The only time the book perhaps falters is in its analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose”, whose irreducible strangeness sees Saunders taking refuge in uncharacteristically windy generalisations (one of which even includes the phrase “what Gogol is all about”). Otherwise, he’s unfailingly, often thrillingly illuminating not only about the individual stories, but short stories in general: how every element must earn its keep; how our expectations must be simultaneously respected and confounded; and, especially, how the best ones force/enable their readers to realise there are many different ways of looking at the same events and characters – which is where all that ambivalence comes in.
I doubt A Swim in a Pond in the Rain will lead to a great swell of writers suddenly turning their lectures into books. And judging from what I’ve heard from writer friends who’ve experienced great authors giving these lectures, few would be able to fill 400 pages quite so easily as Saunders). But when you judge it for exactly what it is – a master of the short story taking you through his process, using the great Russians as sandboxes – then A Swim in a Pond is truly worth its weight in gold.
The book ticks a pleasingly ridiculous number of boxes. It’s a guide to craft that is every bit as stunning as Stephen King’s On Writing; it’s an insight into the mind of a great writer (Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize); and it’s an extraordinary meditation on our lives as readers. It’s also a passionate argument for the enduring power of the classic Russian short story. At a time when many well-intentioned readers have been in lockdown for months and still haven’t quite got round to, er, finishing War and Peace, Saunders whispers reassuringly over our shoulder: ‘Here’s an immaculate Chekhov story in 11 pages. Surely you’ve got time for that.’
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.