George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021)

We are going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art – namely, to ask the big questions: how are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seemed to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

I haven’t read much Russian literature, and the little I’ve read hasn’t really stuck with me. Out of the seven stories Saunders investigates in this book, I’ve read two of them before. I didn’t get much out of them the first time; this was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d missed.

The book is a 400-page encapsulation of the MFA course on the Russian Short Story that Saunders has taught at Syracuse University for the past 20 or so years. Each story gets an individual approach, since each story has its own way of unfolding.  Although the audience of the course is the emerging writer, each chapter first examines a story as a reader would, and only then brings in ways to incorporate the findings into writing. The first entry actually had me thinking, “I wonder if I could write a story using this kind of approach.” But then I came to my senses. It doesn’t matter which side of the page you live on; it’s worth reading.

Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

This might be why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s approach to stories was similar to my approach in this blog. I always feel bad when, in September and January, I see page views climbing, knowing students have been assigned stories from the latest BASS and need to answer questions like: Who is the protagonist? What is the theme? What is the initiating event? Those students will be disappointed when I start rambling about what the story reminded me of, and why it might have made me side with one character or dislike another. It’s not that the technical elements are extraneous – they’re very important – but there’s a much more organic way of recognizing them. You can’t help but talk about them when you’re encountering a story as an experience, rather than an assignment. Saunders helps connect the two approaches.

We start off with Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”   

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the janitor, of the school board; and when the wind brought her the sound of the receding carriage these thoughts mingled with others. She wanted to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness that would never be… His wife? It is cold in the morning, there is no one to light the stove…. And at night she dreams of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything and in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo Board or of the Trustee, she gets up and does not dare sit down again. And she uses obsequious expressions when she mentions any one of them. And no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. In her position how terrible it would be if she were to fall in love!

I ran into a challenge off the bat. Saunders begins with a brief preface asking what makes a reader keep reading. Then he proposes to answer that question by giving us the story one page at a time, followed by a pause in which we will consider “what has that page done to us.” What? No, no, that’s ridiculous, I’m going to fish out the separated pages and read the whole story… except I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing, he knew what questions to ask at the end of the first page. This is how I learned to trust George Saunders.

It was a remarkable reading experience, to find that the questions raised were indeed answered. Saunders calls it “a kind of call and response” and that’s a good a description as any. How did this sad, depleted woman get that way? I expect the story will serve up some situation that will challenge her current frame of mind, and she will either respond to it, or not. In fact, the story offers up a bit of a bluff at first, then, in the closing pages, shows what it is when someone becomes something else, even if just for a moment. Had I read the story for myself – had I read it all at once instead of chapter by chapter – would I have had the same experience? I doubt it.

I was even tempted to try to write a story using this kind of guide, this “set up a question, answer it but set up another one, keep an overall question going” kind of atmosphere. Don’t worry; I wasn’t tempted for long. I realized pretty quickly that’s a stupid reason to write a story, though it’s probably a great way to actualize a story that’s already in one’s mind, begging to be written.

Though that chapter-by-chapter approach was highly effective, Saunders returned to the more traditional read-then-analyze with the second story, “The Singers” by Turgenev. 

“What shall I sing?” asked the contractor, with mounting excitement.
“Anything you like,” replied Blinker. “Just think of something and sing it.”
“Yes, of course, anything you like,” added Nikolai Ivanych, slowly folding his arms across his chest. “We have no right to tell you what you should sing. Sing any song you like. Only, mind, sing it well, and we shall afterward decide without fear or favor.”
“Aye,” Booby put in, licking the rim of his empty glass, “so we shall – without fear or favor.” “Let me clear my throat a little, friends,” said the contractor, passing his fingers along inside the collar of his coat.
“Come now, don’t waste time – begin!” the Wild Gentleman said forcefully and dropped his eyes. The contractor thought a moment, shook his head, and stepped forward. Yashka stared fixedly at him.
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each or the characters of my story.

In the margin next to that line “But before proceeding…” I wrote, “WTF??!?” Seriously, you spend eight pages setting up a singing contest in a remote country bar, and then you stop to describe your characters? What kind of writer are you, Turgenev, anyway? And that turns out to be the focus of Saunders’ analysis:  “I teach ‘The Singers’ to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” Maybe he realized he wasn’t great at incorporating description into plot; maybe he didn’t realize it until he read over his draft, and he decided, not to fix it, but to capitalize on it. Maybe sometimes a reader’s WTF moment is an important part of the story experience.

As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” (TICHN). As we read, we’re noticing — surface level, plot type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet”), but quieter things, too: aspects of language, say (“Tons of alliteration in the first three pages”), structural features (“It’s being told in reverse chronological order!”), patterns of color, flashbacks or flashforwards, changes in points of view. I’m not saying that we’re consciously noticing. Often, we’re not….
What we are adding to our TICHN cart are, let’s say, non-normative aspects of the story — aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentation and excess.
….A good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.

Another thing that endeared this chapter to me was the title: “The Heart of the Story.” It’s a phrase I’ve used from time to time for the focus of a story’s meaning; not necessarily the climax, or the theme, or a moment, but the overall lifeforce. I thought I’d invented that phrase. It’s not all that unique, so I’m not surprised to see it elsewhere, but it’s comforting, like a slight pat on the back, that maybe I’m not totally crazy when I fumble around trying to convey my story experiences.

Chekhov’s “The Darling” is next.

She was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been for Papa, who was now ill and sat in an arm chair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.

Saunders uses this story to examine patterns and what makes them work: “What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.” He brings out charts (“The Various Loves of Olenka”) and a diagram of the five-act structure, for those who just can’t live without technical details (I learned that he was an engineer before he was a writer; not the first time I’ve heard of someone making that transition, though we usually think of it going the opposite direction).

I think of this entry as more writerly than those preceding it, because the story itself is a bit easier to read and recognize its technique. Producing such a story is, of course, another matter.“Master and Man” by Tolstoy is the longest story included in the book, and, for me, the hardest to read.

Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line — shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat — fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.

Hard in that I felt like I was missing a lot conveyed by unfamiliar references; Saunders’ discussion of wormwood confirmed that for one element. Also hard because… well, it seemed too long, like there were points of interest but they were far apart, separated by long descriptions. And hard because I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I was finished. That’s why this book was written, of course: to help readers like me figure out how to make something of a story that eludes us.

I learned that Tolstoy is considered a writer who incorporates Christian morality and ethics into his work (though perhaps less so in his life); maybe he’s the Russian analogue of Flannery O’Connor (or she him, since he preceded her by a century). This made the “Eye of God” viewpoint particularly interesting to me. I also appreciated how all this morality was conveyed with the usual explicit epiphany, and I loved Saunders’ interpretation:

Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/ peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate…. He just acts…. Vasili has changed. We know this because of what he’s just done. It’s kind of a miracle of writing. Without narrating the logic of the transformation, Tolstoy has made Vasili do exactly what the story made us believe he could never do….
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

A brief digression: When I read Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” a few years ago, I used as header art a photograph by artist Riitta Päiväläinen: a laundry line full of frozen clothes. This was in response to the story’s use of a frozen coat in the snow. Now I see frozen laundry as an image in this story, and read Saunders’ interpretation of it, and feel like I was ahead of my time.     

The story still feels tedious and hard to read (possibly the side-effect of too much contemporary fiction, when tends to be more streamlined) but I can now admire what it does. Worth a book, right there.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is one of the stories I’d read before.

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “b-rr-rr” sound with his lips as he was wont to do an awakening, although he could not have explained the reason for it. Kovalyov stretched and asked for the small mirror standing on the table. He wanted to have a look at the pimple which had, the evening before, appeared on his nose. But to his extreme amazement he saw that he had, in place of his nose, a perfectly smooth surface. Frightened, Kovalyov called for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose! He ran his hand over himself to see whether or not he was asleep. No he didn’t think so. The Collegiate Assessor jumped out of bed and shook himself – no nose! He at once ordered his clothes to be brought to him, and flew of straight to the chief of police.

A decade ago, when I was still harboring delusions that I could write stories, I wrote a flash I titled “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room.” A reviewer in an online workshop dismissed it as derivative of Gogol’s “The Nose,” which I hadn’t read but had someone copied. I found it online and read it, and couldn’t see anything in common with my story except the word “nose” (the nose in my piece was an advertising symbol from a closed-down bakery, which a homeless man took to a house he sometimes broke into for shelter and invited a woman from the soup kitchen to join him… the similarities in the story elude me still). I regarded Gogol’s nose as something of a novelty piece, fun to read but not sure why it was considered great literature. So I was glad to have Saunders teach me.

…[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened (it’s only language after all, with somebody at the other end of it, making it up) but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.

This opened up worlds to me, not just for this story but for all the stories that include fantastical elements. Reginald McKnight’s “Float” came to mind, since, unbelievably, I’d actually  made that connection back when I wrote about it: it’s not about the shoe, it’s about how everyone regards the shoe. Again, I’m really excited that I stumbled across something that happens to be a real thing (and please don’t tell me if I’m misinterpreting, I don’t get to be excited about my own writing that often).

Saunders also discusses skaz, a Russian storytelling tradition that I’ve come across before in connection with Toni Morrison and in my second person study. It’s described as the blurring of lines between narrator and narrated, but Saunders makes it seem a bit more encompassing than that.

What really struck me was his comment about ‘…[S]omething troubling (a missing nose, a hateful political agenda) is met with polite, well-intentioned civility — a civility that wants things to go on as usual.” Don’t tell me 19th century stories have nothing to do with contemporary society. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

“Gooseberries” is another story I’d read before.

Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept on diving, trying to touch bottom. ‘By God!’ he kept repeating delightedly, ‘by God!’ He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. ‘By God!’ he kept exclaiming, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ ‘You’ve had enough!’ Burkin shouted to him.

Note that this is the passage from which the book takes its title, a book which joyfully splashes about in stories. On my prior reading, I’d come away with the idea (perhaps harvested from googling resources and analyses) that the story is about the guy who has to be happy eating his sour, hard gooseberries, even though they’re obviously not edible, and the kind of self-delusion (or self-will) that requires. Joy didn’t enter into it. Thank you, George Saunders, for bringing the joy.

Because, in addition to examining another digression in great detail, he points out how every instance of joy – whether the swim or bathing for the first time in months or the new house or the drowsiness that leaves a pipe uncleaned – requires a balance of misery: someone’s impatient to get on with the walk, filthy water that pours off the bather, the gooseberries themselves, the stench in the next room. And this brought me to Le Guin, and Omelas: if every joy depletes someone else, is joy ethical? Saunders’ point is that the story takes several viewpoints at the same time and refuses to fully endorse or disavow any of them.

Tolsoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” the shortest story in the book, finishes things off.

[S]uddenly, in the second half of the second year, something happened to him that had never happened before in his life. This something was that he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. This he learned from the cook, Ustinya…. Alyosha felt for the first time that he – he himself, not his work – but he himself was needed by another person.

This too brings in a great deal of morality and Christian virtue: is humility a good thing, or can it be overdone? Saunders spends a lot of time on the amazement issue, how it relates to the final few sentences in which Alyosha is again amazed, and how the amazements could be connected.

— —

The book ends with an Appendix containing three writing exercises: editing, escalation, and translation. I haven’t done any of them. Yet. I’m trying to resist, because who knows what will happen if I get it into my head that I should try writing stories again.

Since this is a new book – brand new, just published this year – it may not seem to fit into the “re-reading” theme of this In-Between-Reading period. However, two of the stories Saunders discusses are stories I’ve read before, so I’m slipping it in (besides, I said I’d be doing some new reads, so it fits there, too). However it fits in, I’m very glad I read it; it’s a delight to read, and I hope it will give me more ways to think about stories as I read forward.

A final digression: I ordered the book online from my local independent bookseller for shipping to my apartment ten blocks away, as that’s how these things are done during pandemics. When it arrived, I saw that it was a signed copy. It may be the only signed book I have, and I got it by accident. I’m very glad I did.

* * *

  • Indiebound Book Link
  • LARoB review
  • Reginald McKnight’s short story “Float” online at Georgia Review.
  • My blog post on “Float”.
  • Riitta Päiväläinen photograph “Vestige: Ice and Wind”
  • Zin Kenter’s flash fiction “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room” online at FriGG.

2 responses to “George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021)

  1. So glad you are reading this, too. I have been dipping in slowly, taking breathers in between and actually reading some novels, praise be to Zeus, that I have been enjoying, but yes, I was most excited by each of the first three sections I have read, and yes, they will help my writing. You perhaps should, (although I don’t believe in telling anyone what they should, hahaha) write some stories using these techniques. I’d be happy to be first reader, show you mine.

    • No, the impulse has already passed, meaning it wasn’t much of an impulse to begin with. It’s better this way. I’d much rather read stories – and write about them – than write them.

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