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In his newest book, George Saunders turns to nonfiction and makes the study of Russian literature and the short story form accessible and entertaining. Photo by Cynthia Hochswender

Lessons from a Master — About Fiction, Writers and Life

Books

This is a masterclass in a book. In “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russian Writers Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life,” George Saunders, fiction author extraordinaire and professor of creative writing at Syracuse, takes us through a close reading of seven short-story masterpieces, all by Russian writers. Those of us who remember diagramming sentences in grade school will be knocked over by Saunders’ diagramming plots and narrative turns and syntax and word order, and damn if 420 pages later we don’t emerge as better writers. It’s a must-have, must-read book. 

If you’ve ever taken a good online course, this is better. Saunders talks to you in direct address, like a lecturer; and it’s as interactive, believe it or not, as a seminar. There are exercises, quizzes, brain teasers, diagrams, and charts. If more professors turned in books like this, education would be revolutionized. Get this book. It’s going to snow soon. Get this book. 

First of all, it’s about big questions. As Saunders lists them, and discusses them: How are we supposed to be living? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth? How can we be at peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? “You know,” he writes, “those cheerful Russian kinds of big questions.” 

The stories, provided in their entirety, annotated, dissected, are from 1836, 1852, 1895, 1897, 1898, 1899 and 1905. Three by Anton Chekhov. Two by Leo Tolstoy. One each by Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Lermontov. “Resistance literature,” as Saunders calls it, written by progressives in a repressive culture. They are timeless, and, for us who are weathering insurrections, pandemics and revolution-worthy financial crises, fairly timely. 

Get this book. 

Has anyone had the experience of going to an action movie — when we went to movies — and leaving the theater ready to take on giant monsters in the dark, on the way to the car? You close each chapter ready to roll here, too. OK, to maybe ride in a horse-drawn carriage, sing in a tavern, receive a deadening telegram or flirt with a chambermaid. And these stories are made timely by the way Saunders engages. He’s funny. He enlists our experiences watching films and television. He yells at the characters in the stories (“Kukin, you pig”!). And for all his talents, he’s modest, so he doesn’t scare you. “A writer,” he quotes Donald Barthelme, “is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” 

How do stories — fiction, after all, pure invention — change us? Saunders talks about how they change him. “I am reminded,” he says, “that my mind is not the only mind.” “I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid.” “I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won’t be.” (Hmm. Is he … Russian?) “My capacity for language is reenergized.” Useful effects, after the assaults we’ve suffered in 2020, and maybe those we have suffered longer. Helpful, too, as we rebuild, revisit empathy, atomized these days, unable to worship, even to congregate, even to meet as freely as we want in society. 

The greatest story in this book is — I won’t tell you. But it’s about a snowstorm. It’s a story that achieves, as Saunders puts it, “cinematic propulsion.” Together the forces of these stories remind you how forceful storytelling is. Saunders takes us to that place with a lamp or a candle, the desk, maybe, where, as another Russian master, Isaac Babel, put it, “no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as … a period in the right place.” So, go. 

Check it out. 

 

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and runs Read Russia, a nonprofit that promotes Russian literature in translation. His new book, “The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge,” publishes in February. 

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