Books

Anton, Leo, Nikolai, and George

George Saunders thinks the old Russian masters hold the key to good writing. But where are they in his own work?

Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, George Saunders, and Nikolai Gogol.
Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, George Saunders, and Nikolai Gogol. Photos by Fotosearch/Getty Images, Culture Club/Getty Images, Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images, and Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images.

The literary short story is an awkward holdover. Once, stories flourished at the fertile intersection of art and entertainment, much as television does now. Appearing in almost every magazine, they diverted people during quiet evenings at home, on trains, and in doctors’ waiting rooms. Now they live in captivity in poorly selling collections stuck on bookshelves, hardly their native habitat. I can already hear multiple friends and colleagues jumping up to protest “I love short stories!” in the slightly wistful tone of someone praising the virtues of vinyl LPs. And I love some short stories, too: the dark, funny magic of Kelly Link, the miraculously rich work of Deborah Eisenberg, the popular energy still coursing through short fiction in the sci-fi and fantasy worlds.

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But what we talk about when we talk about short stories as a form notoriously difficult for publishers to sell to the average reader is not these boundary-breaking authors. What many people resist is what’s testily dismissed as a “typical New Yorker short story”: a tale in which nothing much happens to one or more not especially interesting people until it all ends on a note of melancholy ambiguity. Contributing to this stereotype is the fact that the short story is the basic unit of the writing workshop and the MFA program, the subjects, routinely, of blistering attacks from people who consider university degrees in creative writing to have a pernicious effect on contemporary literature. As a result, the argument goes, the “literary” short story has become a rarefied form, overpolished and predictable, the cookie-cutter product of an enervating system.

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George Saunders has been teaching short story writing at Syracuse University for 24 years, and his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a distillation of what he tries to impart to his students. It’s difficult to name a contemporary writer whose work departs further from the stereotype of the overcrafted, MFA-boilerplate, New Yorker story than Saunders, the inventive, playful, idiosyncratic author of Tenth of December. Yet in this book, rather than advising his readers (and his students) how to write as far outside of the box as he does, Saunders seems surprisingly inclined to help them squeeze themselves into it.

Like every creative writing teacher I know, Saunders obviously enjoys teaching literature more than teaching writing: Who wouldn’t prefer discussing what’s so great about Flannery O’Connor to tactfully diagnosing what’s bad about a student’s story? In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders selects seven stories by 19th-century Russian masters that he considers “the high bar against which I measure my own” and uses them to illustrate what he feels makes a story work. The full text of each story is included: three of Anton Chekhov’s delicate character studies, two Leo Tolstoy stories about earthily serene peasants, one of Ivan Turgenev’s slices of village life, and Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist classic “The Nose.”

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Much of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain addresses how to write, but for someone like myself, a person with no plans to produce a short story, it better serves as a course in how to read short stories—perhaps even how to reconcile herself to stories in which not a lot happens. Saunders loves all seven of his picks and takes his readers through each one in detail, explaining how a piece of frozen laundry flapping on a line signals the ill-fated nature of a journey in a snowstorm and how a smelly pipe undermines a speech about social conscience.

Once a grad student at Syracuse himself, Saunders recalls hearing one of his professors, Tobias Wolff, read aloud a selection of stories by Chekhov, a writer whom Saunders had previously considered “mild and voiceless and swagger free—a fatal diagnosis at that point in my development.” The evening was revelatory. Through Wolff, Saunders writes, the students could feel “Chekhov’s humor and tenderness and slightly cynical (loving) heart.” This makes Chekhov sound rather like George Saunders himself. Saunders’ stories often feature characters struggling to understand their world and themselves though a set of inadequate conceptual tools imposed on them by external powers: corporate, commercial, managerial. Their warm hearts and healthy consciences resist, and the result is both funny and tragic, and never feels lacking in action.

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Nevertheless, reading Chekhov again, after many years, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain forced a realization: Those of us who complain about New Yorker stories are really just complaining about Chekhov. (His reputation as a literary giant makes him a far less inviting target for populist derision than a middlebrow literary magazine that has repeatedly rejected our own submissions.) Chekhov is the originator and the master of the quiet story in which not much changes in a character’s circumstances or outlook, except perhaps for the bolt of enlightenment, sometimes labeled an “epiphany,” that strikes the character (or perhaps only the reader) toward the end.

“In the Cart,” the Chekhov story Saunders leads with, describes a day in the life of a provincial school teacher, a bored, lonely woman fallen on hard times, as she trudges through a journey to pick up her pay. She encounters a local landowner too feckless to serve as romantic prospect, some churlish peasants in a tea house, and a river crossing that soaks her meager purchases. Finally, while waiting by a railroad station, she spots a woman who resembles her late mother and is flooded with memories of her past as the child of a loving, comfortable family in the city. But in the end, she’s reminded that she’s back in this crappy little town, doomed to spend her days bickering with the municipal government over the school’s firewood budget.

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This is a grim scenario, although not, as Saunders points out, an untruthful one. I found his detailed analysis of the story fascinating because it illustrates just how differently two readers can experience the same text. To Saunders, the schoolteacher, Marya, is a sympathetic figure for whom the reader instinctively roots. But the story begins with Marya mulishly oblivious to the beauty of a spring day as she obsesses about her miserable lot. To me, this suggests that the woman of “In the Cart” is not only a genteel individual living in reduced circumstances; she’s a person who, idealizing her past, cannot find or appreciate what good is available to her in her new life and is blind to opportunities to make it better. My interpretation seems to me the more Chekhovian one (his fiction and plays are full of characters whose romanticism leads to perpetual disappointment), but Saunders’ is the more generous and compassionate. (It would not be the last time while reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain that I felt that Saunders is a much kinder and more patient person than I am.)

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In “The Darling,” another Chekhov story included in this book, a woman has a series of relationships in which she repeatedly adopts every belief and concern of her current partner. This is, as Saunders explains, a story founded on pattern—repetition and then variation on that repetition—creating, allegedly, a pleasurable rhythm of expectation and resolution. The main character’s style of loving might at first appear sweet but by the end it is suffocating. “We don’t know exactly what to think of Olenka,” Saunders writes. “The story seems to be asking ‘Is this trait of hers good or bad?’ Chekhov answers, ‘Yes.’ ”

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“The Darling” lacks a couple of qualities that contemporary readers often expect of fiction: First, that the central character change in some significant way in the course of the story, and second, that the author take a position on such questions as whether a character’s central trait is good or bad. Much of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain argues against the second expectation. It’s easy to imagine that Sanders, in his early 60s, is surrounded by young writers prone to moral absolutes, as young people often are. I wonder if he chose these stories, in part, because their ambiguity militates against this tendency toward preachiness.

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Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” for example, recounts the life of its hardworking title character, who cheerfully and tirelessly serves in various menial jobs for people, including his own family, who take him for granted and refuse to let him marry the woman he loves. After an accident, he contemplates his impending death without much distress, but at the moment before he dies, in the story’s final sentence, “something seemed to startle him.” Saunders, a champion of all underdogs who wishes Alyosha had stood up for himself more, wants to think that the character repudiates his passivity in his last moment. But he also knows that Tolstoy—who idealized peasants and espoused a “radical Christian humility” that he didn’t actually practice in real life—likely viewed Alyosha’s selfless submission as a virtue. By never specifying what surprises Alyosha, Tolstoy makes Saunders’ interpretation of the story available without denying the more Tolstoyan endorsement of Christlike meekness. Maybe Tolstoy meant to praise Alyosha but “unintentionally cursed what he set out to bless,” much as Tolstoy believed Chekhov intended, with “The Darling,” to parody women like Olenka but in the writing came to love and forgive her.

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These are some twisty interpretive thickets, made twistier by the complexities of translation, a factor never far from Saunders’ attention. But Saunders’ analysis often depends upon knowledge exterior to the stories themselves: about the relationship between the classes in 19th-century Russia, the power structure of patriarchal families, and so on, as well as what we know about Tolstoy himself. (Such as, that he wrote “Alyosha the Pot” in a single day and deemed it “very bad,” apparently never returning to it, dispensing with the multiple rewrites that Saunders assures his students are necessary to produce great work.) All this, I must confess, is a lot more interesting to me than “Alyosha the Pot” itself.

Of all the stories included in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the most Saundersian is “The Nose,” Gogol’s wacky yarn about a barber who finds a human nose in his morning bread. The minor functionary to whom the nose belongs ends up chasing the organ all over St. Petersburg after it somehow gets itself appointed to the superior rank of state councilor and travels by carriage wearing a “gold-embroidered uniform.” The functionary’s inability to find redress for this outrage fuels the story’s humor, as do the blasé responses of officials when he seeks their help. Everyone in Gogol’s city has a habitual, reflexive way of behaving and not even the spectacle of a runaway nose posing as a state councilor can jolt them out of it. This is both hilarious and weirdly true, but in his notes on “The Nose,” Saunders spends way too much time justifying Gogol’s use of fantastical motifs as “saying truthful things about our world, some of which would have been impossible to say via a more conventionally realistic approach.” Recall that this is the same guy who, in Tenth of December, wrote a story about live women hiring themselves out as lawn ornaments. How could any admirer of Saunders need something this remedial explained to them?

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Elsewhere in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain Saunders asserts that the goal of any writing program is to help a writer sound more like herself, to free her of “a certain idea of the writer we are in our head” that causes a fledgling artist to do what she thinks she ought to do rather than what her intuition tells her. At the beginning of his own apprenticeship, he writes, “I saw myself as a Hemingwayesque realist,” that is, “minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free, even though, in real life, I reflexively turned to humor at any difficult or important or awkward or beautiful moment.” Only when he began goofing around, writing “dark little Seussian poems,” did he find his voice.

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Yet it’s hard to see how the voice that Saunders became famous for might have been inspired by any of the stories he extols in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, except for “The Nose,” the story he does the weakest job of explicating. If I squint at these Russian stories sideways and in exactly the right light, I can see that their characters, like Saunders’, tend to be crushed by forces they can barely understand, let alone defy. But searching so hard for congruences between these old-fashioned stories and George Saunders’ jaunts through the grotesque simulacra of late capitalism makes me feel a bit like Saunders convincing himself that Tolstoy’s Alyosha renounces obedience in his final moment. Much of the practical advice Saunders offers—make every sentence work for the whole, rewrite diligently, etc.—is solid enough, if familiar. True, I closed A Swim in a Pond in the Rain with an improved appreciation of the fineness of the Russians’ craft, but none of that gave me much sense of how Saunders’ own peculiar magic, the fictional magic I prefer, gets made. So is it a good book or a bad book? The answer is yes.