Since this year I have been re-reading classics, I am woefully behind in modern fiction and as a consequence have only read one title on the longlist 2017, the Sebastian Barry – Days Without End, about which I posted earlier under the title “America on my mind” on 30th November 2016.
Once again, with America and the Civil War still on my mind, I have now read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (what already?! the list was only published on Thursday. I read fast and remember, so get used to it).
The Bardo is an equivalent to limbo, or possibly Purgatory, but in the Tibetan philosophy of the dead.
This astonishing, Gothic and convoluted novel is as experimental as almost anything I have ever read. Created, chapter by chapter of snippets of “real” life writings, presumably some of them actual, we learn that President and Mrs Lincoln held an elaborate and elegant party at The White House, while the Civil War was raging elsewhere and, more importantly for this book, their son William Wallace was mortally ill upstairs.
Willie dies, and we switch to the Gothic spirit-life of the residents of the Washington Cemetery where Willie was temporarily laid in a borrowed mausoleum as described in a contemporary memoir.
Nothing could have been more peaceful or more beautiful than the situation of this tomb and it was completely undiscoverable to the casual cemetery visitor, being the very last tomb on the left at the extreme far reaches of the grounds, at the top of an almost perpendicular hillside that descended to Rock Creek below. The rapid water made a pleasant rushing sound and the forest trees stood up bare and strong against the sky.
In “Twenty Days”, by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B.Kunhardt Jr.
Here we meet, and discover the spirits of three remarkable men: Roger Bevins iii, whose life became so fraught with sexual and emotional disappointment that he slashed his wrists, and then regretted it, too late. Hans Vollmans, a printer with a much younger wife, who dies in an accident at work and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who has seemingly died from natural causes at a reasonable old age.
Willie’s spirit arrives in his “sick-box” and these three are puzzling over why such a young soul should still linger, as other babies and young people have experienced the translation by the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” within hours or even days. But Willie stays.
Then to all of them an amazing event – the President comes to his son’s grave, opens his “sick-box” and holds the child in his arms, nothing like this has ever happened before and it causes consternation, excitement and memory.
To continue would be a spoiler.
Suffice to say, the switch between the grieving father, as reported by historical documents, and the Gothic spirit-life of the cemetery is brilliant. George Saunders has seized upon a titbit of history and woven around it a fantastical, mind-bending tale, full of sound and fury. Full, also, of love, sympathy, grief, loss and a great deal else. The lives of the residents of the graveyard, grotesques and humans alike, is imagined in generous and lively detail and the portrait of the grief-stricken father, weighted alike with a burden few can imagine, who have not themselves lost a son or a daughter; and who at the same time is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands of other sons and daughters, and whose side in the conflict is not going well; and for the survival of a nation, is insightful and moving.
The historical context alone would make this an interesting book, but it is more, much more and I enjoyed it hugely.