American author George Saunders speaks on winning the Man Booker for Fiction, his concept of the Tibetan Bardo and the book which brought him the accolade.
“On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln is laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, his father Abraham arrives at the cemetery, alone, under cover of darkness.”
Perfectly capturing the essence of life and death, the hauntingly evocative lines are from George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won its author the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction on October 18. With the win, he became the second American ever to win the coveted award since it was made open to writers in English across the world.
Published by Bloomsbury, Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel, at 58, (he is already a well-established short story writer), is a compelling work that weaves a story around the life of the former President of the United States as he visits the grave of his dead son. The novel encompasses just one night, where, strangely and brilliantly, Saunders activates a graveyard with the spirits of its dead.
Speaking to this correspondent, Saunders says that the Man Booker will definitely change the way he writes and make him “bolder” in his future works. The multiple times winner of the National Magazine Award adds, “When people as wonderful and gifted as the judges tell you that your work has moved them, it affirms that your assessment of your ‘imaginary reader’ is somewhat correct — and therefore you can take your wildest swing at deep beauty.”
Interestingly, the novel moves between a 19th century America, ripe in its socio-political turbulence and an indefinable zone called Bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, where the dead get stuck on their way to heaven or hell. The entire novel vacillates between a defining moment in history, documented, real and an intangible “other” world.
The specific allusion to Bardo as opposed to any other afterlife, Saunders says is because of his spiritual inclinations. “I am a student of Buddhism,” he says, adding, “That’s really why.” And the author’s concept of the Bardo, it turns out, is a complex multi-dimensional representation that vacillates between the “then” and “here”.
He elaborates, “I loved the notion that one’s experience in the Bardo (at least as I understand it, in my limited way) would have something to do with this moment right now. So, as is the case in this life, in the Bardo I have made, everything is negotiable.”
The author, however, adds that his Bardo is “quite different” from the Bardo described in sacred Buddhist texts.
“We can (both there, and here) change the way our minds work, and become more loving and positive and realistic. So, in a narrative sense, that made ‘my’ Bardo more dynamic than, say, the Catholic Purgatory I learned about while growing up — the souls there are not damned forever but can free themselves... In the end, truth is the great redeemer.”
Death, in the novel, is all pervading. Unfolding in the graveyard over a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of grief, deeper meaning, possibilities of life and death.
To the author, death is an omnipresent reality that is perhaps even joyful.
“I think death is prevalent… everywhere. And it seems to me that if one is in proper relation to death then it is not morbid or particularly Gothic, but joyful, even. If we know we have to leave a party at a certain (unspecified) time, it might have the effect of making the party wildly exciting and rich.”
If one, on reading of the text, might wonder as to why the author settled upon fantasy and not reality to portray this decisive moment in history when Lincoln grapples with his duties and a personal tragedy, the author reveals that the decision has much to do with mechanics above anything.
“I’d heard that Lincoln came into the graveyard late at night, alone. So… who is to narrate that story? And the couple of times I tried narrating it via a traditional third-person voice (‘Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, moved through the gloomy February evening, sad at heart’) I was so bored I couldn’t go on.”
Saunders adds that the simple goal of not boring oneself (or one’s readers) leads one to find new forms. This search for a new form, is, “not for their own sake, but in order to be true to the emotional core of the story, and to make a tone and a shape that is new and lovely.”
The author who says that at the very centre, Lincoln in the Bardo is just the story of a father who is so sad about the loss of his beloved son that he enters the crypt and somehow interacts with the body feels that above all, readers “will get a tender feeling about his/her life and about other people and bring that feeling forth into his/her real life.”
And his next? The Man Booker winner concludes, “My approach has always been not to plan anything, but just to start working and see what develops naturally.”
George Saunders has been presented with a trophy from HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and a £50,000 cheque by Luke Ellis, chief executive of Man Group. Saunders also received a designer bound edition of his book and a further £2,500 for being shortlisted.