Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev: Booker-winner George Saunders on learning from the Russian masters

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Can you learn to write by reading Tolstoy? A Booker-winner believes so …

Now 62, George Saunders has spent a third of his life teaching creative writing at Syracuse University in New York state and for nearly three decades he has been turning out award-winning short story collections such as CivilWarLand In Bad Decline and Pastoralia. His skill and industriousness where these twin endeavours are concerned had already earned him a dot on America’s literary map by 2013, when he won the prestigious PEN award. But in 2017 that dot went from town- to metropolis-sized when, with his first long-form work, Lincoln In The Bardo, he won the Man Booker Prize. At the risk of over-stretching an already complaining metaphor, we’ve all now heard of Saundersville or George Town or whatever you want to call the place which is, as he puts it in this book about the craft of writing, his “iconic space” – the artistic terrain that is his and his only, and where his singular authorial voice resides.

At Syracuse University, Saunders teaches his students to find their own authorial voice through the prism of the Russian short story, a form which flourished in the 19th century in the hands of literary giants such as Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev. A Swim In A Pond In The Rain, which has the parentheses-flaunting subtitle “(In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us A Masterclass In Writing And Life)”, is an attempt to distil Saunders’s teachings using seven stories by those four dead Russians. Saunders also uses the book to invite his readers to splash around in his own thoughts and feelings about writers and writing.

These are many and are always insightful and incisive, and very often funny. The title, by the way, comes from a scene in a Chekhov story in which a character (wait for it) swims in a pond in the rain (though it could be also be river or a pool, depending on which translation you read. Saunders has his favourites, but he dips into others as he wrestles with the stories’ essential meaning).

So here’s the drill: apart from the first story, which is taken page by page by means of introduction, the reader reads the entire story and then reads Saunders’s dissection of and commentary upon it. These are presented as a series of chatty essays with quirky titles such as The Door To The Truth Might Be Strangeness (this from the chapter on Gogol’s absurdist freak-out The Nose). He’s fond of the odd diagram, such as one showing Freytag’s Triangle (a way to map a story from exposition to resolution via rising action and climax), and occasionally he will break down the action into spreadsheet-style lists. He does this in his discussion of Chekhov’s The Darling to illustrate what he calls “a pattern story”.

In The Darling, a woman called Olenka marries a man called Kukin and takes on many aspects of his personality. When Kukin dies, Olenka marries Vasily and the same thing happens again, and so on and so on, through a variety of mishaps and partners and adopted personalities. The story’s cleverer than that so you would have to read it to feel its true heft. “A pattern is established, and we expect it to recur,” writes Saunders. “When it does recur, slightly altered, we take pleasure in this and infer meaning from the alteration.”

He’s eminently quotable elsewhere too. “A story means, at the highest level, not by what it concludes but by how it proceeds,” he writes in a chapter on Chekhov’s Gooseberries. Discussing Chekhov’s In The Cart, meanwhile, he has this to say: “We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.”

For the student of creative writing or the author of short stories (declaration of interest: I am both) the exercise is both daunting and energising. It’s no chore to read seven short stories by the Russian masters (besides those already mentioned, the other works are Turgenev’s The Singers and the Tolstoy pair Master And Man and Alyosha The Pot) but turning to Saunders’s analysis of them makes me realise how much I’ve missed on the first reading. And I’ll admit that the three short exercises he sticks at the back – in cutting, “escalation” and translation – felt too much like homework for me.

But A Swim In A Pond In The Rain is no niche concern because Saunders’s other aim is to undertake a process of transference. He wants to pass on to us the same love, respect and sense of awe he feels for these stories, old friends he re-visits year after year in class and which never stop giving more, deeper and (occasionally) different meanings.

More than that, he hopes that he has written a book which is as much about reading as it is writing. He makes this point in the introduction and in the conclusion, and he brushes against it in the closing chapter dealing with Tolstoy’s (very short) short story Alyosha The Pot. Reading allows us to connect with an author, “an imaginary Other” as Saunders puts it. The more of these Others we connect with, the more viewpoints we open our eyes to and, conversely, the more we realise that our hopes, fears, concerns or desires (take your pick) are shared by someone else, somewhere else. And maybe some time else too: Saunders finished writing in April 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to bite and sales of Tolstoy’s novels War And Peace and Anna Karenina were soaring as locked down readers turned to the pantheon for solace and answers.

But while those stories do ask the big questions about life, death, joy, war, loneliness etc – “You know,” Saunders writes, “those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions” – the best stories won’t always answer them because the savviest writers know there’s both value and truth in ambiguity. As Saunders says, you just have to “keep wondering”, to which the devoted reader might add: and keep writing.

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