America at present seems in a state of grief. We are deep into the second year of a vicious pandemic, made more vicious by our divisive arguing over how to manage the contagion — or even if the contagion is real — which arguing only extends the pandemic, enables more virulent variants to mutate, inflames our wounds. The attendant suffering, personal and civic, is profound: the death of loved ones, businesses, communities. Even Americans’ congenital can-do spirit — the spirit that could engineer our recovery — seems mortally wounded.
In brief: America is devouring herself from within, and can’t seem to stop the devouring, thus the grief.
Thus: Stories of loss and recovery appeal not only on literary grounds, but, as a bonus, on therapeutic and reparative grounds, too. Serious literature is serious because it does not usually indulge in uplift. Western literature is replete with Tragedy, up to and including modern literature: Life is hard, death is imminent, there is no help for it. So when serious novels of loss and recovery come along, I respond.
These two novels portray loss of the hardest kind — the death of a child, in both cases a young son, both 11 years of age — and, crucially, the recovery of the parents left behind. In Lincoln in the Bardo, President Abraham Lincoln loses his son Willie during his first year in the White House and the opening battles of the Civil War. In Hamnet, William Shakespeare loses his only son Hamnet, just as he is finding his footing as a playwright. In both, the stakes for recovery could not be higher, the parents must pull through: In the former, the fate of the Union hangs in the balance; in the latter, the fate of Literature. I start with the one I liked better.
This novel of loss and recovery, subtitled A Novel of the Plague, has an additional draw right now: Pestilence features throughout, either in the foreground or the background, ready to strike again. The Black Death, the first iteration of which raged in the mid-14th century throughout Europe and England, raged again in the late 16th century, during the lifespan of history’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, the focus of this novel. In her Author’s Note, Maggie O’Farrell sets out her thesis: Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in this period (1596), with no cause cited, yet nowhere in his plays or poetry does Shakespeare cite The Black Death: “I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.”
(Shakespeare did use the word “plague,” of course. Per Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt: “In Shakespeare, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone, surfacing in his characters’ speeches most vividly in metaphorical expressions of rage and disgust. Mortally wounded in the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, Mercutio calls down ‘A plague on both your houses.’”)
Readers (myself included) expecting a novelistic treatment of how the death of a son — Hamnet — is transmuted into artistic gold — “Hamlet,” universally regarded the greatest play ever written — are in for a surprise: They’ll get what they want, just not by the avenue they expect. The early markers are laid out: Shakespeare’s childhood spent reading the moods and dodging the blows of a cruel father would instruct the future playwright on power, the struggle for; on human nature; on Life. When he first meets his future wife Agnes, who bristles under a cruel stepmother, they seem soulmates: He loves the way she thinks, she senses great “landscapes” within him. (Agnes is also known to us as Anne, but her father’s will cited her as Agnes, thus the author’s choice.)
References to the forthcoming “Hamlet” are explicit: When Shakespeare first sees Agnes, she’s carrying a falcon, and this reader laughed out loud: Hamlet will boast he knows “a hawk from a handsaw”: Granted a hawk is not a falcon, and Agnes would remind him it’s a kestrel, but, via Art, hawk and handsaw would come together. Another passage — “words, words, words” — points to Hamlet’s response to Polonius’ question, “What do you read, my Lord?” Most tellingly, early on, when the young Hamnet is searching for help for his twin sister Judith who’s suddenly fallen ill, he’s surprised by a sound and exclaims: “Who’s there?” — famous opening line of “Hamlet.” (The names Hamnet and Hamlet were then interchangeable.)
But this novel is not about Art per se; it is primarily about Life — the pulse of, the deeper reaches of. Art is but a refinement of Life; Life is the base matter. The author gets down to earth, literally: “The land here was once a marsh — damp, watery, half river and half earth. To build houses, the people had first to drain the land, then lay down a bed of rushes and branches to buoy up the buildings, like ships on a sea. In wet weather, the houses remember. They creak downwards, pulled by ancient recall; wainscots crack…doorways loosen and rupture. Nothing goes away.”
Thus the focus is not on Shakespeare, who is never seen here as a genius, not by his tradesman father who disdains his Latin tutor son, nor by the people of Stratford; the author leaves Will to conjure his career in London on his own. Instead, the focus is on Agnes, who, as it were, flies very close to the ground, to Life. In today’s parlance Agnes would be called a naturopath, for her vast knowledge of home remedies involving plants, animals, bees. By tracking pulse, pallor, bodily change, then applying her bespoke remedies, she has nursed countless sick souls back to health. For Agnes, “the veil” between this world and the next is “frail,” with the worlds “rubbing up against each other, allowing passage between them”; she’ll not let her beloveds “cross over.”
Tragically, though, Agnes cannot save her own dear son Hamnet (who, the author conjures, switches places with his sick twin, willing her well while he sacrifices himself). This sets in train, not only a crisis in the souls of Agnes and William, but for their marriage: As happens when a child dies, the parents can grow apart, split. Not for the world would I reveal the climax, except to say that the “tragedie” of “Hamlet” does eventually come into it — recall: that play is about a ghost — about which, O’Farrell says of its author: “It moves through him — this one, more than any other has ever written — as blood through his veins.” To get there, though, we spend a lot of time in Agnes’ garden, to such point this reader thought, Enough with the botany! In retrospect, it is time richly and instructively spent.
(This novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.)
In this incantatory novel, George Saunders endeavors to portray the transitory state between death and rebirth — the Buddhist concept of bardo — during which a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln comes nights to the cemetery chapel where his dead son Willie lies, not yet able to make his farewell. Using fragments of historical accounts written at the time and later — it looks like Parade of the Footnotes down the page — and animated by various fictional characters awaiting, like Willie, rebirth, this technique instantly brought to mind Dante’s shades (Saunders later calls them such). The author presents death in a potentially richer way than most American literature, which tends to skimp on the afterlife.
In Saunders’ hands, this afterlife, apart from the shades flying about and through things, feels like normal American life: raucous. The historical accounts can’t gibe in describing the night a feverish Willie died, upstairs, while a White House reception took place below: Was it a moonlit or moonless night? And the shades: They bring their own unsettled conflicts, wrangling amongst themselves, to such extent I began feeling cheated: I came to Lincoln in the Bardo expecting to bask in the Soul of perhaps our greatest President, certainly our greatest presidential writer, as he struggled to carry on after this deepest pain. Moreover this wrangling amongst the other-worldly shades got so, um, earthy, and so contrivedly so, that I almost left off. (Saunders is known for his naughty bits. Please, Sir, stop: It’s puerile, tiresome, woman-deflating, and, in your elegy of a novel, blasphemous.)
But, holding out for recovery, I stayed with it, and glad I did. The novel pays off movingly in two ways. First: The father-and-son bond is immortalized in a surprising way — spoiler alert: It’s Willie who bids his father farewell, freeing Lincoln, who (the Parade of Footnotes tells us) was unpopular early in his tenure and universally considered ill-equipped to conduct a war, to gather himself together and set to the historical work he had ahead. Second: The future Emancipation Proclamation is set up here, in the shades of two Black slaves, one of whom, on the very last page, enters into Lincoln as he rides out of the cemetery for the last time — breath-taking symbolism presaging Lincoln’s moral mission of freeing the slaves.
Along the way, Saunders imparts other moral nuggets. Shades are shown grilled on Judgment Day, the leading question being: “How did you live?” The two slaves reveal, finally, how they truly felt about their white masters, with Thomas Havens, the one who enters Lincoln at the last and who had a kindly master, saying: “[Y]ou know: I wish to do what I wish to do, and not what you are telling me to do.” (The white supremacists among the shades show themselves especially ugly.)
After awful loss, Lincoln’s recovery begins when he understands this:“that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore, one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”
Finally, in a passage resonating in our dark moment, Lincoln refocuses on the Civil War (not that I think we face civil war): “Must win. Must win the thing.” Was all the killing merited? “On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?” Lincoln ponders further, then resolves: “Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails…: The rabble cannot manage itself. Well, the rabble could. The rabble would. He would lead the rabble in managing. The thing would be won.”
(This novel won the prestigious international Man Booker Prize.)
These two poetic novels of loss and recovery elevate in their own unique ways. At this dark and beleaguered time for America, read them and be sustained, even perhaps rallied.