“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.