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Los Angeles Times, 8 March 2006

Memoir is testament in Sanders' hands

A Private History of Awe
Scott Russell Sanders
North Point Press: 322 pp., $25

By Tim Rutten
Times Staff Writer

THE late John Gregory Dunne was fond of observing that writers naturally divide into two groups: those who are utterly preoccupied with the drama of their own lives and those who are fundamentally indifferent to it.

In that taxonomy, Scott Russell Sanders stands firmly among the preoccupied, as his quietly--but deeply--moving book A Private History of Awe” indicates. The professor of creative writing at Indiana University has written 19 books, including novels and collections of short stories. He is best known, though, as an essayist and as a writer about nature.

This new book, in fact, will go a long way toward confirming Sanders' reputation as one of the handful of truly fine and accomplished American practitioners of the essay form. Though it follows a novel's narrative arc and slips unobtrusively between past and present in a way that subtly evokes the workings of memory in actual lives, the careful sensibility at work here is that of an essayist. So too are the beautifully--but never, thank God, cleverly--wrought symmetries that make the telling of the narrator's story feel so right.

"Of the sentences that come to me," Sanders has written elsewhere about his method, “"I wait for one that utterly convinces me, then I wait for another and another, each one building upon all that went before and preparing for all that follows, until, if I am patient and fervent and lucky enough, the lines add up to something durable and whole."

So they have here, defining a moment at which Sanders finds himself a writer and teacher, loving husband, father, grandfather to a beloved granddaughter and devoted son to a dying mother. His narrative reflections form what he forthrightly calls a "spiritual testament."”

Now every writer who aspires to such a work stands somewhere in the shadow of that first really modern book, Augustine's Confessions.” Their problem is the one the bishop of Hippo acknowledged in that revolutionary admission: "“I had become a problem to myself, like a field a farmer works with much sweat and great toil."

Sanders works his field with such diligence that this book redeems the memoir from its recent disrepute. There is, as one would expect from this writer, a great deal about nature but also about an alcoholic father, an energetic martyr of a mother, troubled siblings, a deep marital love story and a coming of age in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. His wrenching decision to register his conscientious objection of the Vietnam War, for example, concludes with: "“I had come to understand conscience as a sympathetic vibration between my innermost fiber and the force that brings new creatures into being and lavishes so much beauty on the world."

Unspoken throughout all this is the writer's quest for the voice with which to speak about what he sees. Though he never explicitly mentions that search, its difficulties are manifest when his mother ends a potentially difficult exchange concerning his siblings and father with, "“Let's not talk about anymore." The observant narrator then recalls, "“We didn't talk about it anymore, because we were a family more afraid of shame than of silence. We didn't talk about Glenn's angry adolescence or Sandra's string of miseries or our fear that Dad might find his way back to the bottle."”

It says something about Sanders' tact and fortitude that he lets that sentence and observation stand for all that was overcome so that this story could be told. Perhaps that distinction between elected and imposed silence is part of this sober testament too.

At the end of a stunning day in long-ago England, where he went to graduate school, a day on which his wife loses the first child they conceived and he successfully defends his doctoral dissertation, Sanders considers the way in which the remarkable alchemy of his wife's resilience transmutes a gathering of friends, meant to console her, into a party:

"“Nature shows no regard for the individual spark, in this creature or that, but only for the spreading of the fire, like an ember passed from cell to cell. I still didn't know how to feel at the end of this bewildering day, except to give thanks for feeling itself, for breath, for being able to say Viva! Here I am, for this brief moment, alongside my wife and friends, alongside daffodils and robins and pines . . . . What could any of us ever say that was more astonishing?"”

Not long afterward, settled into an assistant professorship back in Indiana, his wife once again pregnant, Sanders begins choosing books to read with his students:

"“I had searched for stories in which a husband and a wife love one another deeply, feel grateful toward their parents, look forward to becoming parents themselves, and then welcome into their marriage a child who arrives like an emissary straight from glory land.

"“In my haphazard search I could not find any such books, at least none written well enough to deserve my students' dollars and time, although I found shelves of celebrated novels chronicling the failure of love … the spurning of parents, along with a litany of violent deaths. If pregnancy occurred in such fiction, it was usually a catastrophe rather than a blessing, and if children appeared at all, they were either walking reminders of guilt or pawns in grownup feuds . . . . In the end, I found no great novels about happy families, so I settled for books whose authors clearly loved the world in spite of its darkness, and who held out hope for humankind in spite of our faults."

The modernist certainty concerning the salvific role of literature is one of many orthodoxies Sanders rejected on the way to this testifying moment. Also discarded are the Middle American Protestant pieties of his boyhood, absolute faith in science and conventional patriotism (though not engaged citizenship).

For all that, this is a memoir of affirmation that is singularly free of cant. It "“may irk true-believers at one extreme, and militant secularists at the other," Sanders recently wrote. "“But I hope that readers who dwell between those extremes will find, as the Quakers say, that A Private History of Awe speaks to their condition."”

Certainly, there is something in this moment that inclines us toward the memoir. It's only in the last couple of generations, for example, that Augustine's Confessions” has been recognized as a literary landmark. His medieval admirers esteemed his theology and biblical commentaries and regarded the memoir as, at best, a minor curiosity. Yet the world changed in the famous passage that opens the third book:

" To Carthage I came and there crackled around me on all sides the sizzling frying pan of sinful loves. I was not yet in love but I was in love with love."

Augustine, of course, concludes his testament with his arrival at a saving religious orthodoxy. Sanders' testament is less a story of conversion than of process--of the journey itself, in which he has found something luminous:

" Words dice the world into pieces small enough for the mind to hold, but the world itself is undivided. Every being, from lilac to lover, overflows the boundaries of its name. And this is all the more true of Being itself, that current rippling though all things . . . . The moments I choose to recount are those in which the shell of my small life has cracked open to reveal this nameless and perennial source."

Sanders has arranged those choices in a book that stands beyond mere artifice on the solid ground of loving authenticity.

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