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George Saunders on the beauty of Russian literature

George Saunders is famous as the Booker-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo. But his latest book is a revelatory guide to Russian literature
George Saunders illustrated by Joseph Joyce

George Saunders is best known as the award-winning writer of short stories and the Booker-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo. But he’s also been teaching literature at Syracuse University in New York for over 20 years. In his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he takes us through seven short stories by Russian writers with an eye-opening level of detail and insight.

The experience is a revelation for any reader. So books editor Jane Graham got him on the phone and squeezed him for more. 

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The Big Issue: You could have taught classes – and written a book – on stories from all over the world, and from any time. Why did you choose to limit yourself to just four 19th century Russian writers – Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol and Turgenev? 

George Saunders: First off, I love teaching these stories so I always feel enthusiastic teaching them. If someone doesn’t like them I always feel like trying to convert them. 

But to be truthful, my whole career has been… I’m a little late to the party. I’m racing to catch up, and I’m trying to hide my deficiencies. I was already almost 40 when I started teaching grad students – 25 great young writers who were only about 10 years younger than I was. And that was very intimidating to me. I’d been reading Tolstoy and Chekhov, and I just felt that at least I understood and loved those stories. So I could quickly, over a weekend, design a good Russian course. And then I just kept teaching it for 20 years. It’s kind of like having a long history of wearing this one outfit to parties because it’s very comfortable.  

You’re very modest about your own achievements. There’s a moment you recall in your book when you, an aspiring writer, realised you were never going to be what you’d always wanted to be – the mountainous new Ernest Hemingway. You were, in reality, as you put it, a less earnest, more humour-led ‘shit hill Saunders’. You write about it in a very funny way but I’d guess that actually, that was quite a difficult thing to come to terms with. 

It was. On one hand, knowing right away that I’d written something significantly different was really lovely.  And it got published almost immediately. That first impulse of satisfaction was strong, especially at that point – I was 33 or 34, I had kids, and I’d started to think, I don’t have a writing career, the ship is sailing without me. So the idea that something was finally happening, something energetic; that was a big deal. But in the background of my head there was also that feeling like, oh shoot, I just divided myself off from my lineage, I kind of fell behind the herd somehow. For me that was catastrophic. But then there’s also that other bit of truth which is, you can’t just walk behind your heroes and match their footsteps, because then you’re just a lackey. 

The Scottish writer AL Kennedy said someone once asked her, how do you get over the idea that everything’s been written about now, there’s nothing new under the sun? And she said, yes, everything’s been written before. But not by me. 

That is a great way of looking at it. That’s beautiful.  

I once had a colleague from the Russian language department visit my class, and she just showed us all those bits in Gogol when we were completely missing the jokes.

To get back to the teaching part of your work, and what stimulates you and your students, what is unique about the stories in this book which has seen them stand up to 20 years of analysis? Why haven’t they become boring to you? 

I was talking to Mary Karr the other day and she said this period of Russian literature was like the late 60s were to rock music. The time when the form goes, ‘Oh, I’m a form’. And there follows much moulding and innovation. 

It’s like when jazz was first being invented, and constantly played in the clubs. And you were finding out every night if you were doing something interesting or not. You always had to be pushing the envelope in order not to be in stasis. In those days in Russia, you’d go to a party and someone would say, I’m gonna read from my novel, and people would sit there and take it. There was a feeling that this was the vital national art form. And so of course everybody who was talented wanted to do it. Everybody who had a reputation for being clever wanted to do it. If somebody did it well, instantly they were famous.  

Which brings me to something we can’t get around; the constant fear of what we might be missing in translation. Someone once said the definition of poetry is ‘everything that can’t be translated’, and that has haunted me ever since. 

Yes. I once very optimistically had a colleague from the Russian language department visit my class, and she just showed us all those bits in Gogol when we were completely missing the jokes. So, you know, the class we had after she visited was a little awkward. And we had to say, OK, so let’s not even pretend that we’re really reading the Russians; we’re not. I know personally as a writer, I’m always fussing over phrasing, that musicality. But I can’t get that with these Russian stories. So all we can do is pretend that we found this English language story –  by someone we don’t know. Let’s say it’s Gogol’s The Nose. We’re still going to have a reaction to it. There’s no way you could argue that you have the same reaction as a Russian reader so I feel like you can just dispense with that and say, I love Gogol but I’ve never actually read him. 

To get right to the nub of your essays in this book, let’s take an example: Tolstoy’s story Master and Man. I’d read it once years ago, but when I read it again in your book, applying everything you were teaching me as I went along, I was just blown away. Your analysis made clear to me just how audaciously modern and cinematic it was, this thriller which becomes a bone-chilling horror.  

Right, it’s amazing, and kind of a mystery how he does it. Because it’s all just factual, just a piling up of details. We often associate being a great writer with being fancy, saying things in ways that are unusual. Tolstoy totally turns that whole idea. He says, actually, I’m going to do it with very simple declarative sentences that are going to corner you. 

We all have a constant internal monologue and feel like we’re the star of the movie. What writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov do is create moments when you feel like you moved inside a different person’s head. It’s just for a couple of minutes and it’s just an approximation. You’re not really that woman in the park. But it’s like magic, it’s close enough for you to temporarily believe it. 

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
George Saunders - A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

With Tolstoy as well, there’s the issue of redemption and spiritual resurrection, his particular kind of faith in God. I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump at that end-of-life redemptive moment in Master and Man. Because he, like the character of Vasili, would regard himself as a man of agency and energy. I wonder if he’ll have a similar moment of salvation towards the end of his life. Because right now it feels like there’s a good chance Donald, unlike Vasili, is going to hell. 

You know when Trump first became president I thought OK, you know you got there with all this nonsense. I wonder if you’ll now use all that energy and respect that people have for you and your showman ability more positively. But the great tragedy is that he could never get past his meanness. And his defensiveness.

It’s interesting to look at literature in that light. Literature doesn’t say that everybody will be transformed but it holds out the possibilities. The whole theme of stories, the mission of the storyteller, is to make things more ambiguous, and more hopeful really, because we’re showing transformation. We’re always showing transformation. 

When you wrote Lincoln in the Bardo, and saw the phenomenal response to that, was there a sense in which you thought, I’m moving into the big league now. I’m part of the canon. Goodbye shit-hill Saunders. 

Well… there was a wonderful feeling, while I was doing it, that I was moving beyond the cage I’d made for myself writing short stories. Every time when I finish something, I have that feeling of, oh that’s just so good and I’m so happy with it. I really try to get rid of that feeling as quickly as possible. Put it in the shit pile. Now I’m free to go back to being my 18-year-old self, ambitious and insecure and sort of thrilled by the possibilities. If you start loading up your ego, telling yourself ‘that was a really big step for me’, then you’re impeded. You have that weight on your back. I don’t want to be someone who locks up. I want to be someone who’s free and can keep doing bigger and bigger things. 

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)