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Master Craftsman by George Saunders: A writer’s David Bowie or Lou Reed

Four dead Russians and one American teacher give a writing masterclass, Chris Deerin writes of George Saunders’ new book

I have a lot to thank George Saunders for. I was a short-story sceptic, a committed chain-gobbler of the full-fat novel, until the release of his celebrated Tenth of December collection back in 2013. That book was so heavily lauded and so often recommended that I bought a copy, and was escorted into a vast genre that I had completely misunderstood and have since come to love.

In Saunders’ own work, he typically creates warped worlds – sometimes just slightly off-track from everyday life, sometimes psychedelically so – in which his characters are confronted by outlandish moral dilemmas.

The Semplica Girl Diaries from Tenth of December is one such extraordinary creation: a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses tale in which a financially embarrassed father copies wealthier neighbours in buying girls from third-world countries to hang as ornaments in his family’s front garden. Bizarre, upsetting, but asking some big questions too.

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Saunders is a master craftsman, a writer’s writer. It’s no surprise that he also runs an in-demand creative writing class at Syracuse University. Lucky students. For the rest of us, there’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

Even if you have no interest in writing, this book will make you a better, more observant and more understanding reader

The book’s subtitle is In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us a Masterclass in Writing and Life, and that’s true up to a point. But the real star of A Swim isn’t Chekhov or Turgenev or Tolstoy or Gogol – it’s Saunders himself.

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There is of course pleasure in reading the classic stories he has selected for analysis, but the book’s charm and energy comes from their savvy, loving deconstruction by Saunders. Like a mechanic under the bonnet, he explains almost line by line how they work, why they work, why Chekhov chose to do this rather than that, why Tolstoy introduced this particular character at this particular point.

Based on two decades of teaching – he blessedly avoids the asphyxiating language of academia – it’s a world-class education for less than 20 quid. Even if you have no interest in writing, this book will quite simply make you a better, more observant and more understanding reader.

Saunders says that when reading the Russian stories, “all of the bedrock principles are on display. They were written to challenge and antagonise and outrage”. It is “akin to a young composer studying Bach”. George, then, is our David Bowie or Lou Reed.

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

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