History, memory, and imagination blur in Lincoln in the Bardo

History, imagination, and memory are not so far apart – history is largely remembered, and memory can do funny things: we invent, we mythologize. This is often a difficult admission for historians, for whom it would be tidier to say that history is entirely a pursuit to determine The Historical Truth—but the deeper you go in history, the harder it is to decide on what is objective. This is disconcerting, but most people agree that the answer is not to throw out the notion of truth altogether. Instead, historians think about how subjectivity shapes the way we record, discuss, and remember the past.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about history and memory this week, as I’m midway through George Saunders’ Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which I bought in a Waterstones on the way home from a dinner party, after a few glasses of wine had softened my usual reluctance to pay for a shiny new hardback edition. I had heard of the book of course—I knew it was about Lincoln and his son’s death, that it was good, great, brilliant—but I somehow hadn’t heard anything about its structure.

I’ll tell you now: this Lincoln in the Bardo is all about structure, and I’m a sucker for novels that break with traditional narrative conventions. Saunders’ central conceit idea is this: some chapters are made up of dialogue between ghosts in the graveyard where Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, is buried, and others are a collage of historical sources, block quotes of text that look not unlike the notes I used to prepare when writing my history essays in college. I was intrigued, but not totally convinced that this structure was necessary—and I reached chapter five:

Lincoln in the Bardo V

 

I was struck by the  Saunders’ juxtaposition of these conflicting accounts: the effect is not to make us question the narrators’ honesty, or to ask us to infer whether there was indeed a full moon that night, but to show us the unreliability of memory. How much of what we know about our life is real, Sauders asks, and how much is imagined?

A few days later, I stumbled across  Marina Warner’s “Diary” for the Nov 16 issue of the London Review of Books, which argues that memory and imagination are not so far apart:

“It isn’t just saints and visionaries who have dreams and relate them as if they were real events—in a literary sense, as well as a psychological sense, they are real events. Recent findings in the field of cognitive studies tend to show the ways in which thought is interwoven with reality. Memoria and fantasia used to be considered distinct faculties and were assigned to separate chambers of the mind, but it seems the same synapses fire whether you are remembering something that happened to you, recalling something you saw on the news, or inventing it from scratch. The speculative mind generates experience—imagined experience.”

Warner’s essay references Augustine, Proust, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Nicole Krauss—but as soon as I read this paragraph, I thought of Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders’ bricolage of historical texts accomplishes captures the phenomenon of invented memory and unreliable history. We know that not all of the voices in Lincoln in the Bardo are speaking the truth; and yet none of them are lying.