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

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

by George Saunders


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Saunders is the master class instructor of our dreams. He is witty, charming and informative, willing to pepper in just the right amount of personal asides to make us feel like we are in direct conversation with him. He walks us through Russian short stories to help us, ultimately, become better readers and writers. There are only seven stories in this collection and, with Saunders as our faithful guide, we suspect we will all be reading even more. This will inspire the writer within all of us.

From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today.

“One of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of a writer that I’ve ever read.”—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Parul Sehgal

If there are few more treacherous places to turn up than as a character in a George Saunders story…there might be no cushier place than to be a student in his classroom…Saunders lives in the synapses—he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I've ever read—that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions. The book might provoke comparisons to Nabokov's classic lectures on Russian literature, first delivered at Cornell. But where Nabokov is all high-plumed prose and remove, presiding at his lectern, Saunders is at your elbow, ladling praise…

From the Publisher

Praise for George Saunders 

“Nothing has been read its last rites more frequently than the American short story. George Saunders proves, yet again, to be the form’s one-man defibrillator.”—Harper’s Magazine 

“No one writes more powerfully than George Saunders about the lost, the unlucky, the disenfranchised.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times 

“Saunders makes you feel as though you are reading fiction for the first time.”—Khaled Hosseini 

“One of the most gifted, wickedly entertaining story writers around.”—The New York Times Book Review 

“Subversive, hilarious, and emotionally piercing . . . Few writers can encompass that range of adjectives, but Saunders is a true original—restlessly inventive, yet deeply humane.”—Jennifer Egan 

“The best short-story writer in English—not ‘one of,’ not ‘arguably,’ but the Best.”—Mary Karr, Time 

Praise for Lincoln in the Bardo 

“It’s not like anything anyone has written before. The author may have set out to write his first novel, but the work he completed is a genre unto itself.”—The Atlantic 

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review 

“Depicts a ferocious, keenly felt, and sometimes comic struggle. . . . Lincoln in the Bardo has great matters on its mind: freedom and slavery, the spirit and the body.”—Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker 

“A strikingly original production . . . that confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Fans of Saunders’s stories—some of the most original work in American history—have craved this book for a long time, and he has not disappointed. Saunders has disassembled the novel as a form and put it back together in a fascinating shape.”—John Freeman, The Boston Globe 

Library Journal


Here, the New York Times best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo discusses seven classic Russian short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol that's he's been teaching for two decades at the Syracuse University graduate MFA creative writing program. The stories (included here) are used to offer a broader understanding of how writing fiction works and what it means to us today.

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2020-12-17
The renowned author delivers a master class on the Russian short story and on the timeless value of fiction.

Though Saunders is known mainly as an inventive, award-winning writer—of novels, short stories, cultural criticism—he has also taught creative writing at Syracuse since 1997. “Some of the best moments of my life…have been spent teaching that Russian class,” he writes. This is the book version of that class, illuminating seven stories by the masters: three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Turgenev and Gogol. All stories are included in full, and readers need not be familiar with Russian literature to find this plan richly rewarding. Opening with Chekhov’s “The Cart,” Saunders shows just how closely we’ll be reading—a page or two of the original text at a time followed by multiple pages of commentary. The author seeks to answer “the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?” As he shows throughout this thrilling literary lesson, the answer has little to do with conventional notions of theme and plot; it’s more about energy, efficiency, intentionality, and other “details of internal dynamics.” Saunders explains how what might seem like flaws often work in the story’s favor and how we love some stories even more because of—rather than in spite of—those flaws. Saunders is always careful not to confuse the internal workings of a story with authorial intent. Once we become accustomed to reading like he reads, we proceed through the stories with great joy, anticipating even further delights with his explications to follow. “The resistance in the stories,” he writes, “is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.”

A master of contemporary fiction joyously assesses some of the best of the 19th century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984856029
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/12/2021
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 225
Product dimensions: 9.50(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Page at a Time

Thoughts on “In the Cart”

Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring a series of painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing for a compliment: “But what do you like about the story?” I whined. There was a long pause at the other end. And Bill said this: “Well, I read a line. And I like it . . . enough to read the next.”

And that was it: his entire short story aesthetic and presumably that of the magazine. And it’s perfect. A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time. We have to keep being pulled into a story in order for it to do anything to us.

I’ve taken a lot of comfort in this idea over the years. I don’t need a big theory about fiction to write it. I don’t have to worry about anything but: Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five?

Why do we keep reading a story?

Because we want to.

Why do we want to?

That’s the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?

Are there laws of fiction, as there are laws of physics? Do some things just work better than others? What forges the bond between reader and writer and what breaks it?

Well, how would we know?

One way would be to track our mind as it moves from line to line.

A story (any story, every story) makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises.

“A man stood on the roof of a seventy-story building.”

Aren’t you already kind of expecting him to jump, fall, or be pushed off?

You’ll be pleased if the story takes that expectation into account, but not pleased if it addresses it too neatly.

We could understand a story as simply a series of such expectation/resolution moments.

For our first story, “In the Cart,” by Anton Chekhov, I’m going to propose a one-time exception to the “basic drill” I just laid out in the introduction and suggest that we approach the story by way of an exercise I use at Syracuse.

Here’s how it works.

I’ll give you the story a page at a time. You read that page. Afterward, we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?

Before we start, let’s note, rather obviously, that, at this moment, as regards “In the Cart,” your mind is a perfect blank.

In the Cart

They drove out of the town at half past eight in the morning.

The paved road was dry, a splendid April sun was shedding warmth, but there was still snow in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with such joy, offered anything new and interesting to Marya Vasilyevna, who was sitting in the cart. She had been teaching school for thirteen years, and in the course of all those years she had gone to the town for her salary countless times; and whether it was spring, as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the same to her, and what she always, invariably, longed for was to reach her destination as soon as possible.

She felt as though she had been living in these parts for a long, long time, for a hundred years, and it seemed to her that she knew every stone, every tree on the road from the town to her school. Here was her past and her present, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back, and again the school and again the road.

• • •

Now your mind is not so blank.

How has the state of your mind changed?

If we were sitting together in a classroom, which I wish we were, you could tell me. Instead, I’ll ask you to sit quietly a bit and compare those two states of mind: the blank, receptive state your mind was in before you started to read and the one it’s in now.

Taking your time, answer these questions:

1. Look away from the page and summarize for me what you know so far. Try to do it in one or two sentences.

2. What are you curious about?

3. Where do you think the story is headed?

Whatever you answered, that’s what Chekhov now has to work with. He has, already, with this first page, caused certain expectations and questions to arise. You’ll feel the rest of the story to be meaningful and coherent to the extent that it responds to these (or “takes them into account” or “exploits them”).

In the first pulse of a story, the writer is like a juggler, throwing bowling pins into the air. The rest of the story is the catching of those pins. At any point in the story, certain pins are up there and we can feel them. We’d better feel them. If not, the story has nothing out of which to make its meaning.

We might say that what’s happened over the course of this page is that the path the story is on has narrowed. The possibilities were infinite before you read it (it could have been about anything) but now it has become, slightly, “about” something.

What is it about, for you, so far?

What a story is “about” is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.

So: What do you care about in this story, so far?

It’s Marya.

Now: What is the flavor of that caring? How, and where, were you made to care about her?

In the first line, we learn that some unidentified “they” are driving out of some town, early in the morning.

“The paved road was dry, a splendid April sun was shedding warmth, but there was still snow in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks flying in the fields . . .”

I’ve bolded the two appearances of the word “but” above (and yes, I phrase it that way to avoid saying, “I bolded the two buts above”) to underscore that we’re looking at two iterations of the same pattern: “The conditions of happiness are present, but happiness is not.” It’s sunny, but there’s still snow on the ground. Winter has ended, but this offers nothing new or interesting to . . . and we wait to hear who it is, taking no solace in the end of this long Russian winter.

Even before there’s a person in the story, there’s an implied tension between two elements of the narrative voice, one telling us that things are lovely (the sky is “marvelous” and “immeasurably deep”) and another resisting the general loveliness. (It would be, already, a different-feeling story, had it started: “The paved road was dry, a splendid April sun was shedding warmth, and although there was still snow in the ditches and the woods, it just didn’t matter: winter, evil, dark, long, had, at long last, ended.”)

Halfway through the second paragraph, we find that the resisting element within the narrative voice belongs to one Marya Vasilyevna, who, failing to be moved by springtime, appears in the cart at the sound of her name.

Of all of the people in the world he might have put in this cart, Chekhov has chosen an unhappy woman resisting the charms of springtime. This could have been a story about a happy woman (newly engaged, say, or just given a clean bill of health, or a woman just naturally happy), but Chekhov elected to make Marya unhappy.

Then he made her unhappy in a particular flavor, for particular reasons: she’s been teaching school for thirteen years; has done this trip to town “countless times” and is sick of it; feels she’s been living in “these parts” for a hundred years; knows every stone and tree on the way. Worst of all, she can imagine no other future for herself.

This could have been a story about a person unhappy because she’s been scorned in love, or because she’s just received a fatal diagnosis, or because she’s been unhappy since the moment she was born. But Chekhov chose to make Marya a person unhappy because of the monotony of her life.

Out of the mist of every-story-that-could-possibly-be, a particular woman has started to emerge.

We might say that the three paragraphs we’ve just read were in service of increased specification.

Characterization, so called, results from just such increasing specification. The writer asks, “Which particular person is this, anyway?” and answers with a series of facts that have the effect of creating a narrowing path: ruling out certain possibilities, urging others forward.

As a particular person gets made, the potential for what we call “plot” increases. (Although that’s a word I don’t like much—let’s replace it with “meaningful action.”)

As a particular person gets made, the potential for meaningful action increases.

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