Dear George Saunders…
On June 30th in Kilmarnock, Virginia, ten of us gathered to discuss Lincoln in the Bardo. This meeting followed our May class when we studied your book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, about Russian short-story masters. You kindly answered my e-mail about where to send thank you notes, which the students had written. And I passed on to them, your advice about reading Lincoln in the Bardo. You suggested to give it thirty pages or possibly consider the audio tape.
Last Thursday, several students who had tried to read the novel years ago, said they did not want to put the novel down this time. One student took your advice and listened to the audio as she read. Only one of the ten did not finish the book by the time of our discussion. But she left class determined to read from page 90 to the end.
I began last Thursday by asking each person to describe the experience of reading Lincoln in the Bardo. I noted that so much depends on where the reader is, emotionally and otherwise, when the novel is read. A recent widow spoke of reading the book years ago and loving it. This time grief made the novel hard to read, though she commented on the way you evoked through Abraham Lincoln and son Willie, the loss of a child. This had happened to her and her husband twenty years earlier, when their daughter died in tragic circumstances. Now she pondered what in your life had allowed such a deep and meaningful portrayal of parental loss. Another student had read every interview you've given in print and film. For years she has studied religions and Buddhist mindfulness. She told us, "He has no ego!" That, she suggested, accounts for the beauty and genius of your fiction. She went on to tell the class so much we did not know about how Lincoln in the Bardo came into existence as a novel.
In our time together we shared favorite passages, reminded of when we laughed and cried (or wanted to cry) while reading your brilliant book. One student had learned after the May class that her granddaughter, a 2021 graduate in creative writing, took a class from you at Northwestern when you were a visiting professor there. A meaningful connection for two women, young and old, to share appreciation of your literature. On Thursday I heard insightful comments from students about the novel's structure and language.
Lastly, please know I appreciated that you answered my e-mail and sent a card from San Francisco to let me know the thank you notes had reached you. All of us on Thursday saw your unique signature, a continuous moving line, of curves and connections, and one mysterious triangular shape. What a contrast to the infamous one written with a Sharpie, an erectile signature, of up and down, eleven letters, one inch-high, beginning with D and ending with P.
I will end this letter with a few lines from your novel. "My god, what a thing. To find oneself thus expanded." Or imagine in our dangerous and divisive times, "to experience one mass mind united in positive intention" as occurs in the Bardo. And finally, what does it mean to realize that in whatever afterlife there might be, that which gets weighed is the heart. Our thanks to you.
Next week: Penelope Fitzgerald's last novel, The Blue Flower