This week sees a first from Chudleigh Writers’ Circle: we’re bringing you a book review. It’s obviously when you think about it. We’re writers, and most writers are avid readers. So why haven’t we done this before? No idea, frankly. But I suspect this won’t be the last one. To get the ball rolling, CWC member Lynne Lawrie tells us about an fascinating book with an intriguing title.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class On Writing, Reading, And Life. George Saunders. Bloomsbury (2021)
“I read this after a reading a review in The Times. Richard Godwin said that this book would change your life. Bold words.
This book is written by George Sanders, who teaches a course for writers at Syracuse University, on the Russian short story. The seven stories are written by four authors: Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. Each is followed by what is essentially an essay, from Saunders’ lectures. It is not a, ‘how to write,’ book, but he uses each of the seven short stories to analyse and suggest what the authors were attempting to achieve, and the techniques they used to do so. And a good deal on human nature thrown in too. After all, isn’t that what writers are supposed to be interested in? It is certainly not akin to the guides I’m sure we all read when studying Shakespeare at school.
I was struck immediately, first by a quote from Isaac Babel; ‘no iron spike can pierce the human heart as icily as a period in the right place.’ Obviously, Saunders is a true lover of literature, but as you can tell, Babel is American. Quickly following on, Saunders writes, ‘I sometimes joke (and yet not) that we are reading to see what we can steal.’ I warmed to his style.
It was a joy to read the short stories. I read a couple of slim Russian novels as a teenager, so these were new to me. The succeeding essay of each story is lengthy, and the first story is commented on, page by page. Don’t let that put you off. Although I admit I sometimes wondered when I would get to the end of the chapter, all of it is high quality and worth reading. In addition, Saunders adds his thoughts on writing (be specific), how people behave in life and his emotional reactions to the stories, making a very rounded reading experience. There is a final section with exercises on topics such as editing.
The short story I found hardest going was The Nose. It is an unusual story by Gogol, about a man who wakes up to find his nose is missing; it turns up in a loaf of bread, and he later sees it swanning around town in a coach, only for it to later turn up back on his face, and so, normality is resumed. Due to the confusing nature of this story, Saunders focusses first on Gogol, who apparently was viewed as odd (my word) by his contemporaries. Saunders then takes us on a journey through how humans adjust to the abnormal, citing references from commentators on the holocaust. For example, how normal people carried out Nazi instructions, not really wanting to, but did. This is relevant to the owner’s reaction in the story, when his nose is finally returned to his face. Saunders finally asks the question, ‘what does the story mean?’ twenty-five pages into his commentary. He suggests that extraordinary things happen, but we so seek to return to our ordinary life, that we almost overlook them. As you can tell, much more than the story has been addressed here, as in the rest of the book.
The final story is Alyosha The Pot by Tolstoy. Although Saunders views this as an outstanding story, he cannot quite decide why Tolstoy ended it the way he did. He works his way through many alternate theories of what the ending means, not really being totally convinced of any. It is not a book of certainties and explanations, but of consideration and discussion. I found this very uplifting.
It is a jewel of a book, and one I am sure I will be returning to. I have learnt much about writing, in what was an extremely stimulating journey. Did it change my life? Well, it has certainly made me think differently. Maybe that is the same thing.
Ps. The title refers to the Chekhov story Gooseberries. In case you were wondering.”