A Sort of Book Review (But Not Really): LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

Being obsessed with my own mortality, perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders may not be the best choice when I decided to take a break from mystery novels, my literary equivalent of “comfort food”. However, I had read a lot of favorable press  on the Saunders book and I was curious.

Bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhists, is a kind of existence between death and rebirth. The Lincoln of the title refers not to the town car but U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself.

The novel, which takes place during one momentous night in 1862 in  a Washington DC cemetery, depicts President Lincoln, unaware of the fact he is being watched by ghosts, grieving at the graveside of his young son, Willie, who has died of a fever. 

Lincoln - cover

And here’s the kicker: the ghosts who serve as narrators for the majority of the novel are not  aware they are dead. (Any relation to the current administration is strictly a matter of chance.) The ghosts refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and the planet they inhabited while alive as “that other place”. There is a middle-aged man who was about to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; a conflicted homosexual brooding about a lost love, an elderly clergyman and a coarse and rather vulgar husband and wife duo  (There are other ghostly voices, too,  including the late Willie Lincoln!)

Let me be honest or as I  refer to it, my literary equivalent of hara-kiri. 

lincol - saunders
George Saunders and his best-selling book

I was unfamiliar with the works of George Saunders. Judging from some of the names on the back of the book, though, Mr. Saunders is a short story master (Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel). No less a literary luminary than Dave Eggers wrote that Mr. Saunders is  “… no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity.” (in other words, “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” or something like that) and Zadie Smith claims” not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny.” (Her claims may be”greatly exaggerated.”) The publishers have also recruited such literary lions as Khaled Hosseni, Lorrie Moore and (gasp!) Thomas Pyncheon to write blurbs on the back cover of Mr. Saunders’ debut novel.  So who am I, a mere English major, to argue about Mr. Saunders brilliance, both as a short fiction master and a novelist?

lincoln 3

Incidentally. a website called openculture.com (which I am familiar with) has assembled a collection of Mr. Saunders’ vaunted short fiction, The New York Times online video section has a ten-minute video inspired by Lincoln in  the Bardo, a feature film version is in the works (good luck with that! ) and interviews with Mr. Saunders are available online on various sites including youtube. 








Thoughts on Mortality

We all gotta go sometime.

From something.

So, like Tim McGraw sang, 

“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying
Like tomorrow was a gift
And you’ve got eternity
To think about.”

Or, to quote Willie Nelson

“…. woke up still not dead again today
The news said I was gone to my dismay
Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play …. “

I Got It from the Library: THE SEVENTH SEAL

Roughly translated from Swedish, it means "Heavy Sh*t"

I watched this movie back in my college days but all I remember is the iconic scene with Death playing chess with a medieval knight.

Yes , this scene …

Anyway,  when I watched it again I got this overwhelming sense of deja vu.

Cuz since I last saw  The Seventh Seal  I have seen at least two dozen Woody Allen films over the years and, frankly, a lot of the moral quandaries in this 1957 classic have been recycled (some would say endlessly) in Allen’s films.

Of course, the Woodman has never been shy about professing his adoration for Bergman’s work. 

It was  just kinda shocking for me to realize what a big influence the Swedish writer and director has had on Allen’s art.

I kinda felt like I did when, as a lifelong Bowie fan, I first heard those Velvet Underground  LPs at my cousin Cam’s place in Port Angeles. (Karen, his wife at the time, was from NYC and had actually seen VU at Max’s Kansas City.) 

I still like those old Bowie records. I simply realized that one of my heroes was not quite as creative and innovative as I thought. 

To be fair, Bowie was a big admirer of the Velvets. After all, he covered “White Light White Heat” on one of his albums and produced Lou Reed’s second longplayer (yes, the one with “Walk on the Wild Side” on it.)

But I digress (I’ve always wanted to say that) …..

The knight, whose name in the film is Antonius Block, has just returned from the Crusades as the film opens and  is wondering  just what that was all about.

Hmm, a foreign army invading the Middle East for a dubious reason … sounds familiar.

Anyway, Block is feeling more than a little lost and guilty about his role in the conflict and there is a lot of talk about life and death,  the nature of faith and man’s relationship with God. Is there a higher power in the universe? Block is looking for proof.

Ingmar Bergman circa 1957

Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing seems to have left him with some lasting psychological scars. Is he trying to  exorcise some of his inner demons in this film?    

“Why can’t I kill the god within me?” Block agonizes at one point in the film.

However, The Seventh Seal  isn’t all moody meditations about mortality.

Believe it or not, the film does have its playful side. There are moments of light comedy and even a note of hope at the end.

Max von Sydow: Have Sword Will Travel

Max von Sydow, still in his 20s when he played the part of Sir Block, is a formidable screen presence. No wonder Hollywood snapped him up. He even appeared in a Woody Allen film later in his career (1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Bergman deserves credit for making the most of a modest budget.

With the help of his hand-picked crew he convincingly creates a medieval milieu in which to tell his timeless tale.

The Seventh Seal has enough food for thought to fuel a dozen coffee breaks or (in the case of many of Allen’s films) dinner conversations.

PS After watching  The Seventh Seal  I suspect Allen’s true genius may lie in his ability to discuss Bergman’s philosophical musings within the framework of a sophisticated American comedy.