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Book Review : Personal Life With a Special Resonance

August 22, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

The Waters of Darkness: Scenes From the Life of an American Jew by John Sanford (Black Sparrow: $20, hardbound; $12.50, paperback).

The second volume of Sanford's autobiographical trilogy follows the distinctive pattern set by last year's "The Color of the Air," using brief, intense vignettes from American history to create an intellectual context for personal recollections. Though such blends are a well-established literary device, Sanford extends and refines the technique beyond chronology.

Here the external events and personalities not only provide a sampler of the author's other works but also supply a respite from the autobiographer's occupational hazard--obsession with the self. Sanford employed a similar mix of private and public episodes for his American quartet, with equally effective results. In those books of history, the intimate glimpses of the writer intensified the impact of the historical material. In the autobiography, the ratio is reversed; the factual background lending a special resonance to the personal life.

If three volumes seem a lot of autobiography for any one man, consider the books as a chronicle of the cohort of writers growing up with this century. Though "The Waters of Darkness" is necessarily about Sanford himself, he simultaneously charts the development of a liberal 20th-Century consciousness in general. By the end of Volume 2, the reader's understanding of Sanford's contemporaries is also enlarged and enhanced. Profoundly affected by the Depression and the wars, these men and women were to have a lasting influence upon the direction taken by succeeding generations of writers.

Return From Abroad

"The Waters of Darkness" begins in 1927, with Sanford's return from his first trip abroad. As in the other books, he refers to himself in the second person, a stylistic quirk inviting the reader to identify with the narrator and participate in his experience rather than remaining a passive spectator at another man's drama. Finished with law school and in no great hurry to begin "the 12 months of fetch and carry required of all applicants for admission to the Bar" Sanford has gone to England in search of he knows not what. Unlike those who discover in retrospect what they missed at the time, he admits he sailed home with little more than the memory of the last sunset at sea. In that single paragraph of densely florid description is the nucleus of his later style, a distinctively sensuous and highly charged prose.

By the time we meet him here, the writer is already in his 20s, recording the process by which a young man becomes an autonomous individual, freeing himself from the affectionate but restricting influences of family, friends and milieu. In Sanford's case, the liberation is especially gradual and complex, the novice writer's decision to abandon the practice of law for the uncertainties of a novelist's life creating particular tension between father and son.

Though Sanford had willingly entered his father's profession, the law never wholly engaged his interest and he soon concentrated his energies on writing, a choice influenced at least partly by his friendship and rivalry with Nathanael West. Despite a natural disappointment, Sanford's father was remarkably, if sometimes only tacitly, supportive of this decision; and when the Depression all but destroyed his active legal practice, the son was sustained by a daily allowance of 15 cents, cheerfully offered and never mentioned.

Fraught With Emotion

These scenes between father and son, fraught with unspoken emotion, are as affecting in their understatement as the encounters with West and various young women are in their richness of incident. Central to the book is the candid account of the making of a writer by trial and error, delight and disappointment, accolade and derogation, nothing spared or rationalized in the retelling.

The separate vignettes generate their own internal momentum, each gathering such energy from its predecessor that no other connection is needed. As the writer's understanding deepens, the perceptions become increasingly astute, the field of observation broader. By the end of "The Waters of Darkness," we've not only watched an unmistakeable literary style evolve but seen a generic form reconstructed and renewed.

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