In the autumn of 1978, John Sanford arrived at the studios of radio station KPFK, where I was working, to tend to the recorded reading of his book "View From This Wilderness," the second of what would become his five volume face-off with American literary and historical figures, obscure and well-known. The writing was honed, the choice of words flinty and incendiary. Redolent of the steamboat energy and slaughterhouse gore that had made an errand into the wilderness into a voyage into an imperfect Republic, Sanford's book was ideal for a Thanksgiving Day broadcast. And Sanford came across like his prose, a pithy, precise counterpuncher. Prickly too, and a bit bitter.
"View" was inspired by "In the American Grain," William Carlos Williams' unraveling of the national DNA, and despite Sanford's previous work being highly praised, it was largely ignored by the public. Such had been the fate of all the author's many works since his first novel, "The Water Wheel," was published to critical acclaim in 1933. Well regarded, but as he says now in "A Palace of Silver," his 27th book, "a failure."
Failure is the refrain of "A Palace of Silver," a unique and moving memoir of a man, now 98 years old, who can't quite understand why his beloved wife, Marguerite Roberts, dead now for 10 years, loved, even tolerated, him. On the "wringing and ruinous day" of his wife's funeral, all that Sanford can recall are a few words spoken by his sister-in-law: "You made her happy, Johnny." He wonders, speaking now to his lost wife, "Did I, Maggie? Did I make you happy?" After 50 years of marriage, and a decade preserving his wife's memory, Sanford still needs to be reassured.
There is little of the conventional memoir here and no narrative to speak of. Most of the biographical and autobiographic facts Sanford has covered before in his previous books, "Maggie, A Love Story" and "We Have a Little Sister." "A Palace of Silver" is, instead, a sustained series of notes, a threnody, that evoke the sincere feelings of a man for his wife. It is a caress, bestowed by someone who, still grieving, must touch the beloved and breathe in the softness of her cheek.
As a husband, Sanford believes himself to be a tough sell. His looks are "fair-to-middling," his manner churlish. He is unpopular, "and save by [Maggie] ... not liked." His pride is dangerously self-eviscerating. He picks ill-considered fights with his publishers, who one after another drop him. Maggie alone supports him on her income as one of Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriters. Yet she rewards him -- "for what? for what?" he asks -- "with travels abroad, with bespoke clothing, race horses, and foreign cars."
Written just on the margins of this short book is Rainer Maria Rilke's ever deepening admonition to "believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it." Such a love is an accumulation of tiny, almost weightless deeds and ephemeral objects and memories, things that only have meaning to lives lived together: hasty penmanship, the sound of footsteps, size 3 shoes, a "shipshape figure" and a "mist-smooth palm" that he pressed to his lips as she lay dead in her hospital bed. These are the palpable, everyday things that over a lifetime bind us ethereally together.
When Sanford places amaryllis at his wife's grave, what he hears is "pink ladies," her name for them, not his. He was always calling flowers by their Latin names, and as he stands in the graveyard, he hears her calling him "college-boy" for his predilection to demonstrate braininess. When he thinks of the "enameled earrings that she'd worn until the design flaked off, a pin of Jensen silver showing a lamb in bas-relief, a threadbare robe that she thought she'd thrown away," he remembers that "she'd received all such things with joy." He is still overpowered by her joy and can no sooner part with these trinkets than he can stop bringing her flowers.
Most of all, it is Maggie's way of tenderly deflating the uxoriousness that inspires his love. He's smitten silly, and she says so.
"I'm plain, Johnny, and if I don't smile ...." her voice trails off.
"You're beautiful," he tells her.
"I'm not and never was."
"You don't see what I see."
"What you see isn't there."
"If I see it, it's there."
He tells Maggie she's flawless and, later, he asks, "Or was I just a bemused old man?"
She answers, "Yes, my dear, you were."
In "A Palace of Silver," Sanford adopts the second person, "you," to write about himself. At first his voice seems formal and distant, curiously at odds with the story of a lifelong love affair. Yet the distance begins to feel right, as if Sanford lives only in Maggie's afterlife: in the existence he conjures through his remembrance and this memoir. Sanford cannot let her go; he cannot say goodbye. To do so would be to relinquish his love and "to doubt that I loved you would be to erase my existence: I couldn't die because I'd not have lived."
But doubt always creeps into a love affair. "Without you, I'd've died," Maggie says.
"Why hadn't you?" Sanford asks himself, questioning his reason for holding onto life. "Why, without her, had you continued to live?" It is a haunted refrain that has become his life: "Had she loved you too much to have gone on living, and had you loved her too little to die?" Sanford is reaching into the melancholy, the twilight corners of love, asking what we all must ask ourselves in the chill moments of solitude and the agonizing depths of mourning. Who was I to the one I loved? And who was the one I loved to me?
By the end of this affecting story, we realize along with Sanford that Johnny and Maggie had an everlasting and requited love. "Maggie's guy. That's what she said through a long-lasting marriage -- 'You're my guy'." " 'You aren't a perfect man, Johnny,' " she would tell him, " 'but you're perfect for me.' " What more needs to be said?