Book of life

Stet

Diana Athill <em>Granta Books, 256pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1862073880

While flying bombs were falling over London, Diana Athill spent a dozen disappointing nights with Andre Deutsch. Their affair foundered on his insomnia and her lingering attachment to someone else. But out of such listless beginnings emerged a creative partnership that was to leave its mark on four decades of Britain's literary culture.

Deutsch was the Hungarian immigrant whose publishing house brought to public attention V S Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, along with a score of other literary fiction writers who might otherwise have slipped through the net. The firm was originally called Allan Wingate, on the advice of Deutsch's father, who warned Andre that everyone would assume he was German, and would therefore steer clear. By 1952, Andre Deutsch was publishing briskly under his own name, with Athill as a working director.

Athill calls her memoir Stet - a copy editor's mark for retrieving passages that have been cut - on the grounds that she wants to record her experiences before they are consigned to oblivion (she was born, after all, in 1917). In anyone else's hands, this might mean a soft and self-regarding trip down memory lane, studded with little gems about lunching with Sir Vidiadhar, or picking Jean Rhys off the floor. Athill, however, is incapable of anything but the strictest candour, as much about herself as anyone else. The result is a narrative in which the passing literary stars take second place to an extraordinary guiding intelligence - sceptical, amused, humane.

Athill loves to gossip, but there is nothing malign or malicious in the way she does it. Identities are concealed wherever it would hurt to reveal them, as in the case of an incompetent employee who stuffed proofs down the backs of radiators, or someone's married lover. Gossip in her hands - or mouth - becomes a collaborative puzzling out of the human condition, an attempt to find reasons why people behave as they do.

That, naturally, includes herself. Athill calls herself lazy, the product of an upper-middle-class background where things came easily, or not at all. As a result, she cannot be bothered with what doesn't interest her, a list that includes business, most poetry and working at the weekends. Athill cheerfully admits that she was no good at the money side of publishing, and she stuck instead to spotting new voices and nursing them through to print. She takes pleasure in knowing that she was one of the best editors in London, and is characteristically candid about her biggest tumbles: she lost Philip Roth shortly before Portnoy's Complaint, and she was never more than an ordinary proofreader.

When the 1960s arrived, Athill was amused that people thought them permissive, given that "most of the people I knew had been bedding each other for years without calling it a sexual revolution". Adultery and homosexuality she likewise took in her stride - she tells us that she lives with a black man, which caused a certain chill among some of her authors well into the Eighties. Yet, despite these radical credentials, Athill remains a reso-lutely non-political animal. In the Sixties and Seventies, she recognised why women fought for equal pay (she always earned considerably less than her male peers), but could never see the point of joining in. Laziness again, but also an acceptance that, like so many women, she did the job because she loved it, and that was what mattered.

She never earned more than £15,000 a year, had no private income, and lost most of her pension in the disastrous buyout of the firm by Tom Rosenthal (Deutsch later made up the sum out of his own pocket). She knows all about the privileges of caste and understands how starting points skew your vision. Take Virginia Woolf, long a darling of clever women everywhere. Athill declares her overrated and overwritten - "all those adjectives, oh dear" - and puts Woolf's inflated reputation down to a clique of elite readers unable to see beyond the boundaries of their own small world.

Athill is too pragmatic to turn her memoir into a lament for a golden age of publishing when quality was always recognised and profit simply a pleasant by-product. Over the years, Andre Deutsch produced all kinds of things for money, including a cookery list that cashed in on post-rationing euphoria. All the same, it is hard not to be wistful about a time when the publishing industry employed Diana Athill - not because she necessarily knew more about books than most, but because her appetite for life was such that some of her enlarging joy was bound to rub off on every set of proofs she touched.

Kathryn Hughes's George Eliot: the last Victorian (Fourth Estate) won the 1999 James Tait Black Memorial Prize