With age come wonderful moments

October 24, 1993|By Laura Lippman

Title: "Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year"

Author: May Sarton

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 332 pages, $21.95 Spending a year with a 79-year-old woman can be exhausting -- especially if that woman is May Sarton, the prolific poet and novelist.

Recovering from a long illness, often wracked with pain, Ms. Sarton has enviable energy and zest. She welcomes friends into her home, reads voraciously, gardens as much as she can, and attends to a most demanding cat, who insists on being let out at 3 a.m. Even as she is keeping this journal, she is writing poems and planning a novella.

"Encore" begins on May 5, 1991, two days after Ms. Sarton's 79th birthday, and continues through June of the following year. The journal -- dictated by her, then transcribed and edited -- is one of several she has published throughout her long career, and was always intended for publication.

She addresses the seeming oxymoron of a public journal in her last entry: "More than once an opinion has been expressed that there is something suspect about it, that a journal must be private and written for the eyes of the writer alone. . . . Knowing my journal would be read has provided a certain discipline for me. It has forced me to try to be honest with myself and thus with my readers, not to pretend that things are better than they are, but learn to evaluate without self-pity or self-glorification what has been happening to me."

Of course, it also helps to have an interesting life and something to say. Ms. Sarton doesn't lack for either.

Consider this passage from March 30, in which a small fact moves her to a significant revelation: "I have just finished listening to a recording of a Mozart piano concerto, Number 24, which I used to play over and over again, and also Number 18. This is an event. It has taken place since I came back from London -- I am able to listen to records again. . . . It is like returning home after a long time in a foreign country where there is no music. Now when I put a record on I do not cry as I used to because I could not write poetry any more. I did not think it would ever come back,but now of course it has. It is like a miracle."

While much of the journal deals with Ms. Sarton's bouts of pain, vTC and her anxiety about the way time flies, I particularly enjoyed her comments on current books, movies and her own work. She has wonderfully quirky taste -- disdaining A. S. Byatt's "Possession," for example, while adoring the film version of "Dr. Doolittle." Her eclectic reading list would shame many who consider themselves well-read.

As for her work, she has a healthy ego, which I admire immensely. Ms. Sarton admits that reviews have made her ill, and calls one critic "a mean woman." Later, she notes a volume of her poems and a novel were nominated for the National Book Award in the same year. She also praises herself for remaining passionate into her later years.

I read "Encore" because I thought it might be a book I could recommend to my grandmother. But "Encore" is not just for those who have reached 80. It is for anyone who feels that time is flying by, yet understands the urge to stop and record moments in order to preserve them.

Ms. Lippman is a reporter on the Metro staff of The Sun.

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