Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

It is books like these that make me wish I were less lazy, more committed to writing. May Sarton is wonderful, as always. I need to attack her oeuvre like I have Dorothy Whipple’s, absolutely and totally consumed.

Structured in four parts, the book is set on the coast of Maine about a poet, Hilary Stevens, her relationship to a young neighbor (Mal), and her interview with two intellectuals from New York. It’s foolish to say that “Part I: Hilary” is all about the poet, when the entire work dives into her past and work and thoughts and inner monologue. But there it is, it’s where we find the aging poet, 70 years old, combating her elderly body with her youthful mind, battling to find time to sit down at her desk and work instead of meandering about with the daily chores. We also meet Mal here, the skulking college-aged student who’s taking time off to recover from his meltdown over a boy.

In the interlude, we meet the two who will interview her, Peter and Jenny, driving from the airport and gobsmacked by the scenery while they discuss the problem of woman writer, which will come up in great depth in their conversation with Hilary. “Part II: The Interview” is just that, but more, with Hilary wandering off to grapple with ancient memories that the questions have unleashed. Then the “Epilogue: Mar” ends the book, where Mar comes back to shamefacedly admit to having slept with a sailor who stole his wallet, and Hilary trying to breathe life into him without quashing his spirit.

Some quotable bits:

  • As she entertains the interviewers, she admits that when you live alone, you have to have rules (no liquor before quarter to six). When prompted, other rules are: “up at seven, some work at my desk every day, come hell or high water, no self-indulgence.”
  • She mentions that “women do not thrive in cities,” something I’m coming to terms with myself.
  • Of course she has fantastic things to say about solitude. “There is a difference between solitude and loneliness, and people who live alone come to know them both intimately… loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”
  • On her mother’s death, she reflects on the “price of parents! All that guilt!… I see now that as long as she lived I kept fleeing to Europe, and in this sense her death was a liberation. At last I was able to come home and rest my eyes on the sea. Solitude was, for a time, an intoxication; I had been cracked open, and the source was there again.”