A Swim in the Pond in the Rain -In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class in Writing, Reading and Life - by George Saunders - 2021 - 416 pages
This is a truly wonderful book. Anyone who wants to become a better reader, short story writer or maybe even a better person will profit from A
Swim in the Pond in the Rain.
Saunders has taught a course in the Russian short story in translation for twenty years as part of the University of Syracuse’s creative writing program. Every year about six hundred apply to join the program but only six are admitted. The students are all very eager to learn, very talented and not afraid of speaking up.
Seven stories by the great Russian masters are analyzed, taken apart (searching for right terms).
The stories in order (with the full text so we have no excuse not to read along) are
- In the Cart by Anton Chekov - 1897
- The Singers by Ivan Turgenev - 1852
- The Darling by Anton Chekhov - 1899
- Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy - 1895 longest work
- The Nose by Nikolai Gogol - 1836
- Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov - 1898
- Alyosha the Pot by Leo Tolstoy - 1905 - briefest story
I suggest you read this one chapter, including the story and Saunders comments per day leaving a day for the conclusion and exercises and the at the end. Adding in a day for the marvelous opening chapter you are in for a very illuminating nine days plus you might end up reading the best short stories you have ever encountered. Many serious readers reject short stories as lacking the substance they need. People say they want something that can deeply draw them into the world evoked. To such persons, of whom I was one long ago, read these stories and the book and you will see how wrong yau are.
Saunders loves the reading life and talks profoundly about it. He explores how fiction works, why reading can be of tremendous life enhancing value.
Saunders starts each chapter as if he were trying to get his students to say why the story works or does not work. I good story makes us want to keep reading. He shows us how these stories work. The big question is why are these stories great.
“The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. 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.”
He makes a lot of in passing remarks on other writers, Russian culture, his own efforts as a writer and much more.
“And let’s be even more honest: those of us who read and write do it because we love it and because doing it makes us feel more alive and we would likely keep doing it even if it could be demonstrated that its overall net effect was zero”
“Over the last ten years I’ve had a chance to give readings and talks all over the world and meet thousands of dedicated readers. Their passion for literature (evident in their questions from the floor, our talks at the signing table, the conversations I’ve had with book clubs) has convinced me that there’s a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world—a web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting. As I wrote this book, I had those people in mind. Their generosity with my work and their curiosity about literature, and their faith in it, made me feel I could swing for the fences a little here—be as technical, nerdy, and frank as needed, as we try to explore the way the creative process really works.”
Long ago in a post on The Lonely Crowd- A study in the Short Story by Frank O’Connor I said it was the only book worth reading on the short story. Now there are two such books and for me Saunders book is superior.
George Saunders is the author of eleven books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English, and was a finalist for the Golden Man Booker, in which one Booker winner was selected to represent each decade, from the fifty years since the Prize’s inception. The audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo, which featured a cast of 166 actors, was the 2018 Audie Award for best audiobook.
His stories have appeared regularly in The New Yorker since 1992. The short story collection Tenth of Decemberwas a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2013 (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).
He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. In support of his work, he has appeared on The Colbert Report, Late Night with David Letterman, All Things Considered, and The Diane Rehm Show.
He was born in Amarillo, Texas and raised in Oak Forest, Illinois. He has a degree in Geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines and has worked as a geophysical prospector in Indonesia, a roofer in Chicago, a doorman in Beverly Hills, and a technical writer in Rochester, New York. He has taught, since 1997, in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University