Lincoln in the crypt: George Saunders conjures up the beautiful life

Lincoln in the crypt: George Saunders conjures up the beautiful life

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Willie Lincoln dies in the White House at the age of eleven. His father Abraham Lincoln cannot let go. At night he climbs in Willie's crypt. George Saunders turns this true story into a grandiose novel.

illie Lincoln was eleven years old. He had typhoid and died in the White House. His father was the president - perhaps the most important one America has ever had. When Willie died in February 1862, Abraham Lincoln had to win a bloody civil war. All of this is a fact, handed down and attested: Willie Lincoln was buried in a rented crypt at Oak Hill Cemetary in nearby Georgetown, but his broken father never let go of him. At least twice at night Abraham Lincoln returned to the crypt, holding his dead son and mourning.

It is not known that the ghosts of the dead watched him. It is the daredevil invention of George Saunders ’novel“ Lincoln in the Bardo ”, which won the Booker Prize. Bardo is a Buddhist term that never comes up in the novel itself: it describes the intermediate realm into which the dead enter before the next cycle of life and suffering begins or before they reach nirvana.

Saunders ’Bardo, however, is also reminiscent of the purgatory; it also has a bit of the backdrop of the good old Victorian haunted story. Saunders, who has become famous for his distinctive short stories (and has delayed his first novel for around twenty years), is a gifted mixer: "Lincoln in the Bardo" is a historical novel and ghost story, antiquated tragedy, docufiction and sometimes a coarse game of mysteries. Laughter and crying are as close together as the graves in Oak Hill.

This is the heart-wrenching paradox: in the novel the lively feeling pulsates, but it belongs to the dead, even if it is to those who do not want to let go of life and refuse entry into the next world - heaven or hell, nirvana or next life - by sheer denial , The word "dead" does not come from his lips any more than the word "coffin". During the day they rest in "sick boxes"; at night, when Abraham Lincoln appears, they "float" across the cemetery, disfiguring the disembodied figures.

The spirit of Mr. Tadmill, for example, "appears to be almost pressed to the ground with remorse, like the sign for 'clip on' with a drab tuft of white hair on top". Roger Bevins III, who cut his wrists (and regretted it immediately) out of disappointment at his lover's infidelity, is covered with eyes all over. And there is little more left of Hans Vollman than a permanent erection. He did not press his much too young wife during his lifetime, and just when she was ready for matrimonial traffic, a bar fell on his head.

Bevins, Vollman and the Reverend Everly Thomas are the most important voices in Saunders ’ghostly choir. There is no central narrator voice in the novel, almost everything is like the theater, messenger report and wall show. In between, however, Saunders mixes short, documentary excerpts from the memories of contemporaries: the splendid reception in the White House when Willie Lincoln died in his room, Father Abraham or the "green", "silver", "blue", "yellow" Moon that night.

Oh, only feelings are reliable in this novel. Hans Vollman, defaced by unfulfilled desire, no longer knows his wife's name; a ghost of a professor has forgotten his research area, but not the feeling of lack of recognition. And because resentments are also feelings, there are conflicts when the poor and black people buried next door stop by.

Children usually rush through here. They don't stick to their lost lives. But the night appearance of Willie's father - spirit from the realm of the living - changes everything. The chorus of the dead feels strangely confirmed in its existence. But little Willie cannot let go of the father as long as the father doesn't want to let him go.

Why Bevins, Vollman and the Reverend decide to divert Abraham Lincoln's attention away from the lifeless "sick figure" in the "sick box" and to the spirit of Willie so that father and son can let go of each other. They "float" after the long-legged president, penetrate him like a ghost and read his thoughts without being able to penetrate him. And so, this is the only way Lincoln's emotional world communicates to the reader - filtered by the spirit of spirits who are so attached to life that they deny their own condition.

The effect is overwhelming. Because this drama of having to let go is developed - without any kitsch - to celebrate life. In the darkest night, at the worst moment, the most beautiful thing appears that only the dead have already lost, but not the readers, because otherwise they would not read.

“For example, a pack of children trudging through the cross-blowing December rush; a friendly fire under an oblique street lamp; in the high clock tower, frozen, bird visit; cold water in a tin jug; Drying the damp shirt in the post-June rain ... Above you geese, below you clover, and your own breath if you are short of breath. "

And Lincoln? The icon? The slave liberator? The civil warrior? The man in the memorial? The, that too, anti-Trump? George Saunders, himself a great empath, looked for and found a great empath. "This is how we have to see each other," Bevins and Vollman know after being in Lincoln.

"As suffering limited beings ..." "Eternally overwhelmed by the circumstances, insufficiently compensated." Lincoln's "sympathy," they report, "embraced everyone at this moment and, in its strict logic, stormed over everything that separated." Lincoln in the Bardo ”- did we forget that above? - is first of all a great American love story.