Fine-tuning your shelf: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders


Based on the real death of President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, comes a story inspired by the historical accounts – in the newspapers of the time – of the grief-stricken father who returned several times and late at night, to the boy’s crypt, in order to hold the body of his son and grieve. Narrated by eccentric ghosts who believe they are not dead, but simply sick and awaiting recovery, this novel is a deeply moving story of grief, isolation, and above all, that obsessive kind of hope that keeps us going.

Here are seven songs to accompany your reading of the novel that evoke its major themes:

1. Tamino’s Cigar sings of a dead man obtaining the chance to live one last night again – fitting for the ensemble cast of this novel who are so fixed on trying to go back to the living that they don’t realise that ‘life / Isn’t all about extending your time.’ Tamino’s protagonist who accepts that he should stop caring ‘about all who might recall me / For everything dies, so does memory could teach Professor Bloomer and Lawrence Decroix – two characters in the book obsessed with their reputation when alive – a lesson on the transience of human renown.

2. The lyrics ‘when my time comes around / Lay me gently in the cold dark earth / No grave can hold my body down / I’ll crawl home to her,’ from Hozier’s Work Song are the words of a devotee whose love and fidelity to his beloved transcend death, and cannot prevent a reconciliation, even after burial has taken place. Although about romantic love, this song strongly evokes the actions of Lincoln in the book where he repeatedly ventures to his son’s tomb to grieve.

A lesson on the transience of human renown

3. Something that unites Saunders’ novel and Elton John’s I’m Still Standing is the theme of endurance – in a world where spirits have been waiting a very long time to ‘heal’ and return to the living, the novel strongly posits the strength and doubt that surround never giving up the good fight.

4. The insistent speaker in Celeste’s Stop This Flame, with the lyrics, ‘I’ll give you anything you want,’ ‘you tell me to stop but I keep on going,’ and ‘I will never let you go,’ conjures up the persistent entities that come in the novel to try and persuade the ghosts to accept the unknown awaiting them past the ‘bardo.’

5. If you want to feel the same heartbreak you felt at reading about how Mrs Lincoln repeatedly called out for her son to be brought to her, weeping and dazed by drugs, days after the funeral had taken place, Sufjan Stevens’ Visions of Gideon, which contains the moving words ‘I have loved you for the last time…I have touched you for the last time is the perfect pairing, especially as the song talks about the confusion caused by grief when suffering makes you forget or cast memory aside.

6. Rather fittingly, The National sing songs about death ‘but in really fun ways’ in Light Years – apt for the tone of Saunders novel where we are simultaneously made to pity the ghost-characters, whilst also finding humour in their dialogue and the witty ways they meet their deaths. In one of their most moving songs, the lyrics and I would always be lightyears, lightyears away from you,’ convey that impenetrable distance between the living and the dead, and the desperation of the characters in Saunders novel who wish they could cross to the other side.

7. Lastly, with lyrics such as ‘Nobody knows how to say goodbye’ and ‘Nobody knows how to get back home,’ Nobody Knows by The Lumineers is the perfect anthem to embody the rich array of characters and emotions expressed in ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’

Listen to Caroline’s playlist here

Image: Konstantin Dyadyun via Unsplash

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