A Good Friend I Never Knew

It was the title that interested me. Stet. I must have been reading a book review when it caught my eye. The favorite word of the editor who edits as she reads.

Stet means, in case you haven’t run across the insular world of proofreading marks, leave as it is. Say you were editing the following sentence… “In a city that teases its denizens and visitors by outwardly showing only hints of its beauty, he insisted that we pay attention to the details of our surroundings so as not to miss the moment revealed.” An editor might think the sentence should end “…the moment that was revealed.” She could place a caret after moment and then insert that was; then she could change her mind, realizing that the author had it right all along. She would mark Stet in the margin. She was indicating to the person who would incorporate the edits into typeset copy to let the original copy stand. Of course, this was before word-processing and track changes.

When I use Stet now, as I edit a piece of writing, it reminds me of my twenties when I worked in publishing. It’s an anachronism. I like it also because it’s part of the mysterious and intellectually glamorous (to outsiders) world of books, writing and authors.

A brilliant title for a book, too. Stet, by Diana Athill is her memoir of her career at the literary publishing house André Deutsch. It is collected in a larger volume of her memoirs — Life Class. The first installment, Yesterday Morning tells of her upper middle class girlhood in Norfolk; a world of starched linen dresses, long summer days, nature providing the distractions and playthings of children. No one really seems to work and there is just enough money to get by. Instead of a Letter follows; it is a powerful and affecting tale of her first romance, her engagement and her devastation when her fiancé abandons her. It should be required reading for anyone who has been dumped by a partner — and who didn’t see it coming. Stet describes her career as an editor and her editorial relationships with several writers: Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S. Naipaul and Molly Keane. I’ve heard of these writers, and can probably come up with a title or two of a book they wrote, but I confess never to having read them. After reading Diana Athill’s description of working with them, their books have made it to my To Read list. I love when reading one book leads to another — it’s like the beginning of a literary genealogy. Life Class concludes with Somewhere Towards The End, her memoir of old age which won the Costa Prize for Biography (Costa? like the coffee shop? Not so distinguished a name.)

I loved this book — even though it is over 650 pages and it took me almost six months to finish. Diana Athill is a vivid writer who brings the reader into her head. She writes with great honesty, at times confessing her laziness or hir shirking of family responsibilities. Through these memoirs, she emerges as a complete person, who understands herself and the world around her. I kept coming back to the book, as if I had made a commitment to a friend, and felt that I should — and I wanted to — finish it. I would like nothing more than to meet her for tea and to talk about books, authors and good writing. Instead I will search out her authors…Molly Keane is next.


About Cleopatraknows

I was living and working in Cairo. Now in New York City, which is another city that never sleeps.
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One Response to A Good Friend I Never Knew

  1. Pingback: Are blogs the letters of yesteryear? | CleopatraKnows

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