JANUARY 14, 2021
WELCOME TO MAN BOOKER PRIZE winner George Saunders’s classroom at Syracuse University. More specifically, to one in the graduate MFA Creative Writing program where he has taught for more than 20 years.
During that time, one of his favorite courses has been a study of the 19th-century Russian short story in translation. He taught it as both a writing class and a literature course. As a reader (and perhaps an aspiring short story writer), you can audit the seminar for no credit (at no cost except for the price of the book in whatever format you choose), with his exemplary lessons and assignments, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Its original subtitle was “What Reading the Nineteenth Century Russians Can Teach Us About Stories, Truth, and Transformation” (more on that later).
The book is organized uniquely, like a syllabus. There are assigned readings of stories (included in the text), lectures on the narratives, and suggestions for writing exercises (afterthoughts and appendices). It does not, however, carry the heavy weight of an academic tome. Saunders often expounds with personal, sometimes witty, observations that blend the tone of literary criticism with that of life’s lessons. And he frequently refers to Vladimir Nabokov, and E. M. Forster, and a slew of other writers who write about writing, including Isaac Babel.
In Lectures on Russian Literature, Nabokov remarks on how
real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain — the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed — then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.
This may be seen as a modern variation on Francis Bacon, who in his essay “Of Studies” declared that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
That makes a short story something like reading an artichoke. Pick up one of those green globes. Examine it. Explore its roundness, its completeness. Leaves like prickly feathers surround an internal secret, a tender luscious heart. How to get to it one petal at a time. Grill, roast, steam? Microwave it? Whatever technique, the goal is to get to the core. Along the way, dip the tips into garlic aioli or melted butter, perhaps with a drizzle of lemon. Your choice, to your taste. An artichoke is the lobster of vegetables. But enough of this food analogy. Unless it makes you hungry for a good story.
Nabokov considers the four “greatest artists in Russian prose” to be, in order, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Turgenev. He also includes lectures on Dostoyevsky and Gorky. Saunders chooses to study, in order, Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. His Seven Artichokes are three Chekhov stories, two Tolstoys, and one each by Turgenev and Gogol. He finds his selections (the shortest, five pages; the longest, 49) “simple, clear, elemental,” and instructive about the creative process for both reader and writer.
Saunders’s method is “mainly diagnostic.” His focus as a writer who teaches and a teacher who writes (many can’t do both) is “trying to write emotionally moving stories that a reader feels compelled to finish.” His analyses of the chosen stories provide a handy “workbook” to guide anyone toward finding their “iconic space” or, as writing teachers like to say, their voice (more on that, too, later). For the consummate instructor, it is like following the Buddhist belief that teaching is like “a finger pointing at the moon.” Saunders uses many fingers — his own and those of the Russian storytellers — to locate the “essential thing.”
The Chekhov choices — “In the Cart,” “The Darling,” and “Gooseberries” — offer insight into the writer’s passion for domestic realism, which enables him to develop characters through specific detail, explore the idyllic country life, and pattern a narrative.
The first substantial chapter entry in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (the title taken from a passage in “Gooseberries”) deconstructs “In the Cart.” Saunders’s primary exercise examines the story one page at a time, stopping to ask the student (a.k.a. reader) significant questions about setting, character, and “meaningful action” — his replacement term for plot (a word that rears its head again when Forster surfaces later in the book). At first the fits and starts seem intrusive but they finally accumulate into a fuller understanding of Chekhov’s “organizational scheme,” a scheme that becomes even more self-evident in the other two stories.
“The Darling,” a primer for romance, is defined as a “pattern story,” one that has a baseline that repeats itself, rather like “The Three Little Pigs” or “Chicken Little” (that sky is always falling). In fact, before Saunders has torn apart all his artichokes, he declaims that “every story is a pattern story.” And he proves it.
With Chekhov, Saunders introduces Universal Laws of Fiction, some absolutes expressed in the remaining stories, and rules for writers to follow, even as readers subconsciously tag along. The first is, “Be Specific.” The holy grail for writing teachers (right behind, “Write what you know,” that old saw).
As Chekhov describes the pastoral life in “Gooseberries” — “You sit on the veranda having tea, and your ducks swim in the pond, and everything smells delicious” — and the fruit ripening suggests freedom, Saunders reveals that the story has a “special place in [his] heart.” He heard Tobias Wolff, his professor at the time, give a reading of the story and he suddenly felt “how funny Chekhov was.” He felt “part of a literary community” and became “desperate to figure out how to start writing better” stories.
Three of those better stories belong to Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol.
Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” (the longest in the book) is “mostly just descriptions of people doing things.” The prose “consists almost entirely of facts.” Yet those facts — what Nabokov refers to as Tolstoy’s “fundamental accuracy of observation” — lead to the first Law of Fiction, which “draws us in.” Once drawn in to the “baseline pattern” of the story, we are eventually led to the “powerful, virtuosic” section that dramatizes the “moral transformation” of the characters. “Transformation” is one of those lost terms from that original subtitle, which underscores Tolstoy’s position as a “moral-ethical giant” who exposes the nature of “master/peasant relations.”
In this Tolstoy section, Saunders brings in Forster’s definition of plot — “The queen died and the king died of grief” — which demonstrates the creation of meaning through causation. Saunders sees a story as “a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality.” For him, it is like the “wind that then comes along and lifts” up a “beautifully hand-painted kite.”
Tolstoy’s second story, “Alyosha the Pot” (coincidentally, the shortest in the volume) is the last discussed in the book. It seems slight after the monumental “Master and Man.” Nevertheless, Saunders ably works his way through what he recognizes as a “masterpiece of understatement.” It is here that he also addresses the matter of translation, of having to read the stories in English and trusting the skills of a translator as a “stylist.” He provides comparative passages by Clarence Brown, Sam A. Carmack, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Later, he comments on translations of an Isaac Babel story, “In the Basement,” by Peter Constantine, Boris Dralyuk, David McDuff, Walter Morison, and Val Vinokur.
The remaining stories — Turgenev’s “The Singers” and Gogol’s “The Nose” — complement the cornerstone that was the opening discussion of Chekhov’s “In the Cart.” Saunders continues with his refrains about the general nature of writing short fiction. “The Singers” appeared in the “groundbreaking work of literary anthropology,” A Sportsman’s Sketches. Its lengthy descriptions of rural peasants evoked “sensitivity and compassion [for Turgenev’s] portrayals and for their realism.” “The Nose” is a quintessential example of skaz, the Russian form of the unreliable first-person narrator. Alexander Pushkin praised Gogol for “presenting the banality of life so vividly,” and Saunders marvels at the author’s ability to “describe the banality of the banal man” without reducing his story to banality. His analyses of Turgenev and Gogol exemplify his concern for structure and pattern, for discovering “the heart of the story” through description and characterization.
Now we come to that part of any class where a student might voice some objections.
Saunders is sometimes too self-deprecating in asides about his talents and skills. Teaching a story is one thing; writing one is something else. When Saunders observes that writing “a story that works, that moves the reader, is difficult,” he doesn’t need to finish the sentence with “and most of us can’t do it.” Perhaps others can’t but he must know full well that he can. And if he doesn’t, there are plenty of readers and critics who’d be glad to inform him.
He frequently disparages himself as a “lesser writer.” He may not be a Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, or Gogol, but he is a George Saunders, and a damn good one. His Booker attests to that. His short stories are all the supporting evidence one needs. And one doubts that a lesser writer could recognize the skills of the masters so readily, or be able to analyze the short stories as cogently and incisively as Saunders does.
He recalls that in his “early thirties [he] saw himself as a Hemingwayesque realist.” Drawing from experiences in the oil fields of Asia, he “wrote story after story out of that material […] everything [he] wrote was minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free.” He had “chosen what to write, but […] couldn’t seem to make it live” until he stopped trying to be Hemingway and found his “essential ‘me-ness.’”
This is where he starts getting into some more trouble. Having taught creative writing and literature at the university level at both the undergraduate and graduate level for as many years as Saunders, my bête noire — the one persistent objection I had to discussions and analyses of fiction — was the intentional fallacy. When students claimed to know what a writer had in mind. When they presumed an understanding of a story that even its writer might claim not to have. And far too frequently Saunders notes the intentions of the Russians. In commenting on Turgenev, he wonders if “technically rickety” parts of “The Singers” make it a “clumsy work of art” by intention. Did Turgenev “intend” the story to “serve as an apologia for his lack of craft”? With Chekhov, he surmises that the relationships in “The Darling” were “intentionally” carrying forward “some set of variables.” With Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” he brings up intention at least six times, even attempting to rewrite the story to what he considers Tolstoy’s intentions might have been.
A story is what it is. It has a mind of its own. (D. H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.”) The two most frequently asked questions from student writers at any level — especially after an assignment was given — were “What does my story have to be about?” and “How long does it have to be?” My answers were always the same: “It can be about anything. It needs to be as long as it needs to be to do what it has to do.” That’s why the stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain are about everything and range from five to 49 pages.
But I digress. And Saunders eschews digressions unless they’re planned, as Turgenev intended them to be. Besides, these are minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book, in which Saunders offers us an indispensable list of laws for writers: be specific, honor efficiency, continually escalate, find facts that draw the reader in, make a pattern. All writing is rewriting.
Okay. Bottom line: Who is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain for? Anyone who reads and admires short stories or might aspire to writing one — or better ones. Once finished with Saunders’s course, what recourse does a reader or writer have? Pick a story, any story — make it an Alice Munro, an Alice Adams, a Jhumpa Lahiri, or maybe reach back to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Morley Callaghan, or Sherwood Anderson. Or maybe check out a Saunders from his superb collection Tenth of December. Or maybe, just maybe, test the recipe out on one of your own artichokes.
Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticism appear in The New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, On the Seawall, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received an award from Story magazine. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.