A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders

December 23, 2021 at 4:16 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia, Uncategorized)

  So, this book was a real challenge. But I felt that it was time to give the “leetle gray cells” a tune-up. So I signed on…

The four Russian writers cited in the book’s subtitle  are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Tolstoy contributed two of the six tales included in this volume; Chekhov, three.

Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883. (I know from reading The Europeans by Orlando Figes that Turgenev did not actually spend much of his creative life in Russia.)

Anton Chekhov 1860-1904

Niklolai Gogol 1809-1852

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy 1828-1910

Chekhov and Tolstoy

The stories are:

“In the Cart,” “The Darling,” and “Gooseberries” by Chekhov
“The Singers” by Turgenev
“Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy
“The Nose” by Gogol

Saunders presents the first story, “In the Cart,” in discreet sections, with comments on each portion of the tale. The other stories are presented in their entirety, with no interruptions and commentary following.

The commentary on the stories is enlightening, although at times I became impatient with it. ( I remember this happening to me frequently in college, where I majored in English literature.) Saunders’ observations are beautifully expressed aand insightful, almost in a way that is startling.

On Marya Vasilyevna, the chief protagonist of “In the Cart:”

She’s been rejuvenated, remade into that carefree, happy, hopeful young girl she used to be. She’s like a superhero whose powers have suddenly returned.

And this, in a story with almost no action, no plot. But as soon  as I read the  above assertion, I recognized its rightness.
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“The Singers” is about a singing competition that takes place in a tavern in a small town. Here’s how Turgenev describes the vocalizing of one contestant, known as Yashka the Turk:

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, and it grew continually in strength, firmness, and breadth.

The listeners are deeply moved, in some cases, to tears. It’s a quintessentially Russian scene, but Saunders teases out of the story a universal truism about art:

We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs–or doesn’t– in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.
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“The Darling” is a story I’d read before and was happy to encounter again. In his commentary, Saunders makes this intriguing assertion:

What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.

This made me think of countless times I’ve been pinioned by someone telling a story that seemed to have no arc, no buildup, no climax, and no satisfactory conclusion. It never fails to amaze me that such people have no idea that there’s a reason the listener’s eyes have glazed over! (Do they even notice that it’s happening?)
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Concerning “The Nose,” Saunders informs us that this particular tale is “a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz. It’s mainly a satire that tells its most outrageous elements with a straight face. I have to say right off the bat that this was my least favorite story in the book. I had to force myself to get through it.

However, Dmitri Shostakovich was sufficiently inspired by it to write an opera. Click here for a summary of the action in this work. And below is a rather amusing dance sequence that appeared in a production staged by the Royal Opera:

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It’s been a while since I read this book. As with “The Nose,” “Gooseberries” did not really stick with me, but unlike the Gogol story, I liked “Gooseberries” very much. In my experience, Chekhov never disappoints!

A man makes known his desire to forsake the rat race in the city and move to a small allotment he possesses in the country, in order to farm it. His brother disapproves. First, he states the wry truism that a man only needs six feet of earth. But he has more to say on the subject:

To retire from the city, from struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm–that’s not life, it’s selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

You don’t know necessarily have to agree with the sentiment expressed here, but it’s expressed  beautifully, and it’s thought-provoking.
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I’ve deliberately saved the Tolstoy stories until the end. “Alyosha the Pot” is the tale of a simple young man who, in many ways, seems too good for this world. He’s like  the Holy Fool one encounters, from time to time, in the literature of Russia, and of other countries as well, an individual of intense religious faith coupled with a resigned feeling about the course his life will take. This story has the feeling of times long past. Yet Tolstoy wrote it in 1905, five years before his death at the  age of 82.

Alyosha enters a period of servitude, in which he is frequently taken advantage of. Such is the fate of people like him. He has a brief chance to find happiness, but it is snatched from him almost at once. He does not protest, but simply accepts his fate.

Saunders poses a profound, and likely unanswerable, question about this tale:

So, is it possible that Tolstoy intended us to read the story as a simple praise of Alyosha, who,…over the course of his whole life, enacted radical Christian humility– a sad story, on the human level, but ultimately a story of the triumph of simplicity and faith?

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Finally, there is “Master and Man.”

I thought that I would have a great deal to say about this story, but I find I’m having trouble finding the words.

“Master and Man” is the story of Vasili Andreevich, a wealthy young landowner, and his manservant (or man) Nikita. Vasili Andreevich is eager to inspect a property that he might be  able to acquire, if he does not delay. He selects Nikita to accompany  him, chiefly because he is the only one of his workers who, on that particular day, is not inebriated. (Really, reading Russian fiction of this period is enough to convince you that the vast majority of the country’s people are drunk most of the time!)

And so they set off. But they are taking a terrible chance. The notorious Russian winter is closing in on them. A ferocious blizzard is approaching. The warning signs are plainly visible. But Vasili Andreevich insists on going, despite ominous conditions. This is the story of what happens to  them on this fateful journey.

I will say no more about the plot. But I have to say this: In the course of their travels, something happens to Vasili Andreevich that is so profound, so unexpected, that it took my breath away. It is something that happens mainly within the man, to his mind and to his heart. It causes him to undertake an action…Well, I’ll stop here. When I finished “Master and Man,” I closed this book and sat still for a certain period of time. There were tears in my eyes. I felt as though I had just had a glimpse – not quite hidden behind a wall of snow – of God, working His inexorable will upon one human being.

George Saunders quotes Vladimir Nabokov:

“Most Russian writers have been tremendously interested in Truth’s exact whereabouts and essential properties…Tolstoy marched straight at it, head bent and fists clenched.”

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I’m deeply grateful to have been led back to the Russian masters. I thank George Saunders wholeheartedly for this opportunity. I studied Russian language and literature in college, but I’ve had scant occasion to revisit this treasure trove of beauty and meaning and depth. It has  recently come to my attention that there is a new book out about Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s called The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece; the author is Kevin Birmingham. I’d like to read it, but I never actually got through Crime and Punishment, and what portion of it I did read is part of my remote past.

So yes, Dear Reader, I’m taking another crack at it. I’ve selected the Constance Garnett translation, but I may switch to another, more recent one in due time. Nonetheless, I am finding the novel deeply absorbing.

The title of this famous work is one that I’ve known in Russian ever since my undergraduate encounter with this strange and enchanting language. Here it is:

преступление и наказание

It is pronounced ‘prestupleniye i nakazaniye.’

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