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I can’t remember how I discovered May Sarton’sJournal of a Solitude‘. Which is odd, because I always remember how I discover a book. Maybe I stumbled upon it, during one of my browsing sessions on Kindle books. Or maybe someone mentioned it and it was there in the back of my mind, when I stumbled upon it. Whatever be the nature of the truth, the title appealed to me, and I kept it aside for a quiet day. (Well, that is not the end of the story. When I was searching on May Sarton on the internet, I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ has reviewed Sarton’s novel ‘Mrs.Stevens Heard the Mermaids Singing’. And, of course, as I nearly predicted after I discovered that, I have posted a long comment there. Human memory is unpredictable and fickle, as they say.) A few days back I decided to start reading it and I finished reading it today.

Journal of a Solitude‘ is a journal written during the early ’70s by May Sarton. In the journal, Sarton describes one year of her life spent in a town called Nelson in New Hampshire. The journal describes Sarton’s everyday life, her quiet routines, how her creative energy bursts out gently and manifests itself as poems and books, the challenges and inner demons and depression she has to wrestle against when her creative energies don’t flow, her relationship with her cats and her parrot and a wild cat which sometimes visits her, her friendship with her neighbours who are kind and who help her, her relationship with her friends who visit her occasionally, the excitement and challenges of a new romantic relationship, the pleasures of gardening and the beauty of flowers, the changing of the seasons and the quiet and colourful changes they bring, the pleasures, joy and tranquility of solitude and the occasional challenges it brings – Sarton touches on this and other topics. It is a beautiful, tranquil book and Sarton’s prose is contemplative and meditative and gentle and flows like a serene river. Sarton is frank in her observations and doesn’t mince words when she disagrees with established wisdom or with popular opinion, but she does it gently, softly. She is also honest about her own imperfections and flaws and turns her gaze inward and bares her soul. Normally this would be hard to read because we don’t know what awaits us, but Sarton’s gentle tone makes it interesting and beautiful. Sarton is a poet and it shows in her prose.

I didn’t read about May Sarton, till I was halfway through the book. I did that on purpose because I wanted to see how the book would impact me, if I didn’t know anything about the author. When I knew that I was in love with the book, I went and read more about the author. What I discovered was fascinating. May Sarton seems to have been a famous writer during her times, she has published novels, poetry collections and journals, she started writing in the ’30s and continued writing till the ’90s, her books were shortlisted multiple times for the National Book Award, and her backlist is impressive and huge. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of her before. I also don’t know why she is not more well known now. She deserves better.

I loved ‘Journal of a Solitude‘. Being a introverted, contemplative, reclusive person myself, I was delighted because the book spoke to me. I am glad I discovered it serendipitously. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I will be coming back and reading my favourite passages from the book again and again.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

On Poetry and Prose

“Why is it that poetry always seems to me so much more a true work of the soul than prose? I never feel elated after writing a page of prose, though I have written good things on concentrated will, and at least in a novel the imagination is fully engaged. Perhaps it is that prose is earned and poetry given. Both can be revised almost indefinitely. I do not mean to say that I do not work at poetry. When I am really inspired I can put a poem through a hundred drafts and keep my excitement. But this sustained battle is possible only when I am in a state of grace, when the deep channels are open, and when they are, when I am both profoundly stirred and balanced, then poetry comes as a gift from powers beyond my will.
I have often imagined that if I were in solitary confinement for an indefinite time and knew that no one would ever read what I wrote, I would still write poetry, but I would not write novels. Why? Perhaps because the poem is primarily a dialogue with the self and the novel a dialogue with others. They come from entirely different modes of being. I suppose I have written novels to find out what I thought about something and poems to find out what I felt about something.”

On Virginia Woolf

“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? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented toward a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true? Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the center of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as “irrelevant”?”

On Writers and Writing

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life—all of it-flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.”

On Painters and Writers

“I envy painters because they can set their work up and look at it whole in a way that a writer cannot, even with a single page of prose or a poem. But how hard it must be to give up a painting! When a book appears it goes out into the world, but the writer still keeps it and can go on giving it to friends over and over again. The painting is gone forever.
I suppose I envy painters because they can meditate on form and structure, on color and light, and not concern themselves with human torment and chaos. It is restful even to imagine expression without words.”

Have you read May Sarton’sJournal of a Solitude‘? What do you think about it?

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