Lead book review

The art of the short story: what we can learn from the Russians

Viv Groskop takes a masterclass in the art of the short story

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life) George Saunders

Bloomsbury, pp.256, 16.99

This is such a superb idea that it’s a wonder a book like this has not cropped up before. Here we have a critically acclaimed, best-selling novelist, who also happens to be a highly sought-after creative writing teacher, setting out the curriculum of his over-subscribed ‘How to Write’ class in a way that is accessible to anyone… and the book reproduces the texts under discussion. Wow. This has to be the best York Notes ever, flawlessly designed for the exam we all sit without realising: life.

In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain you get all Saunders’s commentary (which is both charming and addictive) and the original (translated) versions of seven short stories by four writers: Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’, ‘The Darling’, and ‘Gooseberries’; Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man’ and ‘Alyosha the Pot’; Gogol’s ‘The Nose’; and Turgenev’s ‘The Singers’.

The book ticks a pleasingly ridiculous number of boxes. It’s a guide to craft that is every bit as stunning as Stephen King’s On Writing; it’s an insight into the mind of a great writer (Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize); and it’s an extraordinary meditation on our lives as readers. It’s also a passionate argument for the enduring power of the classic Russian short story. At a time when many well-intentioned readers have been in lockdown for months and still haven’t quite got round to, er, finishing War and Peace, Saunders whispers reassuringly over our shoulder: ‘Here’s an immaculate Chekhov story in 11 pages. Surely you’ve got time for that.’

Saunders has taught a three-year course in the 19th-century Russian short story in translation for the past two decades. He picks six students a year from a pool of around 700 applicants at Syracuse University, New York. This book gives you a front seat in the class. I sat through the whole thing moon-eyed, as entranced as the student in Indiana Jones’s Raiders of the Lost Ark who leans dreamily on her elbow and flashes the words ‘Love You’ written on her eyelids. Saunders’s mission? To sell the idea that great fiction should change you morally and ethically. It should be ‘a story in which you might play a meaningful part, and in which you had responsibilities’. This shouldn’t feel urgent and controversial. But it does.

The chosen texts are delightful. In Gogol’s ‘The Nose’, Major Kovalyov discovers that his nose has vacated his face and is strolling around St Petersburg dressed as a high-ranking official. And thus we uncover the idea, through Saunders, that a story does not have to make sense to have meaning. In Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’, where a disillusioned schoolteacher experiences a sudden rush of memory that takes her by surprise, we understand the beauty and tragedy of a fleeting moment of insight. In Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man’ we see a man come alive only as he has the chance to die: ‘That’s the kind of story I want to write,’ adds Saunders. ‘The kind that stops being writing and starts being life.’ The pond swim of the book’s title comes from Chekhov’s ‘Gooseberries’ — a story itself inspired by Chekhov going ‘wild swimming’ with Tolstoy.

The Russian greats truly shine in this account; but Saunders is the real star. His way of expressing himself is simultaneously supremely intellectual and jovially down-to-earth. He knows pretty much everything. But he’s humble. He hasn’t read any of these texts in the original Russian, and never intends to. He constantly riffs on his own struggles as a writer and a person. He’s fun. And he has watched a lot of films. He’s as likely to reference The Karate Kid or Rocky as the Iliad, often in the same sentence. If he’s going to explain the Russian skaz tradition — a form of storytelling that draws upon oral tradition and foregrounds the artificiality of the narrator — then he’ll tell you that it’s basically the same as Sacha Baron Cohen doing Borat. He’s a fantastically authoritative companion who wears his learning lightly and wants — like the best teachers — to make you feel as if he’s learning stuff all the time alongside you. It’s rare to read a book and love it so much that you think it’s simply perfect. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is that book.

Is it a good or a bad thing that Saunders completely ignores the identity politics that are usually an obligatory component of current creative writing courses? I think probably good. This is an old-school approach and sometimes old-school feels right. Of the 22 works referenced in the list of ‘other sources’ at the end of the book, only two are by a woman. (One is Tolstoy’s sister-in-law, the other is Flannery O’Connor.) Saunders gets a free pass here, not only with his own reputation as a literary writer but also because you can hardly get into diversity and inclusion if you’re talking 19th-century Russia. And if, as this list suggests, Saunders wants us to read David Mamet, Milan Kundera, Henry James and Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy too? Well, OK.

The approach he encourages throughout this book is that you need to bring your own references, and these just happen to be his. In any case, he’s likeable enough as a writer and a companion reader that you buy wholeheartedly into whatever he’s selling. Dr Jones, I will take the lot. With a side order of snuff for my nose.

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