Hard to know what to read and write about today. Still got Lincoln in the Bardo in my mind but want to finish reading the Marvell poem. Also, have a lot of work to do and want to spend some time in the garden and am going to the match later. Can LFC beat Burnley? You know, I can’t stake my reputation on predicting that, despite my respect for – belief in – Mr Klopp.
Re-reading the text this morning, I was reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’:
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.
That’s how it feels to read the book, which builds and gets faster and heavier as it goes. Voices of the past, in the form of quotations from real and (I imagine) fictional ‘histories’, come at you, and tell us what we’ve known for some time now – no one view or memory is the truth. It was a moonlit night, say several accounts, there was no moon that night, others contradict. It’s like reading the Nehls biography of D.H.Lawrence. You see the whole reality through the multifaceted bits that all sorts of people contribute. And then the ‘characters’, like characters in a T.S.Eliot play, or in Becket or in Under Milk Wood, are not characters as we know them in a novel. They are their voices. As the reader, you have to do a lot of the work. Not complaining, I like hard book-work.
Hard but this is George Saunders so there’s also comedy and slapstick and rude bits from farting and poop to small-scale orgies. There’s wryness, quite a lot of it. But I do not know why people say GS is a satirist. There’s heart here, there’s always heart, and there’s a sort of disappointment too. Humans! Ha! You silly, bad people. But there is always belief in us, too. As Sian Cain writes in The Guardian, George Saunders makes us love people again. I think of satirists as making us mock them. I want books that care about humans and raise the standard. This book does both.
So, how do we get to love more and mock less? We feel each other’s feelings, we imagine or experience life in someone else’s life. When two of the book’s leading presences enter President Lincoln in order to help him change something (I’m not telling you the story here!) a side-effect of their collaboration is a kind of exchange of self, sympathy, empathy: feeling how if feels to be someone else, to have their particular set of experiences:
Because we were as yet intermingled with one another, traces of Mr Vollman naturally began arising in my mind and traces of me naturally began arising in his.
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Never having found ourselves in that configuration before –
This effect was an astonishment.
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I saw, as if for the first time, the great beauty of the things of this world: waterdrops in the woods around us plopped from leaf to ground; the stars were low, blue-white, tentative; the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze, as some distant cross-creek sleigh-nag tossed its neck-bells.
I saw his Anna’s face, and understood his reluctance to leave her behind.
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I desired the man-smell and the strong hold of a man.
The end (don’t want to spoil it) asks us to believe that it is possible for one spirit to enter another spirit’s being, thus changing the course of human history. That’s not the final move of a satirist, that’s the move of a believer. But why wouldn’t a great writer believe this? Isn’t putting the experiential knowledge of others lives, other centres of consciousness, into our own minds what great writing is for? Isn’t that what writing is for?