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The long wait for Lincoln

The long wait for Lincoln

George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize 2017 winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, was a long time coming. In an interview before the prize announcement the writer said it was some 20 years ago, in 1992, that he first heard the story of the grieving President visiting a cemetery at night to hold the dead body of his son. He felt though that he couldn’t write it at the time because ‘it would require resources I didn’t have’. At that point in his writing career, Saunders felt himself to be ‘a writer of limited talent and more limited education’ without the wherewithal to do justice to the story. ‘For around 20 years the subsets of “my style” and “what might be required to honour that Lincoln anecdote” continued to fail to intersect’. To make things more frustrating ‘I could feel that there was a beautiful book there but began to fear that it would have to be written by somebody else.’ The real sticking point, he came to understand, was that he doubted his ‘ability to express sincere human emotion straightforwardly’. So what changed things? Age. In his fifties he asked himself, ‘Had I not lived? I had. Why should any human emotion be off-limits for me? It was a heartbreak to think that this might be so. If it was true, for lack of talent – better to find out.’ And so, finally, he took it on.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a complicated novel in that it contains a multiplicity of voices (of the dead souls in the cemetery) and in the way it switches from dialogue, to monologue to historical fact and mock-historical fact. It is not, therefore, an easy work to convert into an audiobook. The solution is really to go for it, and Audible has. Their recording of the book uses 166 different voices in the narration, among them Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon and David Sedaris. As if this stellar gathering weren’t enough Saunders himself (playing the Reverend Everly Thomas) and his family also have roles. No word from Saunders though as to whether his thespian stint tempted him to stray from the page to the stage.

If Saunders is an undeniably talented man he is also a modest man. He thinks he’s instinctively timid so ‘when I get praise, it helps me be a little bit more brave’. And when his earlier books CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia met with praise but only modest sales he thought: ‘Hmm, better try harder. Fail better. You know?’ He doesn’t envy the writers who get it right too soon: ‘it disrupts their learning curve’. A debut novelist who instantly becomes a bestseller is ‘So unlucky. Those poor bastards!’ Saunders is 58, a good age to get lucky.

News of Saunders’s victory instantly went global. It is always interesting to see something of the breadth of coverage the Man Booker Prize generates. Of course Saunders was picked up in all the expected places – Sky News, the BBC, the broadsheets – in the UK and in America but also in India, Australia, Ireland, Holland, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and Belgium to name just a few. It has also made headlines in less obvious news outlets such as Myhighplains.com, website for the Texas panhandle area (‘Amarillo born author George Saunders recently won the Man Booker Prize’), Syracuse.com (‘Syracuse University's George Saunders wins prestigious Man Booker literary prize’), Lionsroar.com – ‘Buddhist wisdom for our time’ – (‘Buddhist author George Saunders wins Man Booker Prize for “Lincoln in the Bardo”’). Such is the reach of literature . . .

What, Saunders was asked, in the immediate aftermath of the prize ceremony on Tuesday, was the initial impact of winning? ‘I came out of the award thing,’ he said, quaintly, ‘and I looked at my phone and there were like 80 messages there. The Man Booker has a really incredible power that I hadn’t seen before with any kind of good news.’ He’s probably dreading looking at his phone already.

The prize will not go to his head, however. Others might be tempted to swig champagne from the bottle but Saunders’s reaction was ‘what you want to do is enjoy it for about a minute and then kind of plough it under the category of things that might help me do better work later’. So not even a glass of fizz? ‘It’s sort of that old Catholic in me who doesn’t want to go dancing. You know, just go back to work.’ That work, by the way, is developing a TV pilot for Amazon based on his short story Sea Oak.

George Saunders