This is a book in which, as the subtitle explains, four dead Russians give us a masterclass in writing and life – except that’s only part of what’s going on: this is actually a book in which George Saunders, one very-much-alive American, gives us a masterclass in writing (and, yes, kind of, life) via seven detailed analyses of stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol.
On one level, the most obvious level, this is a writing manual, and, on that level alone, it’s one of the best I’ve read (and with my day-job hat on, I’ve read a lot). Saunder’s genius – in criticism as well as in his own prose – is his relentless attention to detail, and a large part of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is his exhaustive analysis of what exactly is going on in each sentence/paragraph/section of each of his chosen texts. What propels a story, this story, forward? How can we pin down the apparently (but maybe not actually) ineffable quality that makes a great story great? Saunders hasn’t much time for vagaries: he’s all about the actuality of the (okay, translated) words. And of course he’s not the only writer or writing teacher out there that engages in close reading, but what makes this book particularly effective in terms of pedagogy is that he (or the good folks at Bloomsbury) prints the stories in their entirely right here – so we read the original and then plunge into a forensic inquiry into the exact nature of the experience we’ve just had, rather than – as with many another text-books – depending upon the reader to run out and source the story in her own time. Saunders explains that he’s based the book on a seminar series he runs on ‘the Russians’ at Syracuse, and it’s clear from even a quick look not only that he knows these stories extremely well, but that he’s approaching them from a generous, loving, and enthusiastic place; his analyses are informed by his teaching, and he’s pitching his advice/thoughts/theories at a reader he assumes to be as passionately open and generously committed to writing – and reading – as are his students, and as is Saunders himself.
On the next level – and, okay, this is a pretty obvious level, too – this is a George Saunders book. And whether you were pro- or anti- Lincoln in the Bardo, you’ve still got to concede that Saunders is a comic genius, and that he gets how comedy works, how the bleakest and most poignant of comedy works, and that his mastery of the short story form is pretty indisputable, idiosyncratic though it certainly is. And so this book, as a Saunders book, whether you’re a writer looking for advice, a fan of one or all of the Russians in question, or simply a Saunders completist, is a joy to read. It’s incredibly funny, accessible and engaging: if you find yourself thinking, ‘Yeah, okay, but anybody putting Tolstoy stories under the microscope is not my idea of a fine time,’ well, that’s understandable, but give it a shot. You’ll love Saunders and you’ll probably end up with a newfound affection for old Leo, too. Saunders is that good. You know those rare teachers who had you – even momentarily – convinced that interlocking spurs were actually kind of fascinating? Granted, Tolstoy is definitively more interesting than diagrams of meandering rivers, but still: Saunders will make you want to rush out and get those collected stories. The energy and passion he’s invested in every sentence here is infectious. (If you were so inclined, you could be all meta and go back and analyse, according to his own methods, what it is, narratologically-speaking, that he’s doing here – whatever it is, it’s working.)
Thirdly: this is a two-in-one. You get Saunders and all his wit and grace and energy, and you get seven belting short stories. You might not reach Saunders’ own level of enthusiasm for each one – and he’s okay with that – but I defy any of you to read Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man’ and/or Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ and not punch the air. Honestly.
Any Cop?: An absolute must-read for writers, for Saunders’ fans, for anyone who’s wondered what the actual deal is with those Russian dudes, anyway? You’ll learn things despite yourself. And you’ll want to go study in Syracuse. Fact.