George Saunders, Booker prize-winning author of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” has taught a class on the Russian short story in translation at Syracuse University in New York for over 20 years. His latest book, “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain,” is a condensed version of that class, where Saunders gives a moving analysis of seven Russian short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” is full of lessons on life, art, death and the power of fiction. Saunders examines what these stories have to teach us about good storytelling in paragraphs that are easy to understand, compelling and highly enjoyable. He writes with a voice so intimate, warm and unpretentious that it is like listening to the words of an old friend.
“A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” includes each translated short story in full, with Saunders’ analysis of each one, as well as his afterthoughts, which are meditations on writing and life inspired by each work. He begins with Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” pausing after each page to give a commentary on the state of the story as it changes and develops. By stopping after each page, he teaches the reader how to be more aware of how their feelings are being affected as the story unfolds. They are able to realize how a good story is a constantly evolving event until the very last line. In Tolstoy’s the “Master and Man,” he explores plot and character; with Gogol’s “The Nose,” he celebrates how an irrational story about a man who loses his nose illustrates reality; in Turgenev’s “The Singers,” he commends how a clunkily written story shines, despite its apparent flaws.
It is hard to pick up all the beautiful details of these stories on a first read, as they are deceptively straightforward but actually full of complexities. And after reading Saunders’ comments, the formerly hidden wisdom and depth within the Russian short stories feel as if they are screaming from off the page. His essays left me feeling like the foggy lens of a camera that had just come into focus. The authors Saunders includes are authors that, for younger readers, may have had their magic dimmed by vague claims that their stories are masterpieces, though exactly why they are so renowned is never explained.
In “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain,” Saunders enthusiastically brings all the genius and joy they hold to the light. While revealing the intense thought that the Russian writers put into their writing, he also emphasizes the joy they infuse into every paragraph. “When all is said and done, that’s what we’re really looking for — in a sentence, in a story, in a book: joy.” He also writes, “An acknowledgment, in the prose, that all of this is too big to be spoken of, but also that death begins the moment we give up on trying to speak of it.”
Saunders makes us aware of why these stories still matter, and how even though they were written over a century ago in Tsarist Russia, they still hold importance and vital insight into who we are as human beings. Along with this, he explains how fictional narrative functions: why one story is compelling but another falls flat, what keeps us reading the next line, why an author included a certain plot point and how it added to the story, etc. Just as importantly, Saunders discusses the integral virtues a writer should focus on in order to improve their writing, as the process of writing fiction requires a quality of openness to others and a willingness to connect. One of the points of fiction, he explains, is to prompt people to reconsider their views; and the writer, like Chekhov in his stories, must be willing to do the same while writing.
Yet, “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” is not a book that tells anyone how to write. It is more of a “reader’s companion” instead of an academic guide. By analyzing great works of fiction and looking at the moving pieces and details that go into each story, the reader sees clearly how good writing works, as well as the intense amount of thought that it requires, but is never told the process by which it should be done.
The most important lesson for aspiring young writers that “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” probably has to impart is the opposite of what a normal book on fiction writing might command: “go forth and do what you please.” Because, Saunders explains, that is what will lead you to discover the truest version of yourself — in writing, and in life. Figuring out what you are passionate about and pursuing whatever that may be will lead you to wherever you are meant to end up.
At the end of “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain,” Saunders explains how in the class he teaches at Syracuse University, he tells all his students to imagine putting a parenthesis in front of everything he is about to say, and filling that parenthesis in with the words “‘According to George.’” Then, at the end of the last class he asks them to close the parenthesis by adding the words “‘Well, anyways, that was all according to George.’” In the last lines of the book, he tells the readers to close their own parenthesis with the same phrase. He invites the reader to disagree with him, and to be glad of this disagreement, because that is their artistic preference speaking, and those same preferences are what will shape them into who they’re meant to be.
The point of the class he teaches, Saunders clarifies, is to help his students achieve their own voice, or the space from which they are able to write the stories that only they are able to write. This space is shaped by their own personal likes and dislikes, experiences, obsessions and oddities. Everyone has a story, but it usually takes years for someone to be able to find the confidence, voice and insight needed to be able to express it fully. They are bogged down by fear, insecurity, confusion and misdirected aims. Saunders cuts through all the noise and expresses to his reader that it is really quite simple: Just follow your joy, your intuition and your delight. By looking at the different voices of Russian writers from long ago, the motivation to find one’s singular voice is just what “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” might be able to spark in some of the aspiring writers who read it.