16 February 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo / George Saunders

Yes, I will be writing about grief again.

But first things first: what does "bardo" mean? According to Wikipedia, it is a Buddhist concept related to reincarnation  and designates the intermediary state between death and rebirth. This is the main stage, set in a graveyard, on which this novel's events unfold.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders imagines what happened after the body of President Lincoln's young son was placed in a crypt; more specifically, what happened to his soul. Over the course of that night, punctuated by two visits that Lincoln makes to his beloved boy's remains, we encounter a fascinatingly varied cast of characters who take an interest in Willie — and in his father—, each for their own reasons. The cemetary becomes a war zone in a country ravaged by war.

This is such a peculiar work of literature that I am not exactly certain how to describe it... Try to picture a written patchwork made up of bits of accounts by spirits from all segments of society, interspersed with extracts from Civil War-era and more recent books, journals, letters, etc. I would compare it to reading a play and a series of interconnected quotes that accidentally got shuffled together. I enjoy novels that tinker with form as much as the next human (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is among my all-time favourites, after all), but this one truly pushes boundaries. As I read, I kept delightedly thinking "This book is completely mad... and I love it!"

I have already mentioned my instinctive dislike for historical fiction based on real people in my review of Alias Grace, but an interview with the author on the Open Book podcast in March 2017 intrigued me enough to borrow the book from my local library anyway. I am so glad that I did. In the interview, George Saunders mentions that working on this book changed his life. I can see why. This remarkable novel took me on what I can only call a quasi-spiritual journey, although I am still as much an atheist as ever. I have now purchased my own copy and will cherish it for many years to come.

I am fully aware of how strange it is to sound so enthusiastic about what is essentially an exploration of love, grief and mortality that unflinchingly probes the deepest human emotions. Perhaps you will understand when I tell you that I read Lincoln in the Bardo as my mom lay dying in hospital.

Sometimes, what seems to be the absolute worst reading choice at a given moment ends up being exactly what one needs at that time. It was a consolation to me to be reminded that, although it felt like what I was experiencing — the wrenching away of someone who was so intimately a part of me, anger at the unfairness of life, the inability to care for much beyond the next breath, impotent worry for my father and sister, this brutal realization of mortality — was unique, these things has always existed and always would. Thousands of people were going through something very similar at that very moment. Billions had in the past. Life had gone on for them, as it would for me, and my father, and my sister.

One passage in particular brought me a bit of solace, and I have re-read it often:

He sat, distraught and shivering, seeking about for any consolation.
He must either be in a happy place, or some null place by now.
Thought the gentleman.
In either case is no longer suffering.
Suffered so terribly at the end.
And in his mind the gentleman stood (we stood with him) on a lonely plain, screaming at the top of our lungs.
Quiet then, and a great weariness.
All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness.
(So why grieve?
The worst of it, for him, is over.)
Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing.
Only there is nothing left to do.
Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad.
Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.
Thus thought the gentleman.
Thoughtfully combing a patch of grass with his hand.
(roger bevins iii)

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: *****


  1. <3
    Je suis contente que cette entrevue t'ait menée à essayer ce livre et que tu aies ainsi pu le lire au moment où tu en avais besoin.

    La bibliothèque ici l'a aussi, alors je l'ai mis sur ma liste de livres à y ramasser et j'ai refilé ta recommandation à mon chum; je crois bien que ce sera aussi dans ses cordes. Merci!

    1. Je suis curieuse de savoir ce que vous allez en penser... Mettons que c'est un livre polarisant! :-)

    2. Je t'en redonnerai des nouvelles!


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