George Saunders: A Swim In The Pond In The Rain

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Before George Saunders won the Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017 he was best known for his short stories, and for the last twenty years he has been teaching a course at Syracuse University on the nineteenth century Russian short story in translation. This class is directed at students in the MFA. The students are all aspiring writers forming a small group of six or seven chosen from about seven hundred applicants.

Reading these essays is like being in a class with a lively and approachable teacher. He speaks of his own development as a  writer. How in his thirties he saw himself as a ‘Hemingwayesque realist’ but his stories, which were about his time working in Asia, seemed to him to be efficient and humour-free. In time he allowed himself to be funny and saw people enjoying his work. His aim as a teacher is to direct students to find their voices, but in this book he does it by completely dismantling stories and looking at technique. Although he also says the would-be writer needs to read study, write, dismember the writing and continue this process ad infinitum, he also says
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

In his book he looks in detail at seven stories in translation originally written by Russian writers he deeply admires: three stories by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, one by Ivan Turgenev and one by Nikolai Gogol. His rationale for using these Russian writers was
They seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as vital moral-ethical tool. They changed you when you read them...

With the first story in the book, Chekhov’s  In the Cart, he does what he says he likes to do with his students. He takes the story to pieces and gets them (and us) to read one page at a time. Where does that page take us? What are we expecting/ hoping for? Are we engaged with the main character? Why is the writer adding the details he does? For Saunders everything must work to justify its presence in the story. And what a strange story to choose.
It is about the journey home of a young woman in a cart driven by a peasant. She is a bored and lonely teacher who has been to collect her money and to buy some food. She doesn’t love teaching, her pupils never cross her thoughts, she says the only aspect of teaching she thinks is worthwhile is examinations. I found her unsympathetic even though she lost her parents as a young girl and needs to teach to support herself. Semyon, the peasant driving the cart has more life in him, in a wrong-headed way. He drives through flooded waters in order to take a quicker route, he talks about the Mayor having been assassinated, he comments on a local landowner who is driving near them, but Marya is engrossed in her own suffering. At the end of the story she has a moment of self-recognition. Saunders sees  this as a possible redemption, but I didn’t care.

He is a little more critical of the next story The Singers, by Ivan Turgenev. A young man is out walking on a fiercely hot day. He arrives at a small inn in a village on the edge of a ravine , Kolotovka.  The inn, where he is known, is the Cozy Corner (I would love to know what it is called in Russian…I did read some criticism of the translations Saunders uses.) There is a great deal of description of the inn-keeper, his wife, and some of the drinkers. He discovers a singing contest is about to take place between Yasha the Turk and the contractor from Zhizdra. Turgenev says
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each of the characters of my story.
And he describes in detail the drinkers Booby and Blinker. Of the singers he says
Of Yasha the Turk and the contractor there is not much to be said. Yasha, nicknamed the Turk, because he really was descended from a captured Turkish woman…the contractor, about whom. I’m afraid, I found out nothing...
Saunders finds what he sees as an overload of inessential details difficult to explain or like. He turns to Henry James for a description of Turgenev’s process
The first form in which a tale appeared was as the figure of an individual or a combination of individuals...
Already it appears one cannot be too prescriptive about the way a short story proceeds, or what makes it readable.

Reading this book, I kept wishing I could have a face-to-face chat with George Saunders. There were so many instances in which I didn’t agree with him, but it did set my mind whirling.
I shall finish with a passage from The Singers of which he thoroughly approved and saw as a key image in the story.
I remember once seeing in the evening, at low tide, a great white seagull on the flat sandy shore of the sea which was roaring away dully and menacingly in the distance: it was sitting motionless, its silky breast turned toward the scarlet radiance of sunset, only now and then spreading its long wings toward the familiar sea, toward the low, blood-red sun: I remembered that bird as I listened to Yasha.

16 thoughts on “George Saunders: A Swim In The Pond In The Rain

      1. Have read not very many of the stories, and struggled through parts of the novels now and then. As a child, I quickly got lost in the changing names (had the same trouble with Shakespeare!), and in college, found most of it depressing and humorless. My mother liked the Russians the best. I couldn’t understand why — now I have some inklings, how her Illinois farm child found much richness there.

        1. I found those stories which tell of the hopeless lives of the upper classes hard to relate to. Then at university I discovered that until the Emancipation in 1861 23 milion people in Russia were serfs i.e slaves who were owned by landowners or the state.

  1. I don’t think this is for me as I’m not a fan of Saunders’ other work (sorry!), but your desire for a discussion about it is entirely understandable. I wonder if he’s doing any online events to promote the paperback release? If so, that might be your best opportunity!

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