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. Read more »
I spent my freshman year at a drab suburban college pining for the cosmopolitan life of Boston. I whined and schemed and eventually engineered a transfer to Suffolk University in the city, where I was certain I’d meet fabulous Bohemian people who chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and read Rimbaud and William Blake by candlelight. Suffolk owned three Queen Anne revival buildings in the Back Bay and operated them as pseudo-rooming houses. I was 19 and had seemingly become an Emersonian self-actualized person overnight. I had propelled myself into the middle of a vibrant city, just two blocks from the upper-end of Newbury Street with Tower Records, the Avenue Victor Hugo book shop, the Trident Bookstore Café, Urban Outfitters (still indescribably outlaw in 1991) and Newbury Comics, the city’s punk rock record store.
I had arrived, or so it seemed, until I took stock of this new person and found he was remarkably unchanged, despite the sparkling offerings of the city.
Old problems persisted. The ground rules of interpersonal relations remained mysterious to me. I overshared with acquaintances and got clingy. Good people quickly fled, leaving me withdrawn and depressed, and vulnerable to centripetal forces within.
I desperately wanted to be loved by everyone—the consequences of a cold, unloving home I suppose—and I discovered people, particularly young women, had no patience for needy college sophomores.
Yet that autumn was not without its pleasure. I still recall one glorious week—crimson and vermillion leaves swirling across Commonwealth Avenue—when I curled up in bed with a Signet Classic paperback of Of Human Bondage (1915) by Somerset Maugham. I read the book with teenage abandon. I identified completely with the club-footed Philip Carey and his masochistic attraction to the cruel and vacuous paramour Mildred Rogers, who cared nothing for him, and got her kicks toying with his lap-dog like attention. Read more »