George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (432 pages; Random House) is a warm introduction to the Russian masters of literature—warm as a house party: “Reader, meet my friends Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, Turgenev. Russian masters, meet my reader.” Using his experience teaching stories by these authors, Saunders is a generous guide inspired by his love of the short story, whether masterful or imperfect.
As he scans the seven stories included in his book, Saunders has fun as he works for ways a prospective writer might create similarly enigmatic stories. Neither inefficient nor blocky, these discussions are the source of the book’s meaning; they flow effortlessly, more like an impassioned conversation than a lecture. His explanations escalate, as though this bright-eyed, overly-energetic writer is leaning over the coffeehouse table, gesticulating widely as he whisks his reader onto yet another caffeinated adventure. Saunders talks of his own writing, too, his surprising generosity when confronting death, and his belief in love’s renewability. In fact, he continually demonstrates this final point through his inexhaustible enthusiasm: for instance, discussing Anton Chekov’s “In the Cart,” Saunders chirps, “Let’s see what he does next. (I feel like one of those whispering golf announcers: ‘Anton is approaching the end of the story, Verne. What a moment!’)”
Perhaps the writing feels so approachable because Saunders views himself as a student rather than a teacher. Trying to assemble the definitive “laws of fiction,” Saunders looks to such disparate giants as Albert Einstein and Frost and Nabokov. With his own humble additions, he generates what feels like a comprehensive encyclopedia of all the world’s knowledge on the craft, purpose, and effect of writing—the three of which, Saunders notes, are vastly different areas of study. As an accomplished writer, he is most insightful on the first. He shares how writers make decisions, roll with them, and eventually “let them stand”; how writers gain confidence in their work; and how they enter their “iconic space (that place where you do the work that only you can do).” It is impossible, of course, to explain the creation of a masterwork using only the final product, but Saunders never fails to extract wisdom from a reading.
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Saunders might say these stories make his job easy. They are masterpieces, after all, even those he includes for their faults. The Russian masters, he says, with Gogol’s absurd narrators, Chekhov’s stunning “narrative alertness,” and Tolstoy’s fact-based yet somehow moralistic descriptions, “changed the way human beings think about themselves”—all while remaining serially entertaining and abstaining from dense, indecipherable metaphor.
In Ivan Turgenev’s “The Singers,” a contest between two strangers becomes a referendum on the durability of all things beautiful. A Moscow bureaucrat’s nose runs away in Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” and, in doing so, mimics the totalizing fallibility of human reason. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” with its swim in a pond in the rain and ever-fluctuating sympathies, mimes the inability to maintain a strong view for too long.
Saunders exercises a touching understanding of the masters using their personal histories—describing, for example, Tolstoy and Chekov’s first bath together and continuing onto the latter’s death, where the former reads his letters and remarks, “I never knew he loved me so much.” Saunders uses these facts to bring the reader closer to these untouchable men and to better understand the inescapable faults of their work.
Saunders knows these storytellers are fallible. Tolstoy struggled to regard peasants as full people and often contradicted himself in his writing (to no fault of his own, Saunders explains, but the “suprapersonal wisdom” of fiction’s). Turgenev’s writing is inefficient. Gogol is odd. But any reader lucky enough to encounter these works, despite their flaws, will be very fortunate indeed.