by Emrys Westacott
George Saunders’ recent book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is the most enjoyable and enlightening book on literature I have ever read.
Saunders’ collections of short stories and his 2017 Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo have earned him numerous awards and much acclaim. He has taught creative writing at Syracuse University for many years, and his latest book is largely the fruit of his work in the classroom. Yet it will delight and instruct not just writers and writing teachers but anyone who loves literature. And it demonstrates persuasively how literature, intelligently read and reflected upon, can offer forms of wisdom that defy reduction to precisely articulated knowledge claims.
The book contains the text of seven famous short stories by nineteenth century Russian authors: three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, one by Turgenev, and one by Gogol. Each short story is followed by Saunders’ searching discussion of it, at the end of which one feels that one has a greatly enhanced understanding of not just how the story is constructed–how it works as art–but also of its meaning and purpose. These essays thus illustrate very effectively how interrogating a text from the perspective of a writer can deepen our appreciation of it as readers.
Some of the pleasure in reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is due to Saunders’ refreshingly unacademic and thoroughly entertaining style. A lot of academic writing about literature is couched in tedious, jargon-ridden, self-important prose that pretends to sophistication but is stuffed to the gills with willful obscurantism. Saunders’ style is willfully informal, a lovely combination of conversationality and wit. Here’s a representative sample:
imagine we’re bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part, “Excuse me, but why do you need to be in here?” In a perfect story, every part has a good answer. (“Well, uh, in my subtle way, I am routing energy to the heart of the story.”)…. So let’s walk through those first eleven pages, asking, as we go: “What are you guys doing to benefit the heart of the story?”
But pleasurable though the writing is, the book only works because in each of his analyses, commentaries, responses, examinations–it’s hard to know exactly what to call them–Saunders seems so convincingly to lead us to “the heart of the story.” He never insists that his response or interpretation is the correct one, the only plausible one, or the best one. His approach throughout is humble and open-minded. He occasionally throws in interesting asides concerning the lives of the authors in question, or insights offered by other writers, but generally wears his learning very lightly. For all that, in each case, one has the sense that this highly accomplished guide is expertly tracking the actual footsteps of his distinguished forebears through the deep Russian snow.
Much of the time he does this by asking questions about plotlines and characters that are quite simple, even seemingly naïve. What have we been told about a character? What can we infer? What are we curious about as readers? What are our expectations? What are our hopes? Why would so-and-so so that? What do we imagine they are thinking? Is their behaviour plausible given what we know about human nature? Sometimes he breaks the story down into its basic narrative parts and lays these out in a list. In his treatment of Chekhov’s The Darling,” he lays out in a table features of the various loving relationships that the main character, Olenka, participates in.
It’s remarkable how enlightening these simple procedures can be. Patterns emerge. Contrasts become obvious. And specific questions about the text follow naturally. Why do the master and servant in Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” have the specific conversation they have at the start of their journey? What’s the point of their encounter with a sled of drunken peasants? What’s the significance of the clothesline that they pass on four different occasions?
One finishes A Swim in a Pond in the Rain hugely impressed by Saunders talents as writer, critic, and teacher. His students are fortunate indeed. Yet to his credit, and as is only right, one comes away even more impressed by the brilliance of the original stories. Saunders, who before he took up writing studied engineering, is masterful at isolating specific elements in a narrative and showing how they connect up with one another to serve a particular purpose. Drawing on his own experience of the creative process, he also explains how this sort of artistic economy and unity typically comes about not as the product of conscious calculation but, rather, through a constant interplay between intuitive impulse and editorial activity.
Ultimately, though, neither a better understanding of the artistic mastery demonstrated by Chekhov and co., nor insights into the mystery of how art is produced, constitute the book’s chief reward. The subtitle of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is “in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life.” It is the bit about “life” that really gives the book a heft beyond what one typically encounters in literary criticism or aids to creative writing.
The stories discussed are all about very ordinary people. With the exception of Gogol’s comic fantasy, “The Nose, they concern fairly ordinary events or circumstances: a familiar journey made by a schoolteacher in a cart; a singing contest in a pub; a women who needs someone to love; two men getting lost in a snowstorm; two men visiting a third man and one of them telling the others about his brother; a passive nice guy in love not being allowed to marry.
But we are, of course, talking about masterpieces of nineteenth century Russian literature. So, naturally, they concern weighty matters, fundamental questions about what we think, feel, and value, how we live, love, and die. Far from murdering to dissect, Saunders’ discussions of the stories seem to get to the very marrow of what they mean. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain thus shows, among other things, how and why literature can matter. And like good literature itself, it reveals ways in which the world contains more beauty, more interest, and more meaning than we tend to notice as we go about our ordinary lives in the ordinary way.