George Saunders’ book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, and Life, contains seven short stories with Saunders’ commentary on each. Out of the seven stories, three are by Anton Chekov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and the others are by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. The book is based on a university course on nineteenth-century Russian short stories that Saunders has been teaching for twenty years.
Comparing the number of stories included in the book to the thirty he usually assigns to his students, Saunders draws our attention — at the very outset — to the importance and necessity of decisions, anticipating a central theme in the commentaries: decisions and taking responsibility. Joining Saunders, we begin to notice how the four masters made decisions, and we begin to think about the stories and their significance in terms of those decisions.
A writer’s decisions aren’t always transparent, which is why commentaries can be helpful for understanding them. The process of understanding is not finished when we reach the final words of a story. Commentary and criticism responds to the urge to continue thinking about a work of art. After we read a story, parts of it might stay with us, presenting puzzles or problems. One such puzzle shows up in Story 2, The Singers (Turgenev), where a big part of the text is devoted to a description of the village, in which the story takes place. The description has no apparent connection with the narrative itself. The apparent lack of reason creates a tension that motivates analysis. Saunders writes:
A story with a problem is like a person with a problem: interesting. As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging along a cart labeled “Things I couldn’t Help Noticing”. As we read, we’re noticing — surface-level, plot-type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet), but quieter things too: aspects of the language, say […], structural features […], patterns of color, flashbacks or flash-forwards, changes in point of view. I’m not saying that we are consciously noticing. Often, we’re not. We’re “noticing” with our bodies and our quality of attention and may overtly “notice” only afterward, as we analyze the story.
This passage shows Saunders’ sympathy with relatively inexperienced readers. He is discussing the four Russian masters, but he does not include himself as a fifth master. The masters might appear distant from us, but he doesn’t. He is with us, re-reading the stories with us, and re-thinking them from a position that is curious and youthful. But the curiosity and the youthfulness are accompanied by skill and experience. We are presented with a way of reading skillfully, a way of practicing the necessary skills for understanding and enjoying these stories.
Saunders is especially skilled at bringing out the structure/skeleton of the story. He writes that he doesn’t like the word “plot” and prefers “meaningful action” as an alternative (When someone talks about disliking a technical word, it usually means the word is referring to something that deeply matters to them). He represents the story in outline, and asks: “What is the heart of the story?” How can we reconcile a seemingly odd part of the text with that heart? The more we think about these questions, the more we become aware of each of the stories as an organized totality.
In Story 7, Alyosha the Pot (by Tolstoy), the main character Alyosha who is an overworked and ill-treated servant, discovers through his relationship with one other person, that it’s possible to connect with someone else with tenderness, in such a way that both sides regard each other’s humanity. We read:
… he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person.
We can extend this non-utilitarian relationship to the arts and literature. Just like how Alyosha discovers a very special connection, reading Saunders’ book, we could similarly discover the connection one can have with a book. To modify the original quote: We find out, to our amazement, that besides thinking about books in relation to schoolwork or projects, there is also very special way of reading a book. We’re not looking for information. We’re not preparing for an exam. We’re reading something that is in no real way necessary to us and, yet, could still be needed by us and enjoyed. And we might find that this is just such a book.
That is not to say that literature and literary criticism have no impact. What we could say is that their impact is not predetermined. We read without specific expectations. Or perhaps we read to practice the state of not having specific expectations. Here is a relevant passage:
When somebody cuts you off in traffic, don’t you always know which political party they belong to (that is, the opposite of yours)? But, of course, you don’t. It remains to be seen. Everything remains to be seen. Fiction helps us remember that everything remains to be seen. It’s a sacrament dedicated to this end. We can’t always feel open to the world as we feel at the end of a beautiful story, but feeling that way briefly reminds us that such a state exists and creates the aspiration in us to strive to be in that state more often.
Even though the book is about understanding and enjoying literature, the question of taste is not directly addressed. We read about features of a text that might determine our enjoyment of it, but we don’t read about how we come to a position that enables enjoying a text. How do we develop taste? Toward the end, Saunders writes, “I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk through these Russian stories as much as I have, or even half as much,” which acknowledges that some people might not enjoy the stories. What we find in the stories are, not just subjective feelings, but characteristics of the stories. And, throughout the book, we continue to pay attention to what makes the stories compelling, truthful, consistent, correct, and likable. Can’t we see this practice as a method of acquiring taste?
The apparent paradox of taste — as corresponding to works of art, as something that could be defended, while at the same time appearing both subjective and final — can only be resolved once we acknowledge that taste can be trained. Not only that taste can be trained, but that we ought to take responsibility for our taste, to spend time for it, not in order to cultivate one single/universal correct taste, but with the aim of drawing two types of connection: (1) connections within us that enable thinking more clearly, critically, and responsibly about our intuitions; (2) connections with others, whose tastes differ from ours. Saunders book — despite making no such claims — is a valuable guide in drawing both connections.