Sunday, July 31, 2016

As We Might Be

May Sarton isn't one of my favorite writers by any means, but I still go back to her work from time to time, and as I transition from paper to e-books, I'm including hers.  Over the past couple of years I've reread all her journals, because they deal with aging, living alone, and the writer's life.  (This time through I also picked up the names of several writers she was reading -- especially Ruth Moore and Robert Francis -- whose work I like a lot.)

But I'm also starting to reread her fiction, and will accumulate all of it as e-books too.  That's harder to explain even to myself.  Sarton's fiction writing has always been problematic for me.   (Her poetry, I confess, I've never been able to get into.)  I've thought of her style as ladylike, too ladylike, though it's difficult to explain what I mean by that.  Style may not be the problem after all, though in the book I'm reading now there are some infelicities, which may be symptomatic.

At one point, for example, the narrator, reflecting on the most important love affair of her life, reflects: "Only the goodbyes when I had to leave to go home each autumn were excruciating.  I felt each time as though I were being asked to cut off an arm or a leg -- an amputee."  "An amputee" dangles there; what she means is presumably was that she felt as though she were being asked to become or make herself an amputee.  But more important, it's redundant: it simply repeats the information we've already been given.  All I can see that it might possibly add is the suggestion of an essence and perhaps a stigma, like someone who's been having sex with a same-sex partner but doesn't want to think of herself as a homosexual; or someone's who's had a lot of birthdays but doesn't want to think of herself as old.  If so, I don't think it works, because the stigma (if there is one) of being an amputee (or old, for that matter) comes from being seen as such by other people.  The narrator's loss by contrast is invisible to others, known only to herself.  What Sarton intended here I don't know: I am only sure that "an amputee" is stylistically flawed in this case.

The novel these sentences come from is As We Are Now, which was first published in 1973.  It was inspired by Sarton's visits to a neighbor who, as his health declined, was put in a nursing home. Sarton herself was spared this fate, thanks to many friends who became caregivers in her later years, but her partner Judy Matlack was not; Sarton's regular visits to Matlack which continued after Matlack no longer recognized her due to dementia, are often mentioned in her journals.  In her journal Sarton discussed her intentions for the book at some length, which is why I decided to reread it first, rather than go through her novels in chronological order.  The narrator of As We Are Now, Caroline Spencer, is a seventy-six-year-old former high-school mathematics teacher.  After a heart attack which left her unable to manage the stairs in her home, she moved in with her older brother and his younger second wife, but it didn't work out due to faults on both sides.  The facility to which she's consigned is relatively small, run by a mother and daughter.  (The mother's name is Harriet Hatfield, which threw me off at first, because Sarton's last novel, written fifteen years after this one, is called The Education of Harriet Hatfield, but I don't think the title character is supposed to be the same person as the caretaker in As We Are Now.)  Caro, as she's called, is the only woman housed there; the rest are men, mostly very aged and decrepit.  One, a farmer dying of cancer, is I think based on Sarton's neighbor.)  The place is not well-kept, and to keep from becoming too disoriented Caro keeps a diary, which is the novel.

As We Are Now, then, is a reflection on old age and bad health.  Caro is about fifteen years older than Sarton was when she wrote it, but Sarton had a fair amount of experience with the elderly, including some distinguished friends.  Still, anyone who has read the journals will recognize Caro as Sarton herself -- it might be that Sarton grew into Caro.  The problems Sarton wanted to write about are real, and vividly described, but the chief fault in the book is formal: there's just not enough distance between author and narrator.  With this novel, like all of Sarton's novels as I recall, what you see is what you get: the story is all surface, and points to nothing beyond itself.

So why am I reading it, and why do I intend to reread all of Sarton's novels?  Because despite her limitations, Sarton wrote about serious matters in a way I find compelling enough that I want to return to it.  She's no Jane Austen, no Kate O'Brien, no Marge Piercy, not even a Doris Lessing (who in her later work became as didactic as Sarton, though heavily encrusted with cant), but she is very definitely and intensely May Sarton, so I still find it worthwhile to experience how she saw the world.  She reminds me of something I've written about artists before: it's not necessary to be the best in a field or genre or art form, only to do well and authentically what you do.  Sarton had a distinctive voice (though it sometimes gets on my nerves) and perspective.  What I get from reading May Sarton, I don't get from any other writer, so I will keep going back to her work.