George Saunders

It occurs to me that in my sleep-deprived state I may have omitted explaining what I’m doing here …

For the next two weeks I’ll be teaching a fiction course as part of the Summer Literary Seminar, and Slate has asked me to keep a diary of the first week. We have 40 or so students, nearly all Americans. Also teaching fiction are Josip Novakovich and Jonathan Ames (for this two-week session). Billy Collins is teaching poetry. In addition to the genre courses, students are able to take courses in the difficulties of translation, on Russian language, philosophy, and history, take guided trips around the city, etc. Distinguished Russian poets and fiction writers are around, as well as literary critics, artists … I’ve been here only three days or so but the level of learning and engagement has been amazing. Dennis Johnson (Jesus’ Son) and Edward Hirsch are due in next week. Anyone interested in serious writing or reading should check into this program: It confirms that literary culture is alive and well. Also, it’s “white nights” here and so it’s never fully dark … people go out to watch the bridges being raised at midnight, great cheers go up … a sort of round-the-clock giddiness … big black BMWs, rumored to belong to Russian Mafia, cluster outside casinos and strip bars …

Yesterday was slow, sort of a recovery day. Read student stories, walked down to the Church on the Spilled Blood. In the evening we all walked over to the Herzen University campus for a fiction reading. Josip Novakovich read a heartbreaking and gorgeous story of a Bosnian couple trying to make a go of their marriage in the face of rape, adultery, and simple monotony. Jonathan Ames read from his brilliant novel The Extra Man and then told a story, stand-up style: one of the most astonishing performances I’ve ever seen. Then some of us went over to a restaurant called the Idiot, in Dostoyevsky’s old neighborhood. Had a series of intense and interesting conversations with the young American writer Chris Boucher—an old soul and an amazing new writer. Then we all walked around the city, winding up at the intersection of the Nevsky and the Moyka River, trying to figure out which house the great Russian writer Isaac Babel had in mind in his story “De Maupassant”–this! is the house where the narrator goes to translate De Maupassant for a wealthy woman. We reached no conclusion, but it was a kick imagining Babel stumbling out of the house, drunk on love and the woman’s expensive wine, back to his hovel.

In the English-language newspaper yesterday, a photo of a blanket-covered corpse, victim of a mob hit, and a reference to a “flurry” of such hits in recent days. We haven’t seen any indication of this sort of thing, of course. The city seems, to me, Mr. Tourist, safe and friendly and full of good energy.

Well, there’s a line a mile long here at the public Internet facility, so I’d better close, until tomorrow.