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Lincoln in the Bardo

Chris just sent me this:

Hard to believe such a gloomy diagnosis for the whole of next week, but there it is.


I was going to go for a bike ride today to the village, but it’s not just grey and cloudy now, it’s full on raining. So we’ll be staying home. Ah well. We will work. The fridge is full of food, and Sheba can run in the yard if we don’t get to a park. For the next week or two.

I know you will find it hard to believe that I, the seasoned traveller, could pack badly, but in fact, I am here in this land of damp chill without a single warm sweater. The weather was apparently glorious before I arrived, and my host urged me to bring hot weather clothing like shorts, which I did. Shorts, short-sleeved t-shirts, a skirt. The weather turned horrible while I was on the plane west, and now, every day, I wear every remotely warm item I brought in a layered pile. What I’d give for one of my thick warm turtlenecks. And, in fact, my long underwear – wish I’d brought that too. I do remember when I was here last year, it got very hot. But perhaps that was just luck, or perhaps later in April. In any case, it’s a good thing I can borrow Chris’s coats or I would not be a happy camper.

An enormous pleasure: I finished one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. It’s hard to know where to begin, the book is so unusual; Saunders invents a land of the dead, sets the rules of the place, and peoples it with vivid, deeply humane, sometimes humorous characters from more than 150 years ago. I’ve read a few Saunders short stories in the New Yorker, remember the first, “Victory Lap,” in 2009 – read it! – taking my breath away with shock, forcing me to return to the first page to look at the writer’s name. He inhabits the souls of two young people, a girl and a boy, and that of a foul rapist, all 3 intimately, powerfully realized.

So it’s no surprise that here, he enters fully into the minds of his many characters, male and female, black and white, old and young, most of all that of noble President Lincoln, mourning his dead son Willie and the many deaths of the country’s civil war. Along the way, this novel includes many actual quotes from books about the time and place. It takes awhile to get into the rhythm of disjointed speech by ghosts, alternating with quotes.

Here’s a bit spoken by a spirit who has just realized that he is in fact dead and will soon leave the bardo – a kind of purgatory where disembodied souls dwell until they move on to their final resting place. He gives a long list of the things he last saw in life.
None of it was real; nothing was real.
Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.
And now must lose them.
I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant.
Goodbye goodbye good—

And he’s gone.

It’s really good. Highly recommended.

And now for something completely different, though again about the things we must leave behind – I am reading The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Will have lots of time to contemplate death today. Chris is at his computer drinking Diet Coke, of course, with Gregorian chant on his sound system, the cats are dashing madly about, the dog has an old shoe in her mouth and is waiting for someone to play, the fire is warming our bones, and outside, wet and, at 10 a.m., very, very dark.

Inside, warm and dry and music and books, with animals at play. So – no problem.

To cheer us up, a photo of Chris’s beloved friend Steve, who lives in L.A. where there is sun, dressed in his Easter finery:



2 Responses to “Lincoln in the Bardo”

  1. theresa says:

    I loved Lincoln in the Bardo. It took me a bit to get used to the narrative — how the voices fit, or didn't — but wow, once I knew how to read it, I couldn't put it down. And it was often so funny. I didn't expect that. And poignant (which I did expect).

  2. beth says:

    Yes, me too, I kept checking – who's speaking now? What an extraordinary imagination the man has, and what empathy. I kept thinking of the current arguments about appropriation – Saunders writing as women, as people of colour, and as the dead – who gave him permission? That's what fiction writers do!

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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