Interior journeys

Monday Book Review

February 11, 1991|By Diane Scharper

THREE BY ANNIE DILLARD. By Annie Dillard. Harper & Row. 617 pages. $15.95.

ANYONE familiar with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Annie Dillard, will know that she's a revolutionary. Scientist, poet, metaphysician, she insists that we see life as "more dangerous . . . and more extravagant than anything we've imagined." Three of her books, "The Writing Life," "An American Childhood" and "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," have been reissued as "Three by Annie Dillard."

Critics called those books "triumphs of American letters." Her writing, they said, was art. Writing, as Dillard explains it in "The Writing Life," attempts to "lay beauty bare," to awaken us to the deepest mystery of life -- our own power. Writing, Dillard says, is hard, terribly frustrating work. It doesn't begin with putting words on paper; it begins much earlier.

"An American Childhood," Dillard's memoir set in 1950s Pittsburgh, is a portrait of an artist as a very young woman. Like James Joyce's portrait, this one focuses on the interior life and a child's growing consciousness. Part I recalls the "floating scenes" of early childhood: the chilling sensation of warm water, smelled skin, halos of light. Gradually those scenes expand to Part II, Dillard's mental maps. Shadows become lights in a room, a house, a neighborhood. Learning those maps, Dillard feels herself alive and looks for "a task that will require all her joy."

She collects rocks, insects, pennies, odd facts from books and books. In books, Dillard finds imagination, originality, genius, rapture, "the exaltation of . . . interior life." And Dillard flings herself into adolescence, into its rage and beauty. Part III begins with Dillard at 15. The brightness of childhood dims as she remembers "feelings [that] linger so long they leave stains." Examining those feelings, Dillard "swims in a sea of beautiful syllables" and begins to write.

She wrote "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" when she was in her late 20s. The book, which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, is a 12-month account of life at Tinker Creek in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains and a poetic meditation on everything from plankton to God. It examines the cycle of seasons and of life; it describes "the pressure that squeezes out the egg, that hungers and lusts and drives the creature relentlessly toward its own death." Quoting philosophers, poets, painters and scientists, this book isn't a simple nature guide. It's a study of the inter-relatedness, intricacy and meaning of nature.

"Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Dillard once explained, took eight months of steady work: seven days a week, 15 hours a day, working in a library. People think you sit on a tree stump, Dillard said, and take dictation from a chipmunk. But you write consciously, from hundreds of index cards. "You have to keep learning . . ."

As she sees it, you must look for beauty. "Push it . . . Probe and search each object . . . follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength." What is life, with all its pizazz, Dillard asks, but the possibility of beauty?

P Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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