American short story master George Saunders takes on four Russian masters, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol in his new book. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is part story collection, part master class, and part meditation on the writing life.
I’ve always struggled with the short story form, which is ironic, at least to me. I’ve read hundreds of novels with relative ease, written several of my own—the most recent one of which is in the process of being published—and I’ve taught a dozen or so to my high school and college students over the last few years. One would think the novel, with its length and grandeur would be less approachable than the humble short story, yet I have found these narratives in miniature nearly incomprehensible at times. The more straight-forward the story, the less I’m able to grasp it.
So, the publication of George Saunders’ new book sent my writer’s antennae straight up. I purchased it immediately and devoured it.
The book tackles four of the greats, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, one story each from Gogol and Turgenev, two from Tolstoy, and three from Chekhov. I think we can see the clear winner in Saunders’ mind. After reading the stories, I’d have to agree. While Gogol appeals to my absurdist bent—Donald Barthelme might be the first short story writer I ever really connected with or understood—and Tolstoy has a command of epic narration, Chekhov writes with a subtle complexity I find most enviable.
Saunders approaches Chekhov first with “In the Cart.” Rather than merely discuss it or present the story and then analyze it, he opts for an imitation of a genuine class. I often stop my students every few paragraphs to check for understanding. Here, Saunders stops every page. We receive a page of Chekhov and then several pages of analysis, breaking down what the master is doing. “In the Cart” is eleven pages long but, with the interruptions, it reaches 46 pages! If your goal is to read these seven stories as quickly as possible, this is not the book for you. If, however, you’ve read Anna Karenina with no problem but stumbled through “Gooseberries,” you must read this book. What the analysis and brief afterthought (three more pages) offers is a key to unlocking Chekhov’s nuance and purpose, which in my mind is well worth the time.
“What makes Saunders such an authority on these texts?” you might ask. While he’s not Russian or a reknown literary scholar, he is a master of the short story form and has been teaching a class on Russian literature in translation for twenty years. Furthermore, he’s consulted numerous Russian scholars and translators over the years. Also, and this is the most important aspect, he genuine gained insight as a writer from these very stories. We have all read literary scholarship about the symbolism of color scheme or bilingual word play or cultural/historical/religious significance in a body of work. These may expand our body of knowledge and ignite interest in other literature or literary scholarship, but I don’t know how helpful they are to the writer in their pursuit of developing the craft. Here Saunders does not break the stories down as Russians or because they’re Russian or the in the context of that culture or language, but merely because they represent a sampling of great stories.
For example, in his thoughts on Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” he mentions the author’s involvement in a Christian-anarchist religious movement and then drops it almost entirely, turning his focus instead to Tolstoy’s use of factual narration, as opposed to authorial opinion, to create an believable reality. He then dissects the plot point by point to explain how the author achieves what he calls “cinematic propulsion.” Reading the story, we are thrust forward, but only afterward through Saunders’ expert analysis do we see how each action and reaction propelled the story to its unforgettable conclusion.
This book, for me, has been a Godsend. Before I was halfway through, I began gathering all my Russian short story collections and searching the local libraries for more. Susan and I took a trip to Kansas City to visit her sister and I made it my mission to find a collection by Gogol, the only author I didn’t own and couldn’t locate (his short stories, that is). I read that almost as rapidly as I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and thanks to Saunders, I actually understood it.