Thursday, July 5, 2018

Liminal Fictions -- George Saunders' Bardo and Ali Smith's Winter

Almost two months since I last published here,  and before that I began this post. At first, I only got as far as drafting a title and importing the photo below. 

A few days later, I added a few paragraphs: The photo's taken from Ali Smith's Winter -- which I managed to borrow, in hardcover print format, from the library. I'd like to have my own copy (along with her earlier Autumn, which I said a very few words about in this post; scroll down to the bottom of the list) because this is definitely one of those books that demands to be reread.

We're confronted with this head from the novel's opening, if I remember correctly (it's been too long and I don't have a copy here to double-check) -- a stone head, it seems, that floats along wordlessly beside one of the novel's protagonists. I appreciate that we're not flinging the term "magical realism" around as constantly and ubiquitously and promiscuously as we were ten or fifteen years ago -- but let's just say that the Britain this protagonist occupies might be a bit more porous to other realities than the reader perhaps expects.

It takes a while to sort what's going on, and then, again if I remember correctly, we dip quickly into different times and places with this protagonist, before shifting to the perspective of another. I felt off-balance for the first third to half of the novel, but enjoyably so, working to puzzle out possible connections. Characters who I was inclined to dislike revealed themselves to be sympathetic or at least more interesting than I'd expected. Indeed, given the novel's work as political allegory or commentary, it's a tribute to Smith's deft pen that the characters lift so convincingly off the page. Especially since, as James Wood points out in this New Yorker review,  both Autumn and Winter must have been written very quickly (he calls them "political pop-up books."

Short shrift, I shamefacedly admit, for a book that deserves much more of my attention. but I'm determined to finish this post today or tomorrow, and I've got one more book to mention. . . You might like to have a peek at fellow blogger Mardel's much more sustained review.

And when you've done that, I'll tell you quickly that before I read Smith's Winter, I read George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, which is another book I will have to own in hard copy.  So many passages I'd love to underline, to copy out, even, but I'd borrowed this one from the library from the Fast Reads shelf. It deserves savouring rather than fast reading. . .

For one thing, it takes a while to get a sense of the terrain. The novel comprises many substantive excerpts from a number of historical sources; at the outset, these describe a grand reception President Lincoln and the First Lady gave on an evening when their eleven-year-old son was suffering from typhoid fever -- epistolary excerpts and passages from biographies or from newspaper articles published at the time switch gradually from covering the reception to describing the boy's illness -- doctor's report and nurse's and servants' -- then describing the child's worsening, his eventual death, his parents' grief. But the reader is left to assemble the narrative from the material provided. . .

Which would be challenge enough, although manageable, without the short fictional narratives interwoven among these historical texts. These sketches, we gradually realize, are of the ghostly inhabitants of the cemetery to which Lincoln's son has been brought. I've lived this long without knowing that "the Bardo" is, in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of consciousness between life and death (there are other states of consciousness that are also "bardos," as I understand it, but for the purpose of understanding Saunders' experimental novel, I think this works).

The novel's organizing conceit is that Lincoln's son cannot bear to abandon his father to his obvious grief, but the spirits who inhabit the cemetery with him know that he risks being horribly trapped, both physically and spiritually, in this in-between space filled with grotesque characters--whose narratives are being gabbled about discordantly. The collective effort necessary to push the child out of this world and into a better space is worth following. What struck me most, though, were the  passages in which one character in particular celebrates the myriad concrete beauties, large and small, that make human life in the world worth the pain he suffered in living it -- and in leaving it.

I do wish I could offer you examples of these passages, and if I had my own copy, I would. (In fact, I'm thinking I might try to check the book out again and add a passage or two here when I do -- some of them are so beautiful and against some of the atrocities we're contemplating daily, in the news, they offer tiny arguments for sustaining hope, for finding worth in the everyday.)

But perhaps you've read it yourself, and could share your own favourite passage. . .

Short shrift again, but if you're not ready to dive into the novel yet, you might check out Hari Kunzru's review in The Guardian.

These two marvellous novels are the 17th and the 19th on my list of books read in 2018. Halfway through the year, I had listed 44 books (a whole slew of mysteries pushed the count up while we were travelling).  Simple arithmetic declares that I'm 25 books behind -- yikes! It's pretty obvious that I'm not keeping up with my original intention of writing a bit about each book I read, and I'm seriously wondering if it's worth maintaining this blog separately. I could, instead, just post updates on my reading over on Materfamilias Writes, but I've rarely found the book conversation there to be as convivial as it can be here. We're a much, much smaller group here, but we're all engaged readers, and I've really enjoyed our exchanges. It's pretty obvious, though, that I'm not doing enough to feed this blog and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to do much more.

Thoughts? Either about the two books I've discussed here, or about whether or not I should keep the blog going, desultory and occasional as the posts seem to be, or whether my writing about books would be better placed over on my other blog. (And prepare to be shocked: There will be TWO posts here in one week -- I'm going to post my Halfway-through-the-year list in a day or two, so we can compare notes. I might even manage another post next week to tell you about some really great stuff I've been reading lately. We'll see. . . )


Anonymous said...

I tried posting earlier but it seems to have been lost in cyberspace. The gist of it was to tell you how much I enjoy this blog, however frequent or infrequent it is! I have discovered so many new to me authors here, John Farrow and Sara Baume to name a few. I have just finished reading "A Line Made By Walking" and am almost tempted to immediately start reading it again - her language and imagery is just so impressive and even thought the mood is much darker the language is always pitch-perfect. I can't always find the right words to describe why I like a book so much but I just know that I love her writing! I haven't read Ali Smith's books or George Saunders, but they're on my list.I thought I was a fast reader but I can't keep up to you! I've also been reading a few mysteries, Fred Vargas and Peter Robinson and right now am engrossed in a fascinating book about Paris, exploring the city in the footsteps of various historical figures. We're off to that wonderful city in September, hence my reading list and I've also enjoyed your travel posts about Paris, among others.
Frances in Sidney

Anonymous said...

I love this blog and read all the comments,getting ideas,sometimes also coming back to compare the impressions-it is important to me
Lincoln in Bardo (thank you-"bardo" was a new term to me,too) is waiting on my Kindle app,for a fall,I guess
I started to read it,but it is a book where I need to google a lot (of historical facts,quotes,characters.....),certainly not a book to read while waiting in a car
Speaking about the history,I've finished two "lighter"books:
Julia P. Gelardi's Born to Rule,about five granddaughters of Queen Victoria married into other royal families (including Queen Alexandra Romanov)-a lot to google,,facts
The second one is The American Princess by Aneejet Van Der Zijl-I've never heard about Allene Tew before
To recommend: Amos Oz Juda (I've been reading it off and on,maybe even mentioned here already,but have finished eventualy)
Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman (first of his books I've finished,not only started) about father-son relations,based on the myth of Oedipus
Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited
I've read a couple of interesting new misteries,but I'll save it for your next post :-)

materfamilias said...

It's so frustrating when those comments get lost -- thanks very much for persevering. So glad to have been able to introduce you to John Farrow and to Sara Baume -- I felt the same way about A Line, but my copy was an e-book downloaded from the library. It's so very dense, her writing, and so observant and so full of ideas to chew on. I'm grateful to you, in turn, for telling me about Keigo Higashino's mystery novels-- now if only they could be translated more quickly and brought to my library!
I love Fred Vargas, and I'm waiting impatiently for her to finish another novel -- I thought her latest, Quand Sort La Recluse, was one of her best.
Wonderful that there are always new books about Paris to read -- what's the title of the one you've got now? Funny that I want to say, "Lucky You," having that trip ahead of you when I've only just got back myself. Such are the hooks that city wields. . .

materfamilias said...

It always surprises me how many books I learn about from you, even though you're reading in a second language. . . Born to Rule sounds fascinating for anyone really keen on history (Where's that Georgia right now? Hello?)
I'll make a note of the Pamuk -- I've only ever read his Snow. . . Actually, all of your titles are worth noting -- no wonder I can never keep up with my lists! (and also that fascinating book we talked about over our Kava sa šlagom, our millionaire neighbours ;-)

Anonymous said...

The Paris Book is "The Streets of Paris," by Susan Cahill. It was just published last year so at the end of every chapter there is up-to-date information on various attraction (cafes, etc) in each neighbourhood. I think I'll be getting my own copy and taking it with me.
Frances in Sidney

materfamilias said...

Thanks! Duly noted. . .

BuffaloGal said...

No matter how infrequent the posts, I look forward to them and would feel their absence. As I noted before, I initially had trouble with "Bardo"...too many confusing characters jumping in and out. I then downloaded it as an audiobook and found it much more palatable- just a suggestion if someone else finds it a hard slog. It is worth reading. On the lighter side of things I enjoyed The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. This is a fictionalized version of the relationship between Truman Capote and "the swans" of NYC society. I enjoy memoir and finished 32 Yolks by Eric Ripert. Interesting subject matter, but he'd best stay with cooking as I see no future as an author. I generally avoid short story collections, but loved The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It is thought provoking and oh so relevant. Finally- I am revisiting Henry James and rereading The Golden Bowl. His command of the language is second to none- but he sure takes his time getting to the point!

materfamilias said...

Thank you for the encouragement to keep posting here as well as for your patience.
Now that I've read Bardo, I can more fully understand your comment about the audiobook's appeal -- it would really help separate out the voices and emphasize all the narratives that intersect here.
I would feel the absence, if I stopped posting, of yours (and other readers') contributions to my reading list. Your reviews are so succinct, and I've been well rewarded by trusting some of them (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was your recommendation, wasn't it?)

Georgia said...

Here I am! Just back from the Folk Festival...and to stay topical I will say it is challenging to read in bed (bed = camp cot, bedroom = tent) by flashlight, but I managed as well as could be expected.

And you two are a pair of bad influences; I am going after Born to Rule immediately, that is just my cup of tea (D, The googling makes it so much more fun doesn't it? Including photos, and the family tree, and if there are maps to be looked at I am a happy woman. And don't all the cousins resemble each other?).

I have to read and absorb the posts I have missed and then will try to comment. I should have made notes on Winter; I was enchanted by that head and its determination.

materfamilias said...

I've never been to your folk festival, but it's supposed to be one of the best, right?
Happy you picked up another book title -- it's that Dottoressa! she's always flaunting a number of new good reads ;-)
I was too, enchanted by that head, and also by the fake girlfriend who revealed herself to be so much more. . . I just think that notion of Rembrandt painting the child Simone de Beauvoir -- so specific and weighted and curious and tendentious or connotative in ways I can't quite grasp. I'm fascinated by a writing mind that can put that in front of me, the whole collection of ideas and images, with so few words.

Anonymous said...

It's that Dottoressa!! Well,well,well....
Georgia,the book consist of letters,history testimonies....and,yes,a lot of googling :-) while reading-yes,they looks similar but very different. How a little difference in character (or,even looks and how you express it)can make or brake a lot of things,even history course

BuffaloGal said...

It was.

Mardel said...

Two of my favorite books of the last slightly-more-than-a year! I can understand the comment about the appeal of the audiobook where Bardo is concerned. I struggled with the book initially, struggled with keeping everything straight, and trying to fret over what was real and what was imagined, until I figured out that I needed to think of it as a Greek play, and to imagine a chorus, perhaps an otherworldly chorus, all unruly and always butting in. I had to start over though.
I think I experienced a similar disconnect with Winter. I found it charming initially, but at some point I had to reconnect my brain to a different pattern and start over.

I didn't seem to write down passages from either, or mark them, but both books are in the pile to be reread, the pile that will go with me to temporary digs. That doesn't guarantee I'll get to them though, although I will be putting myself on an Amazon moratorium when I move, which might help. I see that Judas, recommended by Dottorressa, is also in that pile, but no promises, only hopes.