May Sarton, At Seventy by Elizabeth BadurinaOf one thing, there is no doubt. May Sarton was an incredibly prolific writer, living to a ripe old age and creating for as long as she lived. Her novels, poems and journals have been in print for the majority of her lifetime, and she was an incredible, vibrant woman.
That said, there are many things to love about Sarton's work. Her journals are raw and polished simultaneously, given the expert word choice of a seasoned author, and the no-holds-barred way she handles her subject matter. She is decidedly "meta" in several places, choosing to write about the keeping of a journal in the journals themselves. She discusses in depth the topic of getting older and in doing so lets those of us who are a good four decades away from septuagenarianism a good view into what it may be like.
So what's the problem? Often, there is a tinge of despair at the edge of her words. Sarton lived a wild life as a young woman, and aging slowed her down. She writes with deep affection for her dogs and her flower gardens, her friends (some of them dying) and her work. Still, though the subject matter seems to be very focused (as it was in another volume of her journal, The House By the Sea) and positive, Sarton feels the pressure of mortality more keenly in this volume than before. As a reader, and a young one at that, I often felt very loathe to pick up the book, knowing that it would rapidly put a downer on my mood, and also increase my fear of getting older.
This isn't to say that the book isn't full of its share of hopeful Sarton observations. Often, though she talks of blessings and worlds transformed by snow on the surface, an undercurrent of appreciation is indicative of a deeper fear that it will all be gone soon. When someone knows they have only a short time left, even the small things become important. It is a lesson which is good for any of us -- at any age -- to know.
At Seventy would be enjoyed by journal-keepers and writers. Her up-front way of talking about her craft has some fantastic hidden gems of writer wisdom enclosed -- like having a mentor at the ready. Anyone who keeps a garden would likely enjoy her way of keeping track of the cycles of nature and her plantings -- especially the ones that don't always work. I can also see women identifying with her in a very deep way. Sarton is like a reclusive, crabby aunt at times, and a nurturing mother figure at others. Wearing either face, she is easily admired.
If you've read other volumes of Sarton's autobiographical work, At Seventy might seem a little "surface" to you. There are times when the darkness of The House by the Sea or Journal of a Solitude breaks through the gratitude-endowed work, but it seems covered up. The reader, however, can still feel it, tinging the words from time to time, and it's unnerving. As a pastoral view of Sarton's life, it works, and continues with the rawness of previous volumes, though undercover.
If read on its own, it may seem a little out of context. If read as a series, I would recommend reading them in order to view the progression. It's a helpful view into an age most of us will reach -- some faster than we'd like.
Rambles: 2 February 2002