Which forces are at work in the innermost parts of literature is of interest to writers. But the deeper you look into yourself, the more dizzy you can get. The detour via the works of third parties is recommended because good writing almost always comes from careful reading. What it means to learn from the greats has spawned a whole genre of books examining how the mechanical of language and the organic of motif and perspective intertwine.
By E.M. From Forster’s Views of the Novel, which dates back to Trinity College lectures in 1927, to James Wood’s superb The Art of Storytelling (How Fiction Works, 2008), it has produced classics. They are now joined by another unique book: George Saunders ‘ “Swimming in a pond in the rain – Learning to read, write and live from the Russian masters”.
On a narrow basis, namely exactly seven stories by four authors, among whom Anton Chekhov is represented three times, it nevertheless targets the trade secrets of all modern storytelling – and looks for resonances in one’s own writing and life. Saunders, born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1958 and a professor at Syracuse University in upstate New York since 1997, examines every sentence by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol in terms of its information, mood and structural economy.
Because the texts examined are fully documented, it is easy to follow. The best example of what can be learned from this is Saunders, who also studied under other great Russians such as Isaac Babel, who has only been mentioned here ‘ is in a class of its own within American literature.
The analytical precision of the observations on the techniques and achievements of storytelling, acquired over the years in writing courses with his students, does not prevent Saunders from an almost colloquial tone. Addressing the reader directly, his readings, which repeatedly digress into personal anecdotes, are understood as a “joint walk” whose relaxed nature may hide the myriad decisions that have to be made when writing.
If they couldn’t also meet experienced authors intuitively, they would have to lose their minds. The American subtitle openly states that this is a “master class”, a master class that ideally reveals how simple tricks can be used to make the leap from the manual to the artistic.
In the end, Saunders admits that writing the book was a chance for him to ask himself if he still wanted to devote his life to literature. “And the answer is; I will. That’s right.” This commitment is contagious.