Dorothy mentioned this book and I am so glad she did–it’s been an exceptional book for me. I loved Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, but have found some of his short stories to be too dark for me. This is something quite different; it is his careful reading of seven short stories by Russian writers, a 400-page recounting of a course he has taught for 20 years to MFA students at Syracuse. Though I am not, and do not aspire to be a writer, it was wonderful to see how a writer/teacher sees great fiction. Near the end he says
I want to thank you for allowing me to guide you rather bossily through the stories, for letting me show you how I read them, why I love them. I’ve tried to be as clear and persuasive as possible, telling you what you should be noticing, pointing out certain technical features, offering my best explanation for why “we” were moved in this place or that, and so on.
He is a wonderful guide; informative, not bossy, acknowledging observations of his students over the years. He writes with a light touch, and lets silliness creep in. And there are the thoughts I want to remember always:
We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs–or doesn’t–in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But that “knowing” at such moments, though happening without language, is real.
The stories themselves varied a great deal. I was captivated by Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” about a man so intent on making money that he passed up several opportunities to save himself from perishing in a snowstorm. The story itself is an example of a “pattern story” where Vasili repeatedly passes up the chance to stay the night in an inn rather than trying again to travel during the storm. “Gooseberries” has two characters, Ivan and Burkin, that I encountered in Chekhov stories I read two years ago that is a meditation on happiness. Ivan was delighted to swim in a pond in the rain to the eventual irritation of his companions.
George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Random House, 2021, 410 pages. Available in the public library.