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NONFICTION : A SELF-PORTRAIT by May Sarton (Norton: $9.95; 82 pp.).

September 28, 1986|Wanda Urbanska

From her nautical keyhole on Maine's rocky coast, May Sarton turns out reflections on solitude, inner life and love in the form of poetry, fiction and journal accounts with surprising regularity. Sarton, 74, has achieved a wide following for her efforts but continues to be confounded by the critical acclaim that eludes her. This slim volume--the transcript of a documentary film shot in 1979 combined with previously published poetry and musings on life and art--does little to secure for its author a niche in the literary pantheon.

Sarton's problem is that Sarton takes Sarton too seriously. "We have to make myths of our lives or we wouldn't be able to sustain them. . . . (You) choose not to follow paths which go against that image you have of yourself . . . which says, 'I live alone and have become a kind of symbol of the woman living alone and it would be a great disappointment to thousands of people if I now got married.' " Not only self-important in tone, in this instance, Sarton is imprecise in the particulars--marriage not being a serious option for an avowed, aging lesbian.

Sarton, the self-styled old woman and the sea, would like to present herself as a hard-bitten individualist battling for literary truth. If this volume is any indication though, her obsession is not with truth but with correcting and dispensing a literary legacy. Her drive to create a myth--rather than a self-portrait--separates her story from the stuff of daily life and emotion. Sadly, Sarton doesn't seem to know where she's gone wrong: "I have a kind of balance and discretion in the journals and in my work in general that I really don't have unfortunately in my life." 'Tis a pity for Sarton and literature that it wasn't just the reverse.

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