“Detaching the Threads”: May Sarton, A Reckoning

sarton-reckoningYes, Laura thought, it’s like a web. Whatever the secret, the real connections, we are inextricably woven into a huge web together, and detaching the threads, one by one, is hideously painful. As long as one still feels the tug, one is not ready to die.

I don’t think May Sarton is a very good novelist, and yet I seem to keep coming back to her fiction. Like the other novels of hers that I’ve read, A Reckoning has moments of tender, meditative loveliness–and yet (also like the others) it is curiously artless, even occasionally clunky. For all its faults, I was engrossed and moved by it, perhaps because (again, also like the others) it is palpably sincere, and also questing. I don’t know if this will make sense, but there’s something very human about Sarton’s novels: they seem very much the product of a person thinking things through. If her results were more aesthetically impressive or perfected, they might be better novels in some sense, but I’m not sure that would be an improvement–at least, not for me.

A Reckoning is the story of Laura Spelman’s death. When the novel begins, she has just been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. She is only 60, but she doesn’t really feel robbed of time: in fact, she thinks she has lived a full and complete life. What she wants now is to live through her dying on her own terms, which at first she thinks means without involving anyone else; soon, however, it becomes clear that this plan was misguided, partly because she quickly becomes too weak to care for herself, but also because she realizes that her death is not exclusively her own event. It inevitably affects everyone else in her life, from her children and grandchildren to the young woman whose novel she has been working on for her job as an editor at Houghton Mifflin.

“It is then to be a reckoning,” Laura thinks to herself in Chapter 1: with the time she has left, she wants to focus on what really matters, which means thinking about her life and the people in it and trying to figure out “the real connections.” As Laura sees it, it’s not a time for making amends or healing wounds: she is not sorry to leave her mother behind, for example. In her reveries, she ends up focusing particularly on women–those she has known and loved, especially her childhood friend Ella, but also women in the abstract, as she muses on the difficulties they face and the new opportunities she now sees for “sisterhood” (the novel was first published in 1978). Thinking about her sister Jo, who loved another woman but decided it was “more than I could handle ever again … and in my world too dangerous,” Lauren observes,

‘What I begin to see–Jo’s visit somehow clinched it for me–is that women have been in a queer way locked away from one another in a man’s world. The perspective has been from there. Jo thinks of herself as a man. All that is changing and perhaps women will be able to give one another a great deal more than before.’

She doesn’t mean sexually, though a recurring element of the novel is that times are changing for gay people in particular (the novel she’s editing is a “coming out” novel, and Laura continues working with its anxious author after leaving her job because she thinks it’s an important book). More generally, she thinks women no longer see each other primarily as rivals, and that this frees them up to be friends in an empowering and comforting way. “I think this whole journey towards death has been in a way joining myself up with women, with all women,” she tells Ella, whose visit finally releases Laura from the tug of life.

There are lots of small interesting things along the way to Laura’s death, many of them spinning off from this attention to women’s relationships, but also comments about families and marriage and, of course, about dying. Sarton shows Laura gradually receding from the world around her. It’s not portrayed sentimentally or euphemistically, but for all the details about nausea and coughing up blood, it’s also not a catalog of medical horrors. Laura is very aware of her illness as a physical encroachment on her body, but Sarton gives us the story of her death primarily as a mental and emotional journey. “It seems as though a person dies when he is ready,” the caregiver Laura hires explains to her when Laura asks her to share what she knows about death. A Reckoning follows Laura as she readies herself. More touching and, I thought, more profound than the goodbyes to other people are the moments in the novel that are just about Laura taking a few last opportunities simply to be herself (an ongoing theme of Sarton’s writing), listening to the music she loves, drinking in the beauty of spring flowers:

It had smitten her like love, with a poignant ache in all her being. She turned her head so she could see the light shining through the daffodils and watched it turning the petal’s flesh to a transparency, more alive than stained glass. Brahms and daffodils–life–life.

We know from Sarton’s memoirs and diaries that this is where she too found life, and no doubt that is why she writes about it so well on Laura’s behalf as she lies facing death and listening to Mozart:

Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. What had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervour to the very end.

Blank Days: Michael Harris, Solitude

There must be an art to it, I thought. A certain practice, or alchemy, that turns loneliness into solitude, blank days into blank canvases. It must be one of those lost arts, like svelte calligraphy or the confident tying of a wedding cravat. A lost little art that, year by year, fades in the bleaching light of the future.

My favorite part of Michael Harris’s Solitude was the epigraph to Part I, which comes from one of Edith Wharton’s letters:

I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity–to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.

This lovely and evocative passage reminded me very much of May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, which along with Journal of a Solitude chronicles the challenges but also the beauties of a life both isolated and receptive. I was surprised to find that Harris never mentions or quotes from Sarton: I think my disappointed expectation that he would is a symptom of the mismatch between what I went to his book for and what I found.

I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with Harris’s book on its own terms, though it turned out not to be the book I was looking for. It’s primarily about the challenge (as Harris sees it) of finding and coping with solitude in our hyper-connected technological age. As he tells it, nearly every activity that used to be solitary has become social. But while there’s no doubt that everything from reading to dating can now be carried on in a hyper-linked-up way, I thought he too hastily and completely conflated “using technology” with “not being alone.” Also, like many authors of this sort of book, he seemed to rush from his own habits and experience to universal proclamations. “Is there no middle road,” he asks,

a way to secure some isolation within the glory of all that connectivity? Is there not a way to get past [Anne Morrow] Lindbergh’s starfish problem, where essential parts of our selves are ripped off each time we enter and exit our solitude? Is there a third way that each person, alone, could discover for themselves?

Yes, is the obvious answer: turn things off, opt out, calm down. I keep the WiFi off on my Kobo reader except when I want to download new books; I have opted out of all the notifications on the Kobo app on my iPad. Just because I’m reading electronically doesn’t mean I want to bring a whole crowd of strangers into the experience. I usually have “mobile data” turned off on my phone: I can’t check email or Twitter when I’m out and about unless I really want or need to, and that’s a conscious decision. There’s no need for the false alternative of either a wholly porous existence or a week of total social isolation in a cabin in the woods.

I appreciated the questions Harris raises about the role of solitude in our lives, as well as the evidence and anecdotes he gives about its benefits. What I was looking for, though, was not a disquisition on Wattpad but insight into achieving what Wharton describes and Sarton comes close to. I hoped, I suppose, for a book that would complement Emily White’s Lonely: if loneliness is, as Harris proposes, “failed solitude,” how can we succeed at it? Harris’s book spends a lot more time answering “why should we want it?” instead. Though Harris might not believe it, I’m already solitary enough; it’s the “unassailable serenity” that eludes me. To find it, or to fill the time so I don’t miss it, I’m better off with different writers.

“Glad to Be Alive”: May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal

At-Seventy

Such a peaceful, windless morning here for my seventieth birthday–the sea is pale blue, and although the field is still brown, it is dotted with daffodils at last. It has seemed an endless winter. But now at night the peepers are in full fettle, peeping away. And I was awakened by the cardinal, who is back again with his two wives, and the raucous cries of the male pheasant. I lay there, breathing in spring, listening to the faint susurration of the waves and awfully glad to be alive.

I really enjoyed puttering through May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal. It is much less artful than Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude — more simply a diary, recording the minutiae of her life, from gardening to poetry readings. She’s both thoughtful and observant, though, and along with her accounts of day-to-day events we also get her reflections on current events (she’s not a fan of Reagan’s America), on history (she’s especially preoccupied with the Holocaust), on aging and mortality, on friendships and lovers, on poetry and Virginia Woolf and her own novels and the selfishness of the writer’s life.

Sarton would have known (I assume) that the journal would eventually be published, so there are traces of self-consciousness sometimes, and there are also some hints of reticence about details that would be intensely personal. Overall, though, reading At Seventy feels a lot like hanging out with her for a year, through some tough times, some petty annoyances, and a lot of pleasures and even joys that make her “glad to be alive.” “The autumn of life,” she says on September 25, contemplating autumn’s coming “glory of crimson and orange and yellow overhead”

is also a matter of saying farewell, but the strange thing is that I do not feel it is autumn. Life is so rich and full these days. There is so much to look forward to, so much here and now, and also ahead, as I dream of getting back to the novel about Anne Thorp [The Magnificent Spinster] and to good silent days here when the hubbub of this summer dies down. And right now there are hundreds of good letters to answer and hundreds of bulbs to plant. I do not feel I am saying farewell yet but only beginning again, as it used to be when school started.

Once again I found myself fascinated with Sarton’s solitary life. She didn’t always live by herself, but it’s pretty clear by this point that she prefers, needs, solitude — not every moment (and she actually has a lot of visitors to her house in Maine, and does a lot of visiting and traveling herself) but as the default. After particularly busy periods, she’s always immensely relieved to be free just to live on her own terms, and to breathe, mentally, without the psychological distractions of other people’s company. I don’t know how she was able to live on her own, and on her own terms, for so long: can she have made enough money from her writing, and then from related speaking engagements, for the luxury of so much space and independence and autonomy, or did she inherit or otherwise come by the funds to support it? I haven’t read an actual biography of her, so there’s a lot about the concrete circumstances of her life that I don’t know. At any rate, there’s something really inviting about her descriptions of having her house all to herself, setting her own pace for meals and walks and work and reading and just being.

journalsolitudeOf course, I’m not sure I would like that much solitude in practice (any more than Sarton’s friend Carolyn Heilbrun did), and I’m also aware how much it is Sarton’s writing that makes her life sound spacious and colorful and inviting. She writes beautifully about her house and her garden, with a poet’s attention to the rhythm of her words as well as to the shapes, sounds, and sights around her:

Nothing can change the happiness I felt when I went down this morning to get my breakfast at five and saw the marvelous light, as the sun, not yet risen, flooded the rooms with a kind of pale green, touching the paper-white narcissus and every chair and table with its blessing. This house becomes then a great shell filled with the incessant rumor of the past and I wander through its rooms, enchanted.

“I want to pause here,” she says at another point,

to celebrate asters, the low pale-lavender ones that dot the field now, starry among the long pale-gold grasses, the tall white ones that line the road in the woods, the deep-purple ones I found here in the picking garden, and the cultivated Michaelmas daisies, as they are called in England, that I have planted over the years in the border below the terrace. Some of these are almost a true blue. One of my favorites (Frikartii) is bright lavender with large flowers. They come when the phlox is over and always seem like a special gift of autumn. Rare in color at this season, they light up the garden and make a splash with the oranges and yellows of zinnias and calendulas in vases in the house, a new spectrum for me, and delightful.

Remembering the “bleak rented rooms” she lived in years ago in London, she thinks of how

by arranging books on the desk, buying a few daffodils from a cart in the street, putting up postcard reproductions of paintings I loved and a photograph or two, by leaving a brilliant scarf on the bureau, the room became my room and I began to live in it, to live my real life there, to know who May Sarton was and hoped to become.

At Seventy seems like the journal of someone who knows just who she is and is living her “real life.” Her appreciation of what a lucky and beautiful life that is seems well-earned, and probably the most inspiring thing about this unpretentious and often rather artless book is her own self-consciousness about that, and her determination to live up to what she has found for herself:

To live in eternity means to live in the moment, the moment unalloyed–to allow feeling to the limit of what can be felt, to hold nothing back, and at the same time to ask nothing and hope for nothing more than the amazing gift of poems. A love affair at this point is not in the cards, but poetry is here, and that is all that matters.

Reading this made me feel uncomfortable that I have never been moved by any of her poetry. And The Magnificent Spinster, into which she is putting a great deal of herself over the year this journal covers, is the one of her novels so far that I put aside unfinished. (I’ve only read two others, The Small Room and The Education of Harriet Hatfield.) Maybe it’s time to give it another try, if only to honor her effort and thank her for the other happy reading she’s given me.

“Life is Never Absent”: May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

mrs-stevens-hears-the-mermaids-singingIn her 1974 introduction to Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, Carolyn Heilbrun comments on how little “organized acclamation” or “academic attention” May Sarton has received. I was curious to see if that had changed in the intervening decades, so I did a quick subject search on the MLA Bibliography and turned up 108 results since 1974 — which is within hailing distance of George Eliot’s (surprisingly modest) 117 results for the same time frame, much better than Winifred Holtby’s 36, but far from Virginia Woolf’s startling 5147. Sarton’s star has risen, then, at least a little.

I’m almost as interested in Heilbrun’s interest in Sarton as I am in Sarton herself. Heilbrun clearly found something in Sarton that mattered to her, and thus she became her reader, her critic, and her advocate. She works hard to understand and go beyond strains of conventionality in Sarton’s novels, and particularly in Sarton’s ideas about women and women’s work, and to articulate what it is, despite Sarton’s formal limitations, that gives her work such speaking force. In this introduction, for instance, Heilbrun praises Sarton’s compassion:

Louise Bogan, in a letter to Rush Limmer, calls some poems of Sarton’s “sentimental,” an easy charge, a palpable danger to any writer not barricaded against revelation. But what appears sentimental to the society Mrs. Stevens envisioned as composed of male critics is an inevitable aspect of the compassion which, in Sarton, has never cowered behind the usual defenses. As a result, life is never absent from her work as it is from, to name a master, the work of Flaubert. And even Bogan must have understood something of this. Writing of Elizabeth Bowen’s crystalline and pristine prose, never for a moment lax or sentimental, Bogan observed, “The Death of the Heart is too packed, too brilliant, for its own good. What Miss Bowen lacks is a kind of humility.”

I was struck by how these comments actually bring us back to what I was puzzling over in my last post: the relationship between a certain kind of artistic excellence and a quality of what, in Heilbrun’s terms, might be called lifelessness. Another way to think about it, building on Bogan’s word “humility,” might be that Sarton comes across as a writer trying to figure things out, whereas Flaubert or James seem so sure of themselves — an effect that of course is the result of effort, not ease. There is intellectual excitement as well as beauty in their achieved confidence, but there’s something appealing in a different way in Sarton’s awkwardness — a quality that (in my limited experience, at least) is more apparent in her fiction, as if when writing memoir some obstacle (psychological, formal, whatever) melts away and she finds her own kind of writerly certainty.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is actually a lot like a memoir: it’s hard not to read the story of novelist and poet Hilary Stevens reflecting — through the device of an interview — on her life’s work as a version of Sarton’s own story, as an attempt to dramatize questions she had thought a lot about regarding creativity and love. I think I might have found it more engaging if I were a creative writer myself: as it is, I have little idea what the relationship between a poet and her “muse” might be, and I care a lot more about the results! Still, I was quite interested in Hilary’s comments on poetic form:

Inspiration? It felt more like being harnessed to wild horses whom she must learn to control or be herself flung down and broken. The sonnet form with its implacable demand to clarify, to condense, to bring to fulfillment, became the means to control. Now for the first time she understood about form, what it was for, how it could teach one to discover what was really happening, and now to come to terms with the impossible, how it was not a discipline imposed from outside by the intellect, but grappled with from inner necessity as a means of probing and dealing with powerful emotions.

But what I liked best here, as in Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude, is Sarton’s ability (or, perhaps, her willingness) to convey the vitality of a single person: a person alone in her own space, observing it closely but also filling it with her thoughts and memories; a person deeply, persistently, without self-satisfaction, simply being herself. “You’ve given me courage,” says Jenny Hale, one of the interviewers and herself an aspiring writer, near the end of the visit: “courage to be myself, to do what I want to do!” “How did I do that, I wonder?” asks Hilary. “Maybe –” replies Jenny, “maybe because you have dared so greatly to be your self.” It doesn’t sound like much, to be your self, but it is a lot, isn’t it? And it’s hard to do, especially among other people who inevitably, often quite legitimately, make their own explicit or implicit demands on who you can be. Sarton’s fascination with being alone is tied to this sense that solitude brings (albeit at a cost) a certain freedom otherwise inaccessible — perhaps especially for women.

“The Rough Rocky Depths”: May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude

journalsolitudePlant Dreaming Deep has brought me many friends,” says May Sarton early in Journal of a Solitude, “…but I have begun to realize that, without my intention, that book gives a false view.” She worried that she had given an overly idealistic picture of her life alone in her restored New Hampshire farmhouse, which she describes in Plant Dreaming Deep with such joyous lyricism: “the anguish of my life here — its rages — is hardly mentioned.” She wrote Journal of a Solitude as a counterweight:

Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. . . . I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

She kept this journal for a year and recorded both those heights and those depths.

I’m definitely among those who were won over by Plant Dreaming Deep. As I said in the comments on my post on it, though, I didn’t find it idealizing: in the post itself I wrote, “Sarton’s story here is not of uninhibited bliss: there’s guilt and anxiety, as already mentioned, but also fear, hard work, and constant demands on her self-reliance.” Still, Journal of a Solitude did seem darker and more fretful. Days may begin well but often end in tears; friends are welcome but their departure is a relief; traveling is less invigorating than exhausting: “I armed myself in patience and before I finally got back here, I needed it.” Her solitary home is a refuge from the pressures of the external world, but often provides insufficient distractions or buffers against inner turmoil:

I woke in tears this morning. I wonder whether it is possible at nearly sixty to change oneself radically. Can I learn to control resentment and hostility, the ambivalence, born somewhere far below the conscious level? If I cannot, I shall lose the person I love. There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour — put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I canot achieve it inside me.

But while there are tears and rages and fits of intense, frustrated depression, her emotional life is not one deep trough. Her garden especially brings her pleasure, and here, as in Plant Dreaming Deep, she writes about it, and the flowers it yields, with pungent vividness:

 A gray day . . . but, strangely enough, a gray day makes the bunches of daffodils in the house have a particular radiance, a kind of white light. From my bed this morning I could look through at a bunch in the big room, in that old Dutch blue-and-white drug jar, and they glowed. I went out before seven in my pajamas, because it looked like rain, and picked a sampler of twenty-five different varieties. It was worth getting up early, because the first thing I saw was a scarlet tanager a few feet away on a lilac bush–stupendous sight! There is no scarlet so vivid, no black so black.

 You almost want to finish her paragraph with “ah–bright wings!

While I didn’t really find Journal of a Solitude that different or that much darker than Plant Dreaming Deep, I did find it more episodic and fragmented, perhaps because the earlier journal tells the story of her finding, fixing, and learning to live in her New Hampshire home, while this one does not have as clear a narrative arc. It does turn out to be about a particular turning point in her life — or at least it covers what turns out to be a turning point, namely her decision to move away from the farmhouse and into a house on the Maine coast. This is a development that occurs fairly far along, however, an opportunity that seems to arise more or less out of the blue, so it’s not as if it is written as a farewell to Nelson.

Life rarely has the coherence of fiction, however, and journals especially — written, as they are, in the moment — can hardly be expected to anticipate or be structured around patterns that will emerge only in the future. That’s a luxury for memoir or biography. Simply as a record of Sarton’s experiences and responses to them, Journal of a Solitude had plenty to interest me. For instance, it’s during this year that she first meets Carolyn Heilbrun, whose essay on Sarton I refer to in my post on Plant Dreaming Deep. I enjoyed seeing the relationship from the other side. With her letter of introduction, Heilbrun sends Sarton some reprints of her articles. “I dived into one on Bloomsbury at once,” says Sarton, who “knew Virginia Woolf slightly.” I can’t resist quoting extensively from her remarks on Woolf, not least because they end up at what is still a familiar place:

What a relief to find an essay that neither sneers at nor disparages Virginia Woolf! The sheer vital energy of the Woolfs always astonishes me when I stop to consider what they accomplished on any given day. Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless — not only the novels (every one a break-through in form), but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, not only reading mss. and editing, but, at least at the start, packing the books to go out! And besides all that, they lived such an intense social life. (When I went there for tea, they were always going out for dinner and often to a party later on.) The gaity and fun of it all, the huge sense of life!  . . .

It is painful that such genius should evoke such mean-spirited response at present. Is genius so common that we can afford to brush it aside? What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine — why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? . . . Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented towards the masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true?

 These comments resonate in the journal itself partly because Sarton struggles very hard during this period with her own status as a writer. The entry immediately following records her devastated response to “an annihilating review in the Sunday Times,” which continues to pain her in her low moments:

What a lonely business it is . . . from the long hours of uncertainty, anxiety, and terrible effort while writing such a long book, to the wild hopes (for it looked like a possible best seller, and the Digest has it for their condensed books) and the inevitable disaster at the end. I have had many good reviews and cannot really complain about that. What I have not had is the respect due what is now a considerable opus. I am way outside somewhere in the wilderness. And it has been a long time of being in the wilderness. But I would be crazy if I didn’t believe that I deserved better, and that eventually it will come out right. The alternative is suicide and I’m not about to indulge in that fantasy of revenge.

But she can be turned aside even from these dark thoughts by a glimpse of the sky: “Somehow the great clouds made the day all right, a gift of splendor as they sailed over our heads.”

Weekend Reading: I laughed, I cried, I’d read it again!

And that was just the first book I read this weekend …

Maclise DickensI was right that David Copperfield not only gave me great pleasure while I was reading it but restored my flagging enthusiasm for reading more generally. I finished it over the weekend and loved almost every minute of it.

The big setback for me is always Agnes. Dora is insufferable, but the poor thing is set up as a mistake, not an ideal, which is some compensation — and her final chapter still makes me cry, which is kind of embarrassing, but there we are. Agnes, on the other hand, with that damn finger pointing ever upwards: what kind of an alternative is that? Agnes had me wondering, actually, where the (good) sexy is in Dickens. He’s good at lechery, here exemplified by the horror that is Uriah Heep (and there’s the pedophiliac Bounderby in Hard Times as another example of just how creepy Dickens can make lust). He’s good at treachery, here epitomized by Steerforth’s fatal seduction of Little Emily. And he’s brilliant at childish innocence (Dora) and shining purity (Agnes). But healthy adult sexual desire (you know, the kind both parties are pretty excited about) is harder to spot. It’s pretty broadly hinted at that Agnes is wounded by David’s long insistence on seeing her as a sister, but there’s nothing like Dinah’s blush to make sure we understand the nature of her feelings, while David’s feeling for Agnes never seem other than worshipful admiration. Even though they seem better matched than David and Dora, there’s still something awkward about them as a married couple.

However. Whatever reservations I had about the women in David Copperfield were more or less overwhelmed by the many hilarious and touching and vindictively gratifying parts we are treated to as the novel draws to a close–Mr. Micawber’s denunciation of Uriah Heep, for instance, which (like so much in Dickens) is absolutely best read aloud. And the chapter “Tempest” is just splendid, with no “Dickens being Dickens” apologia required.

Unfortunately, though I was energized by David Copperfield to do a lot more reading this weekend, it was just this book that really excited me. I skimmed through Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I had picked up at the library because it is supposed to be very funny and at the time I felt I could use a good laugh. Meh. At most I got a couple of chortles out of it. Since I have never liked Saturday Night Live and never been tempted to watch 30 Rock, I guess I should have known better.

faultinstarsThen I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It went very quickly and I quite enjoyed it: I was engaged from the beginning by the narrator’s voice and the quick pacing and the blend of humor and pathos. But though I thought it was quite good, it also seemed to me a little too self-consciously smart — not just Hazel and her hyper-articulate friends (after all, such teenagers do exist — around here, most of them end up enrolling in the King’s Foundation Year Program, where they continue to talk pretty much like Hazel and Augustus) but the novel as a whole, including the metatextual interaction with An Imperial Affliction. That layer (along with the wry humor of the characters) kept the book from descending into bathos, but it also kept me at kind of an emotional distance: I was not one of those who wept copiously through the final chapters. In fact, a bit to my surprise it didn’t make me cry at all, and here I’ve just confessed to crying over Dora! After I finished it I reread a lot of the discussion of it in this year’s Tournament of Books. I haven’t read many of the other contestants, but I admit I share the feeling expressed by some commenters there that YA literature, however good of its kind and for its intended audience, shouldn’t really compete in the grown-up leagues. And yet it made it to the finals, so what do I know, right?

Finally, I tried a few more chapters of May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster. Though I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sarton, it just has not been going very well: I’ve been finding it prosy and portentous. The narrator insists a great deal that Jane, the spinster of the title, is magnificent, but I’ve been getting no authentic sense of that myself. I like the formal conceit, with the attention to Cam’s problems writing Jane’s life story as a novel. And I like the idea of taking us through so many important historical moments from the perspective such an unusual and individual experience. But with my time running out for summer reading, and with the new term looming along with deadlines for reviews and essays and book clubs, I’ve decided to put this one back on the shelf for now. It’s just not ripe yet (or I’m not). I’m certainly not giving up on Sarton, though: I long to get my hands on Journal of a Solitude.

“There solitude became my task”: May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

I’ve owned Plant Dreaming Deep for a couple of years at least. It’s always funny, isn’t it, when a book that has just been sitting on the shelf suddenly catches your attention, as if its moment to be read has finally arrived? I sometimes think of it as a ripening process — though whether it’s me or the book that needs to mature, I’m not always sure. I picked Plant Dreaming Deep from the shelf almost at random on Monday morning, to look at as I enjoyed a leisurely cup of tea in honor of Victoria Day — and then I stayed at the kitchen table for two hours straight until I’d read the whole thing. I fell right into it, which isn’t an experience I’ve had with a book for a while.

sartonplantPlant Dreaming Deep is one of May Sarton’s memoirs. When she was 46, Sarton bought an 18th-century farmhouse in Nelson, New Hampshire. Her parents had recently died, and part of their legacy to her was furniture – big solid pieces that traveled with them from Belgium (where they had survived the First World War), and then moved with them from place to place until they settled in their own house. Sarton, who to that point had never owned her own home, had to store the furniture in the cellar (“my mother’s desk with its many pigeonholes and secret drawers, the bahut, the long refectory table that matched it, and two eighteenth-century chests of drawers”), and she found she could not bear having these “great pieces of our lives” stashed away:

After a year they began to haunt me as if they were animals kept underground and dying of neglect. How long would they stay alive? And how long would the life in me stay alive if it did not find new roots?

And so she went on a quest — one which took the form of finding, renovating, and then living in her farmhouse, but which is really about integrating all the parts of her life and history and finally being, not just settled in her house, but at home in her self. Plant Dreaming Deep is the story of that adventure, including both its literal, external parts and its internal adjustments and revelations.

A central conceit of the book is that the house she moves into doesn’t just have character, as we often say of buildings, but is a character. It has needs and pleasures, and makes demands:

I found out very soon that the house demanded certain things of me. Because the very shape of the windows has such good proportions, because the builder cared about form, because of all I brought with me, the house demands that everywhere the eye falls it fall on order and beauty. So, for instance, I discovered in the first days that it would be necessary to keep the kitchen counter free of dirty dishes, and that means washing up after each meal; that the big room is so glorious, and anyone in the house is so apt to go to the kitchen windows to look out at the garden or into the sunset, that it would be a shame to leave it cluttered up.

She has moved there to write, which is difficult work: “the writer, at his desk alone, must create his own momentum, draw the enthusiasm up out of his own substance . . . the writer faces a daily battle with self-questioning, self-doubt, and conflict about his own work.” Music helps Sarton “through the barrier,” but also, she finds, “the house itself helps”:

From where I sit at my desk I look through the front hall, with just a glimpse of staircase and white newel post, and through the warm colors of an Oriental rug on the floor of the cosy room, to the long window at the end that frames distant trees and sky from under the porch roof where I have hung a feeder for woodpeckers and nut-hatches. This sequence pleases my eye and draws it out in a kind of geometric progression to open space.

 Thus she finds reflected in it, supported by it, the “clarity and structure” she seeks for her poetry and prose.

The book is full of things to savor, from lyrical descriptions of her garden, to her fond but unsentimental stories of her neighbors, to her meditative (but not always tranquil) reflections on community, family, aging, and writing. “I am happy when I am writing,” she tells us, but “the demons come as soon as I stop and consider what I have done, as the critic takes over from the creator”:

These demons, which might be called the demons of reputation, have two masks, and I do not know which is more distressing. There is the demon who wears the mask of rage: Why have I not been recognized? A young writer may be able to turn that demon away by taking refuge in the delusion of his genius, by thinking as a child does, “They’ll be sorry when I am dead!” For the middle-aged professional writer there is no such consolation. He has, willy-nilly, become a realist. He has to face the other demon, who wears the mask of self-doubt: Why have I failed? Where have I been self-indulgent, lazy, not honest enough? Or is my failure written into my very bones?

Though she finds some reassurance in her success with readers, still “the only real way to keep [the demons] out is to shut the world out,” which she finds easier to do in Nelson than anywhere else. But even Nelson cannot shelter her completely from the demon of guilt that demands she weigh her solitary creative life against “teaching underprivileged children” or some other more socially sanctioned set of responsibilities: “For a single woman the question is acute.” The house contains but cannot overrule her anxiety.

Soldiers'_Monument_&_Church,_Nelson,_NH

Her comments on aging are less fraught but no less thought-provoking:

It is only past the meridian of fifty that one can believe that the universal sentence of death applies to oneself. At twenty we are immortal; at fifty we are too caught up in life to think much about the end, but from about fifty-five on the inmost quality of life changes because of this knowledge. Time is suddenly telescoped. Life in and for itself becomes more precious than it ever could have been earlier . . . it is imperative to taste it, to savor it, every day and every hour, and that means to cut out waste, to be acutely aware of the relevant and the irrelevant. There are late joys just as there are early joys. Young, who has time to look at the light shine through a shirley poppy? The outer world is only an immense resonance for one’s own feelings. But in middle age, afternoon light marbling a white wall may take on the quality of revelation.

 Middle age is “time to lay ambition and the world aside,” she tells us, and again the house has a role to play: “Nelson has been my way of learning to do just that.”

Probably the most important thing about the house is that Sarton lives there alone. This is what Carolyn Heilbrun focuses on in her essay on Sarton’s memoirs: “what makes Plant Dreaming Deep unique and uniquely important is that Sarton has written a memoir of the possibilities of the solitary female life.” The chapter in which Sarton settles into the house — once the rebuilding is done, the furniture moved in, the mementos placed — is called “With Solitude for My Domain”: “I was, as I wished to be, alone.” But only after her first house guests depart does it seem that she realizes fully the experience she has sought and found:

It was my first experience of the transition back to solitude, the moment of loneliness, the shadowy moment before I can resume my real life here. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a sea anemone that has been wide open to the tide, and then slowly closes up again as the tide ebbs. For alone here, I must first give up the world and all its dear, tantalizing human questions, first close myself away, and then, and only then, open to that other tide, the inner life, the life of solitude, which rises very slowly until, like the anemone, I am open to receive whatever it may bring.

I think it was when I realized that the book was less about a house than about being alone in a house that I lost myself to it. I am fascinated by solitude. Often I enjoy it; sometimes I crave it — but I’m also well aware that, as Sarton says, “at any moment solitude may put on the face of loneliness.” I’ve only lived alone (that is, truly in my own quarters, without roommates or family) for two of my 46 years, in the basement suite I rented as an undergraduate. I am chatty and enjoy being in company both intimate and lively, but I also feel a certain exhilaration when I’m alone. It’s not just being freed for a while of the endless negotiations that life with other people inevitably entails, though that’s certainly part of it; it’s also as if some kind of psychological space opens up  — if that makes sense. I hardly know how to put it, but I’m sure I’m not the only bookish person with a preference for quiet and difficulty separating herself emotionally from whatever other lives are going on around her (in fact, I’m related to at least one other person just like that!). People sometimes interpret a desire to have some “alone time” as rejection of them, but I find it can be crucially restorative and can send you back to them with renewed pleasure.

Really living alone, though, rather than just spending some time alone, takes courage, as well as inner resources. Sarton’s story here is not of uninhibited bliss: there’s guilt and anxiety, as already mentioned, but also fear, hard work, and constant demands on her self-reliance. Heilbrun notes that a few years after Plant Dreaming Deep was published, Sarton moved again. Heilbrun sees the move to Nelson, the “first, hard assertion of selfhood,” as a necessary step for Sarton in generating a narrative of her own life: “What Sarton did was to write a new plot for women, a new script.” Just knowing such a life is possible, knowing what it might feel like or mean, she suggests, is something other women needed. I’ll never live alone in a farmhouse in rural New Hampshire — I wouldn’t want to! But maybe at this point in my own life it was important for me to imagine the life that Sarton lived in hers. You can be alone even without solitude, after all. We all need to find the resources we need to be at home with ourselves wherever we are. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stop reading until I’d seen how it turned out.