I was initially a bit intimidated to read George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury 2021), subtitled as it was: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life. Good grief!
What do I know about Russian writers? Very little. Would this be a terribly earnest and theoretical manual about writing craft that I would have to wade through, all the time waiting for it to end? Well, the answer is a resounding NO. Never have I read a more entertaining book on writing in general and writing short stories in particular. Saunders is not only learned, technically proficient, curious and generous, but he is enormously funny and this book is a joy to read.
The premise is ambitious but Saunders carries it off with aplomb. He explores seven short stories from four Russian writers (Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol) by reprinting the story (sometimes as a whole, sometimes divided into parts) and then dissects and examines it to find out why it is so very good and has stood the test of time. After each story, he includes two more sections: the first is titled ‘Thoughts on XXX’ (the name of that particular story), in which he unravels everything from the heart or spine of the story, to the technical prowess of individual sentences, to the themes explored, to character development. And the second section after each of the seven stories is called Afterthought, in which he has fun with his own personal interpretations and thoughts about the story, why it may or may not have worked for some of the students to whom he has taught it, why he keeps coming back and rereading that story as a great work of fiction, and why indeed it is a masterclass not only on writing but on Life itself. He also includes some hints of memoir and his own writing and teaching life.
The result is an absolutely unputdownable book, a mixture of famous Russian tales, mixed with George Saunders’ interpretation of them and how that has changed over the years he has developed as a writer himself. He is a wealth of information about writing in general and Russian writers in particular and he shares this generously, inviting the reader to think more deeply about what is written and how, the order in which information is given to the reader, what is withheld, what is assumed, why some techniques work better than others and what makes these stories so appealing.
My favourite story is probably Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy, written in 1895. But interestingly, my least favourite story, The Nose, written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836, turned out to be the most interesting part of the book for me. And this is why. I didn’t particularly like The Nose – I found it strange, unbelievable, odd, random, ridiculous and kind of meaningless.
And then I read Saunders’ dissection of it, entitled The Door to the Truth Might be Strangeness, along with its Afterthought, and I found myself thinking about, processing and maybe even beginning to understand the genius behind this story. If you haven’t read it, it’s a weird tale about a man who wakes up to discover his nose is not only gone from his face but has been baked into a loaf of bread. While the man goes looking for his lost nose, it strangely becomes large enough to don a uniform and emerge from the river, before a series of random events wherein it refuses to reattach and then finally does (in the correct size). See what I mean? Completely strange! What could we possibly learn from such a bizarre tale? Well, apparently, quite a lot. In Saunders careful hands, every paragraph, every line, every word of that story is put under the microscope as he questions the meaning and possibility of every phrase. Although this story was initially the one I liked the least, I think it was the one I got the most out of in terms of craft and technical ability and writing voice.
I urge both readers and writers alike to read this book. Writers will accumulate so much knowledge and benefit greatly from the exercises Saunders has included towards the end, to play with their own writing and see what happens. And readers will gain a new perspective on reading a story that, perhaps as with me, might have initially seemed challenging or difficult.
I highly recommend Saunders’ vivacity, his wit, his sense of the ridiculous and his ability to render the seemingly incomprehensible understandable, and to explain in layperson’s terms the whys and hows of what makes a story luminous.