21 Breathtaking Quotes From Man Booker Winner 'Lincoln In The Bardo'

by Charlotte Ahlin

American author George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, an exploration of grief, the afterlife, and American History. Saunders is best known for his acclaimed short stories, and Lincoln in the Bardo is his first full-length novel. Although Saunders has reportedly avoided writing novels in the past, his foray into longer works has earned him one of literature's most prestigious prizes, as well as a £50,000 check (that's about $65,000). Here are a few of the most baffling and beautiful quotes that Saunders' novel has to offer.

The "bardo" is a Buddhist term for the limbo-like space between life and afterlife. As the title might suggest, Lincoln in the Bardo follows Lincoln's ghost as it passes over to the other side, but don't expect a conspiracy novel about Abraham Lincoln's assassination. This book centers on Willie Lincoln, the president's deceased son. Saunders was inspired by a historical account of Lincoln, distraught with grief, entering his son's crypt to hold his body. Young Willie is not alone, though: Lincoln in the Bardo brings us a cacophony of ghost voices, as well as scraps of historical accounts (both real and invented).

Here are a few of the most striking passages from Willie's stay in the bardo:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, $17, Amazon


“Strange, isn’t it? To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors utterly forgotten?”


“His mind was freshly inclined to sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in the world one must try to remember that all were suffering (non 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..."


“(So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do."


"The boundaries of the world seemed vast. I would visit Rome, Paris, Constantinople. Underground cafés presented in my mind where, crushed against wet walls, a (handsome, generous) friend and I sat discussing—many things. Deep things, new ideas. Strange green lights shone in the streets, the sea lapped nearby against greasy tilted moorings; there was trouble afoot, a revolution, into which my friend and I must— Well, as is often the case, my hopes were…not realized.”


“He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.”


“A warm breeze arose, fragrant with all manner of things that give comfort: grass, sun, beer, bread, quilts, cream—this list being different for each of us, each being differently comforted."


“We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.”


“Mrs. Ellis was a stately, regal woman, always surrounded by three gelatinous orbs floating about her person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters."


“As I moved about the room I would encounter that silver wedge of a moon at this window or that, like some old beggar who wished to be invited in.”


“Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself. Well, the rabble could. The rabble would."


“Had been bulky men, quietly content, who, in our first youth, had come to grasp our own unremarkableness and had, cheerfully (as if bemusedly accepting a heavy burden), shifted our life’s focus; if we would not be great, we would be useful.”


“Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing..."


“None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth."


“Doubt will fester as long as we live. And when one occasion of doubt has been addressed, another and then another will arise in its place.”


“The thousand dresses, laid out so reverently that afternoon, flecks of dust brushed off carefully in doorways, hems gathered up for the carriage trip: where are they now? Is a single one museum-displayed? Are some few yet saved in attics? Most are dust. As are the women who wore them so proudly in that transient moment of radiance.”


“One feels such love for the little ones, such anticipation that all that is lovely in life will be known by them, such fondness for that set of attributes manifested uniquely in each: mannerisms of bravado, of vulnerability, habits of speech and mispronouncement and so forth; the smell of the hair and head, the feel of the tiny hand in yours—and then the little one is gone! Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world."


"Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”


“I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst.”


"The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”


“Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget. Lord, what is this?”


“What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.”