Tuesday, May 11, 2021

George Saunders' A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

George Saunders' new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, analyzes several Russian short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol.  As a Russophile, I was happy to read or reread the stories he selected, which included The Nose, The Master and the Man, The Cart, and at least one story from A Sportsman's Sketches, and other nineteenth century classics.  On the other hand, I was just slightly disappointed that Saunders didn't have any special expertise in either Russian literature or history.  Picking up the book felt like a case of false advertising.  Yes, Saunders had taught a course in the Russian short story for several decades and knew these stories intimately.  However, he was primarily concerned with the craftsmanship of the stories, rather than their Russian themes or the Russian literary contexts from which they emerged. Indeed, Saunders analyzed these short stories primarily from the point of view of a writer, or would-be writer.  In some ways, Saunders could have written the same sort of book about any group of short stories.  He really did not need to limit himself to Russian stories, so the book seemed a bit gimmicky.  In any case, Sanders did something new by asking readers to read these stories, and then carefully deconstruct them in terms of their plot and other literary devices.  And certainly it was nice to approach these classics from the point of view of a writer learning a craft.  It was somewhat exciting to be asked by Saunders to think about the many choices each of these Russian authors made when creating their masterpieces.  It was also interesting to see that Saunders thinks that a writer like Turgenev may have actually created something unique as result of his own creative limitations.  That is to say, Saunders argues that Turgenev was not an expert at plot, but therefore turned characterization and setting and detail into something extraordinarily beautiful.  

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