Books

George Saunders
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

In the introductory chapter of A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, George Saunders describes what he has written as a “workbook”. It is a term, he says, that “kept coming to mind” as he was writing, and one that feels fitting because what has resulted is “a book that will be work”. It’s a lovely idea, these essays as a workbook, because it speaks to the practical and educational use that Saunders is hoping the book will have.

The work, he continues, is also “work we’ll be doing together” – a claim that is easily made but rarely made good upon, which is why it feels so remarkable that, in this particular case, it is true. There is a real companionability and generosity to Saunders’ writing and thinking across the essays, and the warmth and accessibility of his voice are one of their great joys, as well as the main reason the book succeeds.

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is focused on seven short stories by four Russian masters of the form – Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev – all of whom were more or less contemporaries and were writing in a time “where it was assumed”, Saunders asserts, that “the aim of art” was “to ask big questions” about life, truth, justice and the vagaries of the human heart. Each story is presented in full and then followed by Saunders’ essayistic commentary, which seeks to unpick the stories at a technical level, in order to understand how they work and, by extension, what writerly skills can be gleaned from them.

“I sometimes joke (and yet not)” Saunders writes, “that we’re reading to see what we can steal.”

Some of the stories are very well known – such as Chekhov’s The Darling and Gogol’s The Nose – but others are less familiar, such as Tolstoy’s Alyosha the Pot; and they vary greatly in their style and tone as well as in their technical accomplishment. All have been chosen, Saunders explains, because they are “simple, clear, elemental”, because the aesthetic and political work that they do always happens at an individual and human scale, and for the simple reason that Saunders loves them.

In some ways, the book is reminiscent of the New Yorker’s much-loved Fiction Podcast, following as it does the same format – where a writer reads a short story and then blissfully nerds out discussing precisely why they love it so – and keeping to the same kind of conversational intimacy, fluidity and informality. But it also retains much of the style and structure of a masterclass lecture, and the reading experience very often feels like sitting in on such a class. This is unsurprising, given that so much of the book comes from Saunders’ 20 years of teaching in the master of fine arts (MFA) program at Syracuse University. One of the pleasures of this job, he explains, is each year introducing new writers to these stories that he considers his “old friends” – stories that have had such an impact on him as a person and as a writer, and that are “constantly with [him]”, as he writes.

So the “work” in this “workbook” is writerly and technical, but it is also readerly – the essays are as interested in slow, close reading and unravelling meaning as they are in what Saunders calls “the physics of the form”. Nonetheless, there are specific “lessons” woven into the discussion of each text – on line-level writing and narrative energy, on patterns of repetition and escalation, on digression and omission, ambiguity, and the logic of absurdity – and it’s fascinating to see how hands-on Saunders’ approach to the mechanics of the stories so often is. He illustrates many of his arguments by rewriting or rearranging elements of the texts to demonstrate what changes when a particular construction is removed; elsewhere he makes charts and graphs of characters and actions, so that the dynamics can more easily be observed.

There’s a playfulness to this, as well as an exuberant kind of curiosity that lends the book much of its energy and makes it distinctive and refreshing among books about writing and craft. Saunders’ cheeky and cheerful asides and the occasional eruptions of deliberately silly jokes contribute to this too – readers familiar with Saunders’ fiction will recognise his characteristic sense of humour and absurdity are always at work, even in this form. Included too are occasional examples that Saunders draws from his own stories – germs of ideas, voices, or experiments that were inspired by the pieces collected here – as illustrations of why this kind of reading and analysis might be important for a writer.

Saunders is never didactic in his approach, either about the stories or in the opinions and advice about writing that he relays through them. The latter he is quick to point out as fallible, as relating only to how he “ha[s] done it”, adding “How I will soon do it has to remain a continual mystery”; the former, he is careful to tell the reader, should always be weighed against their own opinions and judgements. In many ways, this relates to Saunders’ assertion that teaching writing is really about allowing students to become “defiantly and joyfully themselves” and to embrace the kind of writer that they are, rather than the one they think they should be.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is very much a book for writers – although Saunders says he hopes it is for readers too, especially for the attention, affection and care that it displays to the short stories at its core. It is often insightful in a way that never feels laboured or stiff and it is a work of great camaraderie. The true pleasure of the book is its sense of playfulness and delight, which make its generosities feel like true offerings. The book’s responses to these Russian classics similarly feel like part of a genuine and open-ended conversation. 

Fiona Wright

Bloomsbury, 432pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "George Saunders, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain".

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Reviewer: Fiona Wright