George Saunders’ “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life” is a collection of essays that analyzes and assesses seven 19th-century Russian short stories written by literary giants, making this collection a “masterclass” on the art of writing short stories. The authors whom Saunders utilizes are Anton Chekhov (who has three stories featured in this book), Leo Tolstoy (who has two), Nikolai Gogol (one), and Ivan Turgenev (also one).
Saunders holds many titles, as a man who once studied geophysical engineering, and is now a Booker Prize winning author for his 2017 novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” professor in Syracuse University’s MFA program, and practicing Buddhist. He incorporates these aspects of his identity into his essays, making his analyses and assessments varied in content and unique in insight.
Channeling his engineering background, Saunders assesses how the design and structure of the stories allow them to function most effectively as successful pieces of fiction. This is most apparent in his first essay, which focuses on Chekhov’s “In The Cart,” as he analyzes page-by-page how Chekhov’s technique makes the story effective. One inspired piece of advice he gives is to make the reader feel as though the story ends two pages before it actually does, forcing them to question what is missing. He asks the reader to define how a story becomes a story. What do those last two pages do to transform the text from words on a page to something complete, and, as Saunders would describe it, “transcendent?”
From this piece of advice, it’s clear that Saunders, having donned his engineering cap, sees a story as a well-oiled machine: take out one element of this machine, say, a certain valve, and the whole thing no longer functions. This piece of advice seems intuitive, almost obvious (if you take out the ending of a story, it’s missing an ending, duh). But this wisdom only feels natural after he points it out and articulates it in such a specific way. The mechanical lens that Saunders brings to classic works of literature is both fascinating and refreshing.
Saunders is no longer an engineer, and he also brings his identity as a skilled short-story writer and tenured teacher to his analysis within the collection. These aspects of his personality are evident when he is dissecting the form of writing, or trying to determine how reading these stories (or other stories of similar quality) changes a person. Saunder’s writing includes multiple modes of analysis. While some essays include historical explanations of authors’ lives, others include modes of storytelling that would have been understood by readers who lived contemporaneously with these writers. He even assesses how after reading a story, the reader’s perception of the narrative and its world changes.
And for anyone fearing that these literary analyses are erudite to the point of excluding most (if not all) non-academic readers, fear not. Saunders’ style is a balance of humor and lucidity, guiding readers to his complex conclusions with prose that is somehow still pleasurable.
It should be noted that some of these analyses may have missed the mark, as pointed out in an article written for The Wall Street Journal by Professor Gary Saul Morson, a Slavic Languages Professor at Northwestern University. Morson critiques Saunders’ analysis of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories “The Nose,” arguing that Saunders applies a realist framework to a story which far from realistic (in the story, a man wakes up to find his nose has disappeared). Still, within the collection, Saunders acknowledges that he is not a literary historian, nor an expert on Russian literature. Even if some of the points in his essays may have missed the mark, there are still other insights into history and philosophy—the limits of objectivity, the mindset of people living in Nazi Germany, and the limits of language in expressing the vastness of the soul—that make reading these essays a valuable use of time.
Saunders’ Buddhist influence is also present in these essays, as he sifts spiritual insight throughout both the literary and technical analysis. This spiritual influence is most pointed in the final section of his introduction, where he compares his teachings in this book with the Buddhist idea of teaching, which is “pointing a finger at the moon.” In the Buddhist tradition, Saunders explains that the goal of viewing the moon (in this case, “enlightenment”) must never be confused with focusing on the finger (the instruction of attaining enlightenment). Comparing this metaphor with literature, Saunders equates attaining enlightenment to attaining a higher state of pleasure that can only come from reading or creating successful literature. He doesn’t want to let his analyses and assessments of how he achieves successful writing misguide others who may not benefit from those lessons. The goal is the moon, not the finger.
Ultimately, Saunders’ most important goal in both writing and life is remedying the social problems that are currently affecting our society.
“We live, as you may have noticed, in a degraded era,” writes Saunders, “bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced, too rapidly disseminated information bursts.”
To Saunders, reading this literature is an antidote to these information bursts. These are stories, Saunders claims, which ask big questions of humanity: “How are we supposed to be living down here?” “What were we put here to accomplish?” “What should we value?” “What is truth?”
However, Saunders is not a literary zealot who believes that the problems of the world can be solved if everybody just simply sat down and read the collected works of Turgenyev. His conclusion is refreshingly balanced and candid, expressing his weariness at the writer’s insistence on the importance of writing and literature, even pointing to the fact that some of the worst atrocities in Russia occurred only decades after these moral writers were at the height of their literary powers. However Saunders refuses to end on a pessimistic note, returning to his insistence on literature’s importance.
You don’t have to be an active creative writer to enjoy this collection of stories and essays. This is a treatise not just on how someone can write a story, but also on how one can better read and understand the function and nature of stories as well.
On the other hand, if you are a writer, but you don’t want to read all of these essays (who are you?), then you can get value from this book from the appendices alone. These consist of a few of Saunders’ favorite creative writing exercises for his MFA students, saving yourself thousands of dollars in tuition. That’s probably the most cost-effective creative writing class you’ll ever take.
Isaac Slomski-Pritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.