. Why, it's almost as if she knew exactly what she was doing . . .