Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

Although this book is marketed as a ‘literary masterclass’ derived from George Saunders years of teaching the Russian short story in a creative writing program, I’ve put it into my ‘literary criticism’ category, because that’s how this book is useful to me as a reader.  As the blurb says:

Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

Everyone’s a book critic these days, but as I discovered early on in my reading life, the more interesting books sometimes use narrative in unfamiliar ways, and the peril lies in making judgements about a book without understanding the writer’s purpose or even recognising the craft.  Saunders’ analysis of the techniques these Russian writers use is particularly useful when it comes to making sense of a work like Gogol’s The Nose.

As you can see from what purports to be my review, I had only a vague idea of what Gogol was on about in his strange tale about Major Kovaliov waking up one morning to find that his nose is missing.  But in the chapter ‘The Door to the Truth Might Be Strangeness, Thoughts on The Nose‘, Saunders begins by interrogating how stories can be true.  A story can seem true because it depicts a world that seems true, with details of weather and wind or aspects of setting.  Or it might be that the sequence of events seems true because characters behave as one might expect them to after certain events take place, such as blaming someone else for getting lost.  But, he reminds us, realism isn’t really real: stories are compressed and exaggerated, with crazy levels of selection and omission and shaping going on.  Nevertheless many writers use what is called ‘consensus reality’, to write stories where things happen roughly as they do in the real world; the mode limits itself to what usually happens, to what’s physically possible.

But a story can also be truthful if it declines consensus reality—if things happen in it that don’t and could never happen in the real world. (p.275)

Even the most bizarre of stories can be truthful if…

…it is truthful in the way that it reacts to itself, in the way it responds to its premise, in the way it proceeds—by how things change within it, the contours of its internal logic, the relationships between its elements. (p.275)

In the case of Gogol’s The Nose, Saunders says, the story feels truthful because the psychological physics of the fictive world are felt to be similar to the psychological physics of our own.  By which he means that it feels psychologically ‘right’.

While I am not likely to use the expression psychological physics of the fictive world in future reviews, I can see exactly what he means in his highly amusing analysis of Gogol’s story.  He notes that the barber Ivan Yakovlevich is dumbfounded when he finds a nose in his breakfast bread, as we would be.  His wife, Praskovya Osipovna, however, is quick to accuse him of cutting it off a client’s face, and yes, we are quick to find someone to blame, aren’t we?  In the real world, Ivan would react by demanding to know why she thinks he would do such a thing, and why would he put it in the dough, and why she didn’t notice it.  But he doesn’t do this in Gogol’s world because he accepts her logic.  If something disastrous has happened, he must be the one who did it. 

Saunders goes on to describe the ensuing sequence of events as Multiple Superimposed Weirdness Syndrome.

Initial weirdness: a nose appears in a loaf of bread. Second-level weirdness: the couple reacts irrationally to the nose’s presence in the bread. Third-level weirdness: because they’ve reacted irrationally, they make an odd plan in response (ditch the nose),  Fourth-level weirdness: Ivan executes the plan badly; he can’t get the job done because he approaches it with too much apprehension and because the world he finds out there is inflected with a slight, ornery hostility toward him: a constant flow of acquaintances and a street thick with policemen, or at least two of them in as many pages.  (p.278)

And…

One more level of weirdness crops up when the narrator tells us that Ivan is a respectable man and then goes on to undercut his own statement.  In other words, The Nose has an unreliable narrator.  And what I would love to have known when I read The Nose for the first time was that it features a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz. The skaz narrator is uneducated, graceless, and has no idea how to develop an argument.  He rambles and digresses and gives equal weight to the trivial and the important.  So when in my review I wrote that I’d thought I had been reading a draft or a posthumous unfinished story and (as I’m sure you can tell) I was not entirely convinced that Gogol knew what he was doing when he revised his story, I was wrong.  The Nose isn’t vulgar, as those who initially rejected the story thought.  It’s a great writer writing a graceless narrator, who is too convinced of his own smartness to notice the strangeness of the story he’s telling.

(BTW, if by now you have realised that you just have to have read the story, all the stories Saunders dissects are included in translation in the book. The other stories are ‘In the Cart’; ‘Gooseberries’ and ‘The Darling’ by Anton Chekhov; ‘The Singers’ by Ivan Turgenev; ‘Master and Man’ and ‘Aloysha the Pot’ by Leo Tolstoy.)

This skaz tradition challenges the idea that narrators are what we tend to think they are: the disinterested, objective, third-person-omniscient narrator does not exist.

Since all narration is misnarration, Gogol says, let us misnarrate joyfully. (p.280)

Gogol is often described as an absurdist, and so he is, but he’s also a realist in the way that he depicts people not noticing when things are absurd.  Richard Flanagan does the exact same thing in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. His character keeps losing body parts, and nobody notices.  In exactly the same way that we don’t notice the species becoming extinct on our watch and the advent of catastrophic climate change.

There is much more to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain than this.  If you are serious about being a writer, it’s a useful addition to your professional library.  If you’re just a reader like me, I think you’ll love it too.

(The interesting thing for me is that I couldn’t abide George Saunder’s Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo and abandoned it at 50 pages!)

Author: George Saunders
Title: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
Publisher:  Bloomsbury, 2021
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

 


Responses

  1. This one is for me. Am a Russian tragic since way back. Gogol is amazing. I too was not taken by George Saunder’s “Lincoln in the Bardo”. But this should be very different.

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    • LOL I’m a Russian tragic too. I loved my literary pilgrimage to Tolstoy and Chekhov’s estates, and Dostoyevsky’s house, and I even ate in a restaurant called Gogol’s in St Petersburg. (Could you imagine a restaurant in Australia that was named after a writer? Sadly, I can’t.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • PS. I’m writing up the other stories too, but it’s going to take a while.

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      • I’m suitably impressed!

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  2. I was going to ask, whether this was THE George Saunders. I have the book, but I haven’t read it. However, this does sound really interesting. As you probably know, I love discussions about truth/truths and reality/realism.

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    • Yes, it’s him.
      I wouldn’t say that the focus of the book is truth &c. The first story, for example, which I’ve written up and scheduled for tomorrow is more about structuring a story though of course there is a fundamental truth to it

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read other glowing reviews of this book; I need to reread the stories before engaging with this analysis of them. It would be interesting to explore the differences/similarities between aburdist and surreal stories and writers…

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    • Reading (or re-reading) is what’s intended; the stories are embedded in the book so that you don’t have to go and find them. But (and this is a big ‘but’) the first one, ‘In the Cart’ by Chekhov, is reproduced page by page because that’s how Saunders wants his students to read it. As you will see in my review (scheduled for tomorrow) that is *not* what I wanted to do!

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  4. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t like this at all, which is strange as it should have been perfect for me. But if I’m truly honest I ended up hating it so much I didn’t even review it…. :(

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    • Oh. Was it his style of writing you didn’t like?

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      • Yes, and his attitude somehow really rubbed me up the wrong way. There was a fair amount of Twitter discussion around which kind of felt the same way. It was not for me…

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        • I don’t know much about him… but if this chatty trying-to-amuse style of writing is his style of teaching too, it would have driven me away from his classes.
          I noticed from certain activities that The Spouse undertook when he was doing his Arts degree, that there’s a conscious effort on the part of the university to ‘get students to engage’. They had to dress up as Ancient Romans at one stage which I thought was a bizarre thing for adult learners to have to do, and more importantly contributed nothing whatsoever to anybody’s learning. But now that students rate their teachers, as if making things ‘fun’ is a valid criterion on which to judge academic teaching, lecturers that pander to this attitude probably score well.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I certainly couldn’t have studied under him, and I felt an arrogance which made me uncomfortable. I’m a bit uncomfortable, if I’m honest, about the whole teaching writing concept, and I found the contrast between the brilliance of the Russian stories and his writing about them very stark. I know many have loved it, but I’m afraid it was definitely not one for me…

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            • I am ambivalent about teaching writing courses. There’s a great deal of brilliant writing that was done by authors who’d never even been to university. I can’t offhand think of anything *brilliant* that derives from a writing course.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. […] as ‘In the Cart’ is the first of the stories referenced by author George Saunders in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  Since I prefer novels, I had never read the Chekhov story but I arced up immediately when I saw […]

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  6. Great review, thank you! I’ve heard so many good things about this book that I’m very keen to read it (and I loved Lincoln in the Bardo) but yours is the first review I’ve read that actually gave me an example of what to expect. Also, can’t believe you label yourself as “just” a reader — where would any writer be without readers? Especially thoughtful, prolific, generous readers like you.

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    • LOL Michelle that’s a lovely thing to say but reading is such an ordinary thing to do, compared with actually writing a book!

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  7. […] second story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (see my review) is ‘The Singers’ by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1893).  It comes from an 1852 collection of […]

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  8. Currently I have Mel (at The Reading Life) recommending this one highly in the back of my mind and Karen (see above *waves*) who did not volunteer her disappointment but I passed Mel’s rec to her, so she responded. I had the same question for her that you asked – about tone/style – because although I do admire his fiction I’m not always enticed by his delivery in interviews – but for now I’m still wondering where I’ll fall on the spectrum (not for long…my copy is now available for pick-up)! I’m curious whether, should you ever return to Bardo, if you’d have a different response to some of the craft elements in that book (but, nevermind, there are plenty of others to read, and it’s not the kind of story that suits everyone–too many ghosts, for one).

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    • Well, the good thing is that even if you can’t abide the commentary, the stories are wonderful:)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] poet, translator and novelist.  I discovered A Double Life (1848) because I was peeved that George Saunders in his book derived from a short story course that he teaches, features Russian short stories as exemplars but does not include even one story written by a […]

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