In June 1979, poet and novelist May Sarton reports, she went to the hospital for "a modified radical mastectomy . . . modified meaning that they found no malignancy in the lymph glands."
"It looks as though I am in the clear," she wrote in her journal -- a bit optimistically -- after returning from the hospital. The operation for cancer was the midpoint and, in a way, the thematic climax of a year (actually slightly less than a year, from Christmas 1978 to November 1979) which is recorded in this journal and which contains more problems than any year should bring.
May Sarton was not "in the clear" as she thought, when she wrote that line in June. There were still months of struggle ahead -- not only with the physical weakness that inevitably follows even a successful operation for a small cancer, but most of all with herself.
"I have in the past six months been devalued, as a woman, as a lover and as a writer," she says. "How to build back a sense of value, of valuing myself again?" One way is by making a book of it, and she does that -- successfully. aBy the end of the journal, she is, as the title says, recovering -- but it has been a long and absorbing struggle.
Toward the end she is reading over and revising the journal. "I see that I have made a good journey out of depression and rage," she remarks, "and it is time soon to make an end of this means of handling those demons. It has served its purpose."
Why does one keep a journal? Sarton's explanation -- beyond the welcome royalties and the even more welcome reader response -- springs out of a quote from John Cheever, who says that "The need to write comes from the need to make sense of one's life."
Sarton adds: "If one is a writer one comes to make sense of one's life by saying where one is. Every one of my novels has been an attempt to do this, and of course the journals are exactly that in a far easier and less exacting form. The novels, if I think in musical terms, are the symphonies and the journals are the sonatas."
May Sarton spends this book, as she evidently spent that year, in a many-faceted dialogue with the world. But the partners in the dialogue exist only as segments of her awareness, as elements in the long, painful process of recovery.
She has plenty to recover from, plenty to cry about -- not just the passing years (her 67th birthday comes near the middle of the book) or the threat of cancer, but all the natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
The book opens at Christmas; she goes to the nursing home where her 80-year-old friend, Judy, has lived for the last seven years and brings her home for a celebration that doesn't work. Judy has gone senile, shows no interest in her presents or the tree "decorated with the many ornaments we have collected together," and finally she realizes that "Judy had gone beyond where being with me in this house means anything." In a way, it is worse than seeing her friend dead.
Still "starved for tenderness" after the wretched Christmas, Sarton begins brooding about a review of her novel, "A Reckoning," in The New York Times -- hardly a place to look for tenderness.
The review, she feels, was a "public beating," but she manages to get in a return crack at the reviewer (Lore Dickstein) in the middle of her brooding: "It hurt that the Times thought so little of me as to give the book to a nobody."
The next day, she reflects that, "It was not a good idea to go back to all that," but it remains in the published volume (for which, one may assume, many pages have been trimmed), perhaps as a warning to other reviewers.
There is not really much need for such a warning -- or for reviewers, either. Those who respond to the special content and flavor of May Sarton's journals need only be told that another one is available, and those who approach them in a standard critical framework can easily miss their true value. Reading one of these books is like visiting an old friend and having a long talk. It is true that the visitor has no control over the direction of the conversation, but it is at least carefully tailored for the occasion.
This is not the unkempt, mystifying sort of journal, full of shorthand, abbreviations and oblique references, that is published only posthumously and needs a lot of footnotes. It is a special kind of hybrid -- the sort of journal that was so well done by Andre Gide, written with a constant awareness of the reader looking over the writer's shoulder, a consciousness that the writer -- informal, intimate and at home -- is nonetheless constantly on stage. Reading this sort of book requires a rather specialized taste -- a sort of genteel voyeurism -- but "Recovering" will certainly satisfy those who have that taste.