A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:
In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
by george saunders
random house, 432 pages, $28
In his new book of essays, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders writes that fiction, far from being simply “a hobby, pastime or indulgence,” reminds us that “everything remains to be seen. It is a sacrament devoted to this end.”
Yet he's wary of treating stories “as a kind of salvation,” as if the world could be put right if only more folks would read the right literature. The seven short stories he discusses in this book—stories penned by Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy—were written during a Russian literary renaissance that lasted seventy years but was “followed by one of the bloodiest, most irrational periods in human history.” The beauty of that “artistic bounty” wasn’t enough to save the world.
In the essays (the book's title is a reference to something that occurs in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”), Saunders examines why these seven short stories work. His readings are attentive to both the ethical-religious elements of the stories and their organizational and practical mechanics. Only a former engineer and cradle Catholic could invent what he calls the “Ruthless Efficiency Principle” and explain it by means of the liturgy. “We might think of a story as a kind of ceremony, like the Catholic Mass,” he writes. Because “we understand the heart of the Mass to be communion,” all “those other parts (the processionals, the songs, the recitations, and so on) will be felt as beautiful and necessary to the extent that they serve the heart of the ceremony.”
Saunders examines some of these stories' seemingly distracting inclusions. A detour can become “part of the plan,” as in Chekhov's “Gooseberries” or Turgenev’s “The Singer”; “what seemed a failure of craft turns out to be integral to the story’s meaning.” We should understand “that apparent excess as a form of virtuosity.” In several cases Saunders suggests alternate actions, directions the Russian stories could have taken, epiphanies we may wrongfully wish had been added; his exercise in contrasting roads not taken clarifies the genius of the originals, shows us why they so move and mystify us.
Take Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” a short tale whose titular character acquiesces to (almost) everything with “cheerful obedience.” After many years of subservience, Alyosha is surprised to find a woman for whom he is “in no real way necessary” but who still, inexplicably, needs him. Soon after his master and his father forbid the marriage, Alyosha falls from a snow-covered roof. He stays silent, though he “looked like he was amazed at something. Then something seemed to startle him and he stretched out his legs and died.”
Why, Saunders wonders, would Tolstoy omit Alyosha's final thoughts, which would have told us exactly how to read the story? Is Alyosha a woefully passive soul, duped by his habitual cheek-turning, or a “saint” who “enacted radical Christian humility”? Sometimes, says Saunders, there is wisdom in omission: “the most artful and truthful thing is sometimes simply that which allows us to avoid being false.” Refusing to raid a character’s thoughts at a crucial moment might for the amateur be a defect, but for the literary master it can be a “virtue,” clouding the reader into a rich unknowing.
Saunders calls language “a meaning approximator that sometimes gets too big for its britches and deceives us.” Stories can call attention to this deception, imparting a teaching analogous to the spiritual counsel of Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence: “there is a time when . . . a soul’s own ideas, intuitions, work, investigations, and inferences become sources of delusion.” When ordinary human speech “realizes all its weaknesses and shortcomings and feels completely baffled,” God disentangles the soul from its troubles “far more easily than novelists, working away in the peace of their rooms, extricate their heroes from all their dangers.” Not being God, the storyteller sometimes does better to make our troubles palpable rather than solve them.
It would be folly, Saunders believes, to relegate art’s effects and its essence to the rational. Art has reasons that reason cannot understand. We “turn to art” precisely because “we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.” Sometimes, though, the book devolves into facile moral maxims that mix self-help and sentimentalism, as when Saunders tells writers to “go forth and do what you please,” adverse advice that seems especially bland when served next to sharpened craft-talk.
But for Saunders, however emotive his morality may be, fiction is fundamentally moral; a badly-made story lacks moral authority and a well-made one can lead us to love better. Saunders is not wrong to trace the pulse of many literary problems to our strivings after moral salvation: Great works contain multitudes. The Russians teach us that lasting literature is not merely “something decorative,” Saunders writes, but “a vital moral-ethical tool.”
Of course, Tolstoy may have modeled compassion in “Master and Man,” yet he often lacked compassion for his own wife, Sonya. As a husband, he failed her miserably. To return to Saunders’s warning at the beginning of this essay: Though literature may have moral lessons for us, it is not our salvation. “We shouldn’t overestimate or unduly glorify what fiction does,” Saunders writes.
Yet we can turn to these greats to recover the “aim of art”—which is to “ask the big questions,” such as “how are we supposed to be living down here?” Although I cannot assent to a number of Saunders’s answers to that question, I am grateful for his reminder of the goal of art. In an era diseased by “facile, shallow, agenda-laced” information (“as you may have noticed,” Saunders says, tongue-in-cheek), A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is especially welcome.
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This Our Exile: Short Stories.
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