What forges the bond between reader and writer and what breaks it?” This is the question at the heart of George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russian Writers Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading and Life.
Author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo and professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, Saunders uses his expertise to unravel this unique, symbiotic relationship and empower aspiring writers by exploring the short stories of Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol.
The book opens with Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’. Taking it one page at a time, Saunders deconstructs its structure, picking apart each element that makes the story tick. Initially, the format feels tedious — a page of Chekhov followed by a page of Saunders’s analysis — but it’s also comforting, like sitting in a classroom, ready to absorb as much as possible.
Saunders shows us how Chekhov’s characters — frugally built, but consistently moving in their thoughts or actions — are based on reality, their beliefs and hopes laid bare through the simple act of going about their day, and how curiosity and structure are created within the story.
The protagonist is a schoolteacher weighed down by overwhelming disappointment in how her life has turned out. She has little to look forward to, but still holds the aspiration to be more. This is similar to Chekhov’s second story included in the book, ‘Gooseberries’, in that the hold of emotions on the narrative is not wild or chaotic, but diagnostic, allowing readers to relate to the characters as they experience the nuances of both positive and negative emotions.
George Saunders’s latest book, about the craft of writing, is a peek into what a classroom helmed by the award-winning writer would be like
The universality of these emotions acts like a hook, reeling us in. Saunders highlights how Chekhov connects effortlessly with his reader through a relatable, but extremely poignant narrative that keeps its promise of remaining short and purposeful — he’s aware of readers’ inherent impatience. Chekhov also offers insights that move the story forward and diminish any emotional distance between his characters and his readers. Saunders, meanwhile, allows aspiring writers to take a step back to evaluate the journey and reminds us that Chekhov once said that “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”
‘The Darling’, Chekhov’s third story to be analysed, is about a young woman who devotes herself fully to whoever is the centre of her attention. Following a pattern of love and loss, this was the tale that resonated most with me as a reader and writer.
Saunders’s analysis is invaluable as he deconstructs Chekhov’s genius, explaining that a story is not a documentary, but “a radically shaped … little machine that thrills us with the extremity of its decisiveness.” He allows us to look in awe at how firmly Chekhov grasps human emotion and its progression. The key is to be specific — Chekhov cuts out clutter and keeps his prose utilitarian — and to know your characters so well that readers develop a connection with them. Saunders puts things in perspective: “What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He is able to, supposedly, love us so much.”
From Chekhov’s clinical and focused narration, we go into Ivan Turgenev’s world. Here, Saunders explains how writing doesn’t have to concede to any particular form and encourages aspiring writers to think of a story as “a kind of a ceremony”, with a heart around which the ceremony is wound. With this in mind, we dive into ‘The Singers’.
The format changes here; we read Turgenev’s entire text before moving on to the essay. ‘The Singers’ is, as Saunders puts it, “of an ancient variety, in which A and B meet in a contest of skill and one of them wins.” I personally found this story the most difficult to read, with its cumbersome, long-winded descriptions that felt meaningless. Only when I read the accompanying essay did I realise that the heart of a story may reside in its imagery or its characters, which are central tools that can propel a narrative without any help from a plot line.
Turgenev’s story itself is simple as pie: there is a competition between two people and one person wins. The characters are simple country folk, trapped in drudgery, stopping in the middle of the day to have a drink. It is in this minimalist act of taking a break that the significance of art arises, even in these very basic people.
Saunders encourages us to carry out an exercise: hold up each wordy description to see how it connects to the heart of the story. That’s when I realised that those long passages were as important as the people. Saunders emphasises that, in order to write something that connects with readers, it’s not enough for the writer to be in control of the narrative. There is intuition that needs to be followed, almost like a leap of faith.
He continues, “The writer has to write in whatever way produces the necessary energy … [Turgenev] had to admit that he wasn’t good at integrating description and action.” Saunders highlights how writers can often feel trapped within self-perception and self-doubt and how these elements affect their work. He encourages aspiring writers to listen to their story and to revise: “revision [is] a chance for the writer’s intuition to assert itself over and over.” This is an important lesson that Turgenev’s story imparts. Saunders takes it further: “You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence.”
From the literary giant that is Leo Tolstoy, we have ‘Master and Man’ and ‘Alyosha the Pot’. The first is about an employee who does the actual grind, all the while feeling loyalty and gratitude towards the exploitative master. Saunders uses this to show the significance of causality.
Tolstoy’s character construct is strong and decisive; his genius rests in supreme confidence in his technique because, as Saunders explains, the characters Tolstoy creates are more similar than they are different, and Tolstoy’s story structure is essential to the experience his audience will receive. It is a grand tale with high stakes. You realise you’re reading it more out of a sense of obligation than actual interest, but by the time that realisation comes to light, you’re already invested in the structure and the scale of the tale.
This stands true for ‘Alyosha the Pot’ as well. Saunders’s clarity of thought helps us draw inspiration from the great Russian writer without feeling intimidated. He explains how Tolstoy’s personal morality influenced his writing, how commitment to causation is an essential tool contributing to his craft.
This is what Saunders wants his students to understand and implement: “Causality is to the writer what melody is to the song-writer; a super power that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.”
Saunders’s own skill as a writer and teacher is beautifully displayed in his essay on Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Nose’. Gogol can make many an ambitious writer feel lost on the best of days, but Saunders allays our fears as he guides us into the strange Gogolian world, where narrators are unreliable and stories make no sense. He asks us to embrace the absurdity, explaining that Gogol is like that great writer looking down at life from above, judging the strangeness that it brings and then writing about it: “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.”
We get to appreciate the subtext of the otherwise surreal story as Saunders brings it down to a relatable level. He helps us take that leap of faith and try to understand Gogol, to read beyond the story, to realise that it is important for writing to be unfettered and beyond the concept of making sense. I’ve never understood the particular greatness of Gogol — with the exception of his oft-read ‘The Overcoat’ — so Saunders’s help in understanding the Russian’s genius is an enlightening experience.
Saunders’s generosity is obvious throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. He does not hold back as he explores the many facets of these great men, the techniques they used and what we can learn and apply to our own writing. It is a privilege to get this peek into what a classroom helmed by George Saunders would be like. His essays are dynamic, almost like exercises, and provide many a ‘Eureka!’ moment.
This is a book that may take time to read, but there’s just so much to absorb. By the end, writers will have a better understanding of the craft of writing and an appreciation for the Russian greats, and readers will have a greater appreciation for the immense effort that goes into creating a bond that will last long after the story is over.
The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature. She tweets @shehryarsahar
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russian Writers Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading and Life
By George Saunders
Penguin Random House, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 5th, 2021