- Shards of Memory
Memoirs are a kind of odd literary beast. Unlike regular fiction they purport to be a rendition of one’s own life—true to reality or at least as accurate as one’s selective and notoriously fickle memory will allow. Structurally, however, they can be strangely akin to classic detective stories. As in those that begin with the discovery of a corpse in a locked room, the detective’s job is to pursue the clues that will allow him to reconstruct the events which brought the corpse to his doom. Similarly the memoirist has the task of plunging into his own past to reveal the palimpsest of remembered selves and events that culminate in his present identity sitting in front of the typewriter or word-processor. In a curious way he combines in his own person the functions and characters of the policier: he moves the plot and acts as the detective, the victim, and, in some cases, the antagonist all at once. Whether this assemblage of selves is discovered or invented must necessarily be ambiguous—even, or especially, to the author; after all the Heisenberg principle must surely be in maximum effect when one is observing oneself. In the best memoirs the author’s pursuit of his own mysteries can lead to genuine self-discoveries that may be almost as luminous for the reader as they are for the writer. It’s difficult to apply a measure to these efforts, however, since memoirs differ in the balance of their intentions. Some are sharply focused on the events and circumstances they describe, as the author stands on the sidelines as a seemingly objective commentator; others are more concerned with how the projected self filters and reacts to those events. The best memoirs are those that achieve a compelling illusion of authenticity and intimacy that captures the reader and may even provoke him to examine his own epistemological mysteries.
These two memoirs are both written by baby boomers now in their early sixties, and, where my generation was formed by the Great Depression and [End Page 457] World War ii, this group was suckled on television, widespread affluence, Cold War crises, the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, and a trio of shocking assassinations. Both Sanders and Skloot are accomplished professional writers with substantial bibliographies; their tasks and the years covered are similar, but their books are quite different.
In A Private History of Awe Sanders employs as an armature for his composition the double vision of watching his granddaughter develop from newborn to two-year-old while his octogenarian mother sinks into the murk of Alzheimer’s disease. As he puts it: “Looking upstream into this perennial flow (the gathering impulse which makes new things from the scraps of the old), you see fresh forms arising; looking downstream, you see them dissolving. Well past midlife, as I am now, watching my mother die by inches, watching my granddaughter grow, remembering my own younger selves, I look both upstream and down.”
From his vantage point in Bloomington, Indiana, where he has been settled since 1971, Sanders oscillates in time—taking backward glances o’er travel’d roads with foreshadowing glimpses ahead—from his childhood days on a Tennessee farm, to the family’s move to Ohio, to matriculation at Brown University and graduate school as a Marshall scholar at Cambridge. This swiveling movement with the intermittent mirroring conceit of granddaughter and mother could be overbearingly mechanical, but Sanders manages the transitions smoothly, probing to locate and re-create those transcendent moments in his life that most closely replicate the experience of his earliest memory of awe as a five-year-old—cradled at his father’s breast in a thunderstorm when lightning shatters a giant oak in his front yard and the world dissolves in a glare of light.
Several themes interlace in Sanders’s account of his development: a search for a kind of spiritual...