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:

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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.

What I’ve Been Reading This Week: Ants Among Elephants, Harry Potter & Orphan Stories, & Literary Adaptations on TV

I just finished reading this excerpt of Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India featured in the Boston Review. I’m adding the book to my reading list–what I’ve read so far is a fascinating and beautifully written story that touches literature and politics through the lens of family history.

“The Threat Within: Harry Potter and the Cultural Baggage of Orphan Stories” by Kristen Martin Martin reflects on the trope of orphans in literature about children and teens, her own experience losing her parents at a young age, and the absence of honest depictions of grief in “orphan stories.” For me, her essay also brought to mind the debate over Netflix’s recent adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which spends more time exploring the impact of Anne’s childhood traumas than original novel or the 1985 TV mini-series.

And speaking of TV adaptations, check out Lisa Rosman’s “Have You Seen What TV Has Been Doing to Books Lately?” on the recent trend of prestige TV shows adapted from literary novels.

I also just learned that Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties will be debuting in October 2017! I first stumbled across Machado’s work as an intern at AGNI and have been a fan of her writing ever since, so I’m eager to read the book when it comes out!

Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?

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I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls

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Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.

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