The highlight of the book is Saunders talking about the reality of editing. This is wise counsel, dealing with the huge number of tiny corrections that add up to replacing almost everything. (Though the way we choose to change is still something a bit spectral, and beyond us, and the story talking to us). But I did wonder: how did he edit his seminar notes? Perhaps it could have been a fourth writing exercise at the end of the book. If you are planning finally to write your novel over lockdown, this isn’t a bad place to start. At least you’ll read seven works of genius.
Saunders can neither speak nor read Russian, yet he has studied his adored Russian writers in the faithful, if now slightly fusty, Constance Garnett translations of the 1920s, which remain good enough. His book is what every lover of pre-Revolution Russian literature needs close by: not an academic interpretation, but a reader’s companion. I was pleasurably absorbed from start to finish.
I love the warmth with which he writes about this teaching, and agree wholeheartedly that there’s not much on earth as good, if you’re that way inclined, as an afternoon spent discussing sublime fiction with a class of eagerly intelligent apprentice writers, saturated in the story and greedy for insight and understanding (everyone saturated and greedy, the teacher along with the rest). He’s right, too – as well as appealingly modest – in thinking that the best teaching is “of value” straightforwardly, as writing itself somehow can’t be. You don’t get up from your writing table believing you’ve done something “of value to the world”... One of the pleasures of this book is feeling his own thinking move backwards and forwards, between the writer dissecting practice and the reader entering in through the spell of the words, to dwell inside the story.