Part intro to Russian literature, part musings on craft, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is all pleasure. Best known for his surrealist short stories and Man Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), George Saunders here puts on his professorial cap.
Based on a class he has taught for 20 years to MFA students at Syracuse University, this book amiably analyses seven 19th-century Russian stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, selected out of about 30 used for the course. It’s rich pickings: as Nabokov noted, the 19th-century was “sufficient for a country with practically no literary tradition of its own to create a literature which in artistic worth, in widespread influence, in everything except bulk, equals the glorious output of England or France”.
Because his students are aspiring writers, rather than academics, Saunders’ focus is more on the “physics of the form” than on critical analysis. What is it that makes a short story work, and how can we reverse-engineer greatness to write one ourselves? Why did the authors make the choices they did? When is a story “done”? For Saunders, who favours an iterative, instinctive writing process, structure emerges from paying attention at the line level rather than planning in advance. A work of art “has to surprise its audience,” he writes, “which it can do only if it has legitimately surprised its creator”.
Chekhov, considered the father of the form, has three short stories in the survey. Saunders uses “In the Cart”, about a lonely schoolteacher, to show the key to any effective writing: making a reader want to keep reading. “The Darling”, featuring a serial monogamist, illustrates how Chekhov plays with our expectations of patterns. “Gooseberries” — which contains the swim from which this book’s title is taken — demonstrates the value of digression.
The Russians regarded fiction “as a vital moral-ethical tool,” writes Saunders — asking the “big questions” such as “How are we supposed to be living down here?” Some authors are more forthcoming with answers than others: Chekhov believed that it wasn’t an artist’s job to solve problems but rather to formulate them correctly. As Janet Malcolm notes in Reading Chekhov (2001), “unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov leaves the question of what it all means unanswered. He raises it, but then — as if remembering that he is a man of science and a rationalist — seems to shrug and walk out of the room”.
Tolstoy, in turn, is represented with two stories. One of which, “Alyosha the Pot”, about the life and untimely death of a simple servant, is included for its capacity to move the reader; as is Turgenev’s “The Singers”, which — in a sort of metanarrative — features a singing contest in which emotional response trumps technical ability.
Saunders uses Gogol’s iconic story “The Nose”, in which a civil servant wakes up with his nose missing and later sees it strolling down St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, to discuss unreliable narration. In the Russian narrative tradition called skaz, “an unbalanced narrator describes, in an unbalanced voice, the doings of a cast of unbalanced characters,” he explains. “In other words, like life.” It’s not that Gogol was an absurdist, trying to communicate that we live in a world without meaning, Saunders argues. Rather, he created new realities to relay how things really are.
The challenging of his choices of stories and translations (Saunders is not a Russian speaker) is something the author expects and encourages. He concedes that the seven stories selected aren’t necessarily the best stories written by these authors but ones he has found “eminently teachable”. Saunders mentions other favourites from Chekhov in passing — “The Lady with the Pet Dog”, “In the Ravine”, “Enemies”, “About Love” and “The Bishop”. No sooner were review copies out than a good-natured debate sprung up among critics about the list: what of masterpieces like “The Student” (Chekhov’s favourite), “The Wife” (Edna O’Brien’s), “Gusev” or “Ward No. 6”? One gets the feeling that for Saunders, it’s all part of the fun (to tussle, he says, is to connect).
Saunders’ commentary on the stories reads like the coffee-stained notes of a professor fond of the subject — and his students. Where the text sparkles in particular is in his attempts at articulating the mystery of the muse. Saunders likens his creative process to a flow state: it’s only when a writer steps aside and surrenders to what Milan Kundera has called “suprapersonal wisdom” that the work can surpass the intelligence of its author. And, as anyone who wrangles words will relate, what keeps Saunders at his writing desk is the “pleasure it was, to have been, on the page, briefly less of a dope than usual.”
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders, Bloomsbury £16.99, 432 pages
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