The author of Lincoln in the Bardo has taught a class on 19th century Russian fiction to MFA students at Syracuse University for two decades. Saunders includes lessons from that course here, mingling writing advice and close readings of stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.
This book is a delight, and it’s about delight too. How necessary, at our particular moment ... I love the warmth with which he writes about this teaching ... This kind of reading (one of the best kinds, I’m convinced) tracks the author’s intentions—and missed intentions, and intuitions, and instinctive recoil from what’s banal or obvious—so closely and intimately, at every step, through every sentence ... All this makes Saunders’s book very different from just another 'how to' creative writing manual, or just another critical essay. In enjoyably throwaway fashion, he assembles along his way a few rules for writing ... reading...with this rich, close attention will mulch down into any would-be writer’s experience, and repay them by fertilising their own work eventually ... One of the pleasures of this book is feeling his own thinking move backwards and forwards, between the writer dissecting practice and the reader entering in through the spell of the words, to dwell inside the story.
[Saunders] is moved by an evangelical ardor where fiction is concerned, intent on how it can help us 'become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional,' as he put it in a viral commencement speech. These particular hopes have never been more precisely, joyfully or worryingly articulated than in his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain ... I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. 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 ... Here’s where I must admit that I can find myself in an occasional bardo of sorts about Saunders, torn between admiration and wariness. The breadth of his belief in fiction is inspiring — and suspiciously flattering to the reader ... Now, I’m as self-interested a champion of fiction as anyone, but such overstatement does the form no favors — at best it feels naïve, at worst, deeply solipsistic. Is the invasion of Iraq best understood as a 'literary failure,' as Saunders has written? Can racism be described as an 'antiliterary impulse'?
... maybe I’m biased as a former English major, but A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is refreshing, warm and educational in the best sense of the word. For me, the best non-fiction books — like the best teachers — open your eyes and engage you with personality and passion. And as Saunders takes us through six short stories by Russian masters, we learn to read differently. We slow down. We feel his passion. And we ask questions ... Don’t worry — A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is not a workbook with all questions and no answers. An experienced, generous teacher is leading you along. The subsequent five stories appear in full, followed by Saunders’ take on each one. This isn’t esoteric literary criticism or dry, mansplaining lectures. Saunders’ book will help you enjoy fiction more ... Months after reading an advance copy, the title has stuck with me — it’s such an evocative image (pulled from Gooseberries by Chekhov). And it really fits; the book is a splash in the face. You can dive deep or lie on your back and let the words wash over you.