A Swim in a Pond in the Rain — George Saunders

George Saunders has lectured on Russian literature for years. Reading this book is like attending one of his lectures. (I imagine.) The book addresses six stories: each story appears in full, along with extended discussions of its background and meanings. It’s all great stuff, especially if you like the stories to begin with.

The first one is my favourite. He literally goes page by page through Chekov’s In The Cart. It’s a close reading that to my mind goes into just the right amount of detail, and shows how much there can be in an apparently slight story.

Later come my two favourite stories: Turgenyev’s The Singers and Tolstoy’s Master and Man. I find them both evocative and affecting. Saunders’s notes just make them even more so.

I was a bit disappointed in the last couple of sections. Chekov’s Gooseberries is a good story but Saunders sees far too much in it. He will see a suggestion of something in the story, talk about it, then treat it as if it were a fact and then go on to base other interpretations on it. It reminds me of wine tasters who talk about pineapple plantations and hot chocolate and freshly mown lawns when they are really just trying to describe how wine tastes.

The final section, on Tolstoy’s Alyosha the Pot, is similar but even worse, partly because Toolstoy’s story is so spare and understated. Saunders elicits worlds of meaning and motivation from the merest of hints – he speculates wildly and, frankly, makes stuff up. I was rolling my eyes at some of his (over)interpretations, so it’s probably good that I haven’t actually attended one of his lectures.
Excesses aside, I really enjoyed this book. I am a big fan of classic Russian literature and this book helped me get more out of it (maybe too much). And I did enjoy the style too. I will definitely investigate more of Saunders’s writing, maybe even the prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo.

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