Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2021

‘The Singers’ (1852), by Ivan Turgenev, translated by David Magarshack, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021), by George Saunders

Yakov the Turk Is Singing. The illustration for Singers by Boris Kustodiev. 1908 (Wikipedia)

The 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 short stories called A Sportsman’s Sketches also translated as A Sportsman’s NotebookThe Hunting Sketches and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.  According to Wikipedia, this collection was a milestone of Russian realism, and it made Turgenev’s name.

When I read Fathers and Sons, I was very taken by the characterisation of the young idealist Bazarov and in the comments below my review you can see where I admired the way Turgenev uses dialogue to differentiate his characters.  There is not much dialogue, however, in this most engaging short story about a singing competition in a remote rural pub.  Instead, it is Turgenev’s powers of description which impel the reader on.

Plunging into the story reproduced in Saunders’ book without an introduction or any context, it’s not immediately obvious who the unnamed narrator is and why he is roaming about in the vicinity of Kolotovka, a small and cheerless village. But within a couple of pages we have learned that he’s an observant outsider, (which is apparently an element of the Russian realist tradition where the narrator is usually an uncommitted observer of the people he meets.)  However, he passes by regularly enough to be acquainted with some of the drinkers at the Cosy Corner pub, and to make some judgements about them.  He’s a gentleman well-educated enough to have ‘readers’ and even if we didn’t have Wikipedia, we could guess that he’s either a journalist or that he’s writing a newsy letter for educated people at home, who’re going to read it en famille as people did in those days.  He explains his reasons for being in such a dismal place by saying that he’s a sportsman who goes everywhere.  Since he’s pursuing this sport alone out in the middle of nowhere this is enough to identify him as a hunter, (though some of us would dispute that shooting animals is any kind of sport.)

Outside, the narrator witnesses an excited exchange between two patrons of the pub.  Booby exhorts Blinker to hurry up because everyone is waiting: there is Yashka the Turk, the Wild Gentleman, and the contractor from Zhizdra.  (The contractor is not named, not even with an intriguing nickname although Russians are past-masters at giving nicknames.) The excitement is because Yashka and the contractor have made a bet: they’ve wagered a quart of beer to see who wins.

So in this remote rural outpost, with nothing to commend it, an extraordinary cultural moment takes place—a singing competition between the local hero and a challenger from a nearby village.  These two men bring the pub to awed silence as they listen with rapt attention. Though the audience consists only of the chubby publican and his sharp-eyed wife; a mysterious but threadbare Tartar, swarthy with a leaden hue; a dissolute former house-serf with no job and no money but has the knack of sponging on others; an enterprising former serf respected for his cunning; and a ragged peasant—they are expert judges of singing.

[The contractor] evidently felt that he was dealing with experts and that was why he simply put his best leg forward, as the saying goes.  And, indeed, in our part of the country people are good judges of singing, and it is not for nothing that the large village of Sergeyevskoye, on the Oryol Highway, is renowned throughout all Russia for its especially agreeable and harmonious singing.

The contractor sang for a long time without arousing any particular enthusiasm in his hearers; he missed the support of a choir; at last, after one particularly successful transition, which made even the Wild Gentleman smile, Booby could not restrain himself and uttered a cry of delight. (p.75)

The sophistication of their appreciation, however, is quickly undercut by crude exclamations of approval, stamping and dancing about. The narrator is wryly amused:

Encouraged by these signs of general satisfaction, the contractor let himself go in good earnest and went off into such flourishes, such tongue-clickings and drummings, such frantic throat play, that when, at last exhausted, pale, and bathed in hot perspiration, he threw himself back and let out a last dying note, a loud burst of general exclamation was the instantaneous response of his audience. (p. 75)

How does Yashka counter this technical prowess?  With a genuine deep passion, and youthfulness and strength and sweetness, and a sort of charmingly careless, mournful grief.  

A warmhearted, truthful Russian soul rang and breathed in it and fairly clutched you by the heart, clutched straight at your Russian heartstrings.  The song expanded and went flowing on.  Yashka was evidently overcome by ecstasy: he was no longer diffident; he gave himself up entirely to his feeling of happiness; his voice no longer trembled—it quivered, but with the barely perceptible inner quivering of passion which pierces like an arrow into the hearer’s soul… (p.77)

The moment dissipates with the last notes of the song and, not wanting to spoil his favourable impression of the moment, the narrator finds a hayloft to sleep away the heat and fatigue.  He is saddened (but obviously not surprised) to find when he wakes at nightfall that the company is dead drunk.

I was charmed by this story, and found myself wishing—even though I’m not fond of short stories as a form—that I knew of more authors of short stories who could offer similar vignettes of Australian life. The only stories I can think of are in collections I really liked: Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox and Stories from Suburban Road; both by T A G Hungerford; and ‘The Kid’, by Katharine Susannah Prichard from 1907.

But I don’t think they would be published today, they’re not ‘edgy’ enough…

Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

(As with my previous post, I wrote about my response to the story before reading his.)

It’s a disappointing chapter.  We have already learned from the Introduction that only the very best of hundreds of applicants get into this course, so I was astonished to see that they were discombobulated by what they and he refer to as digressions.  Did someone in this exalted company really say ‘It’s so slow.  Does Turgenev really have to tell us everything about everyone? 

I hope not.  I hope this is just Saunders adding local colour to his ramblings.  Because ramble he does, ironically in a chapter which includes this:

…if, later, we see that this was all part of the plan—if what seemed a failure of craft turns out to be integral to the story’s meaning (that is, it seems that ‘he meant to do that’)—then all is forgiven… (p.83)

Saunders gives his students an optional assignment to cut the story by 20% so that it’s more like the modern aesthetic.  (Less Turgenev, more Hemingway?) Well, I suppose he’s not teaching them to be readers of 19th century literature, he’s teaching them to write stuff that will get published, and they will have to learn to edit.  But still, the effect would be like a Readers’ Digest version of Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations.  19th century literature has a beauty all its own, and all it takes is a bit of effort to appreciate it.

To be fair, Saunders does acknowledge that the story is about the power of art to move an audience, and that technique isn’t everything.  But really, for him to patronise Turgenev with his ‘forgive the story and all its faults’ while claiming to fall in love with it, just made me cross. That’s a chasm of arrogance as wide as the ravine which centres the story, a story which yawns like a chasm between the wealthy educated people who were reading it, and the simple folk who populate its pages.

Author: Ivan Turgenev
Title: ‘The Singers’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack for First Love and Other Tales, Norton, 1968
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in A Sportsman’s Sketches a.k.a. A Sportsman’s NotebookThe Hunting Sketches and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, 1852
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Image credits: Yakov the Turk Is Singing. The illustration for Singers by Boris Kustodiev. 1908, by Boris Kustodiev – Scanned from: Пищулин Ю.П. (1988) Иван Сергеевич Тургенев. Жизнь. Искусство. Время, Moscow: Советская Россия, p. 155, Public Domain,


  1. Maybe I am arrogant but listening to G.Saunders on radio recently (a few minutes) I turned it off. Of course I am prejudiced when it comes to Russian literature.My first being Dostoevsky and it was life changing. If only more folk would attempt for they don’t know what they’re missing.Thanks for your review as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find his style irritating…he uses a lot of pages to make quite simple points.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I dread to think what he’d recommend his students do to improve Henry James’s style…


  3. Well, frankly, spot on. I’m not always a fan of Turgenev but I thought this was an excellent story and I loved it. So Saunders’ response to it really annoyed me. And why *should* it need to be edited? Just read what the author wanted to say to you – if you love it, fine, but if not move on. I can recall my irritation with Saunders again, and I had tried to put the reading of his opinions behind me…

    Liked by 1 person

    • *chuckle* I’m loving reading the stories he’s chosen, but I’m getting less patient with him!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m saving these posts for when I get the chance to read each story too. I’m hoping to do a few of them over winter…


  5. I haven’t read A Swim in the Pond yet, but I do have a copy. Well, now I know that it’s probably not all that. I do love Turgenev’s slow pace and particularly A Sportsman’s Sketches!


    • Hi Elisabeth, If you love Turgenev than I feel confident that even if you skip the ‘writing lessons’ parts, you’ll love the stories he uses.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the advice, Lisa! I might just skimm through a bit, just to see;-) But after reading your and Kaggsy’s thoughts, I know I will probably not love his views very much 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Quote from the source: … […]


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