What forges the bond between reader and writer and what breaks it? This is the question at the heart of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: in which four Russian writers give a masterclass on writing, reading and life.
Author of the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the Man Booker Prize and professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, Saunders uses his expertise to unravel this unique symbiotic relationship and empower budding writers by exploring Anton Chekhov’s short stories. , Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol.
The book opens with Chekhov’s “In the Cart”. Taking one page at a time, Saunders deconstructs its structure, separating each element that moves the story forward. At first, the format seems tedious – a Chekhov page followed by a Saunders analysis page – but it’s also heartwarming, like sitting in a classroom, ready to absorb as much as possible.
Saunders shows us how Chekhov’s characters – constructed sparingly, but constantly moving in their thoughts or actions – are based on reality, their beliefs and their hopes laid bare by just going about their daily business, and how curiosity and structure are created in the story.
The protagonist is a schoolteacher weighed down by an overwhelming disappointment with the turn of her life. She has little to hope for, but always longs to be more. This is similar to Chekhov’s second story included in the book, “Gooseberries,” in that the hold of emotions on the narrative is not wild or chaotic, but diagnostic, allowing readers to relate to the characters. as they experience the nuances of both positive and negative emotions.
George Saunders’ latest book, on the art of writing, provides insight into what a classroom led by the award-winning writer would be like
The universality of these emotions acts like a hook, attracting us. Saunders points out how Chekhov effortlessly connects with his reader through a relatable yet extremely poignant tale that delivers on its promise to be kept short and purposeful – he is aware of the readers’ inherent impatience. Chekhov also offers ideas that move the story forward and decrease any emotional distance between its characters and its readers. Saunders, meanwhile, allows budding writers to step back and assess the journey and reminds us that Chekhov once said that “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to solve problems. formulate correctly ”.
‘The Darling’, Chekhov’s third story to be analyzed, tells the story of a young woman who devotes herself fully to the one who is the center of her attention. Following a pattern of love and loss, this is the story that resonated the most with me as a reader and writer.
Saunders’ analysis is invaluable because he deconstructs Chekhov’s genius, explaining that a story is not a documentary, but “a radically shaped little machine that delights us with the extremity of its decision.” It allows us to admire with what firmness Chekhov apprehends human emotion and its progression. The key is to be specific – Chekhov eliminates the clutter and keeps his utilitarian prose – and to know your characters so well that readers develop a connection with them. Saunders puts it in perspective: “What God has for Himself that we don’t have is infinite information. Maybe that’s why he is able, supposedly, to love us so much.
From Chekhov’s clinical and focused narration, we enter the world of Ivan Turgenev. Here, Saunders explains how the writing should not give way to any particular form, and encourages aspiring writers to view a story as “some kind of ceremony,” with a heart around which the ceremony is wrapped. With that in mind, we dive into “The Singers”.
The format changes here; we read all of Turgenev’s text before going to the essay. “The Singers” is, as Saunders puts it, “of an old variety, in which A and B meet in a skill competition and one of them wins.” Personally, I found this story the most difficult to read, with its heavy and long descriptions that seemed meaningless. It wasn’t until I read the accompanying essay that I realized that the heart of a story can lie in its imagery or characters, which are central tools that can propel a narrative without any using a plot.
The story of Turgenev itself is easy as pie: there is a competition between two people and one person wins. The characters are simple country people, trapped in the drudgery, stopping in the middle of the day for a drink. It is in this minimalist act of taking a break that the meaning of art emerges, even in these very basic people.
Saunders encourages us to complete an exercise: Show each verbal description to see how it connects to the heart of the story. It was then that I realized that these long passages were as important as the people. Saunders points out that in order to write something that connects with readers, it isn’t enough for the writer to control the narrative. There is a hunch that needs to be followed, almost like an act of faith.
He continues: “The writer must write in whatever way produces the necessary energy… [Turgenev] had to admit he wasn’t good at integrating description and action. Saunders points out how writers can often feel trapped in self-perception and self-doubt, and how these elements affect their work. He encourages aspiring writers to listen to their story and revise: “revision [is] a chance for the writer’s intuition to assert itself again and again. This is an important lesson from Turgenev’s story. Saunders goes further: “You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence.
From the literary giant Leo Tolstoy we have “Master and man” and “Alyosha the pot”. The first is about an employee doing the job, while feeling loyalty and gratitude to the master exploiter. Saunders uses this to show the importance of causation.
The construction of the character of Tolstoy is strong and decisive; his genius rests on a supreme confidence in his technique because, as Saunders explains, the characters created by Tolstoy are more similar than they are different, and the structure of Tolstoy’s story is central to the experience that his audience will receive. It’s a big, high-stakes story. You realize that you read it more out of a sense of obligation than out of real interest, but by the time that awareness emerges, you are already invested in the structure and breadth of the story.
This is also true for ‘Alyosha the Pot’. Saunders’ clarity of thought helps us draw inspiration from the great Russian writer without being intimidated. He explains how Tolstoy’s personal morality influenced his writing, how commitment to causation is an essential contributing tool to his art.
This is what Saunders wants his students to understand and implement: “Causation is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter; a super power that the public sees as the crux of the matter; the thing the public is actually showing up for; the most difficult thing to do; what distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary.
Saunders own skills as a writer and teacher are beautifully exemplified in his essay on “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol. Gogol may make many ambitious writers feel lost on the best days, but Saunders allays our fears by leading us into the strange Gogolian world, where narrators are unreliable and stories are meaningless. He asks us to embrace the absurdity, explaining that Gogol is like this great writer looking at life from above, judging the strangeness it brings and then writing about it: “The Nose suggests that rationality is fraying every moment, even in the most normal moments.
We get to appreciate the otherwise surreal subtext of the story as Saunders brings it down to a relatable level. It helps us take this leap of faith and try to understand Gogol, to read beyond history, to realize that it is important for writing to be free and beyond the concept of meaning. . I never understood Gogol’s particular greatness – except for his oft-read “Overcoat” – so Saunders’ help in understanding Russian genius is an instructive experience.
Saunders’ generosity is evident throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. He doesn’t hesitate to explore the many facets of these great men, the techniques they used, and what we can learn and apply to our own writing. It’s a privilege to get a glimpse of what a George Saunders-led classroom would be like. His essays are dynamic, almost like exercises, and provide many “Eureka!” moment.
It’s a book that can take a long time to read, but there is so much to absorb. By the end, writers will have a greater understanding of the art of writing and an appreciation for the Great Russians, and readers will have a greater appreciation for the immense effort required to create a bond that will last long after the end of the story.
The Examiner is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature. she tweets @shehryarsahar
A swim in a pond in the rain: In which four Russian writers give a masterclass on writing, reading and life
By George Saunders
Penguin Random House, United States
Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 5, 2021