Writing Lessons from the Russians

This week: a master class with George Saunders about Chekhov and Tolstoy. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

Every George Saunders book is a big deal, but the new one, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is special in its own way. Here, the author of Lincoln in the Bardo and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline lets us all into his famous Syracuse University writing classroom. He’s telling us the lessons he draws from Russian short fiction, in chapters that alternate with the stories themselves. And those writing lessons, it turns out, are also life lessons.

“There are many selves within us,” Saunders says on this week’s show. There’s a grouchy inner self, “pretty limited by his habits and his thinking patterns. And then there’s that kind of deeper person inside of him.” For Saunders, “literature, and particularly Chekhov, is a way of just almost like sacramentally reminding us that those multiple selves exist, lightly whispering in our ear that we might try to be the latter rather than the former.”

George Saunders.

He’s guiding us through masterpieces by Chekhov and Tolstoy this hour, and helping us notice how they appeal to readers’ attention. In the case of Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” where a character rants against happiness but also indulges in it, Saunders explains how such fiction breaks us away from emotional simplicity.

In act two of this week’s show, Saunders reads and discusses Chekhov’s “The Student,” in which a depressed student delivers a theological lecture to two women and then feels revitalized. Like all of Chekhov’s best stories, “The Student” generates questions and addresses them in a way that opens up awareness, rather than authoritatively resolving those questions. Saunders points out that the story does so because of its suggestion of contradictory possibilities and expectations:

By the end, the student’s presumptuous sermonizing leads him to an epiphany about interconnection. How do we understand that epiphany? It’s complicated. Perhaps the student’s youthful egoism, his self-absorbed gloom, undermines itself over the course of his sermon, but maybe the egoism grows more entrenched, reinforced by his self-congratulatory sense of youthful brilliance. Here’s the conclusion of “The Student” (which you can read in its entirety online):

Leo Tolstoy’s stories can also guide you to awareness of a complicated sort of fulfillment. Saunders discusses with us Tolstoy’s classic “Master and Man,” about a wealthy narcissist (Vasili) and his worker (Nikita) facing life-and-death consequences in freezing conditions. The story prompts the questions and expectations of a thriller, but also of a moral conundrum, and we read it to see all those questions resolved. Here’s what Saunders says:

Listen: Chick Corea

Herbie Hancock with Chick Corea.

Jazz great Chick Corea died earlier this month; don’t miss Rolling Stone’s remembrance of him from Herbie Hancock. And here’s Corea’s message to the world:

Listen to that richness when you get the chance. Our own George Hicks calls this, by Chick Corea, his “favorite electric piano solo of all time. Yes: All. Time.”

Read: Pirating and Publishing

The Constance Garnett translations of Chekhov’s stories are in the public domain (freely, legally readable online) only because they’re so old. But in situations without public libraries, this democratic access to contemporary writing has often depended on piratical characters. Robert Darnton has a new book out about this: the historical role of piracy for the Enlightenment.

A Balzacian free-for-all emerged in the eighteenth century, as Darnton tells it, which allowed for expansive cultural ferment in France. His book is a history of the movement behind Enlightenment literary triumphs, a boisterous movement that would ultimately inform an age of revolution.

This week’s ephemeral library

Alexandra Schwartz on Patricia Lockwood. Patricia Lockwood on Elena Ferrante. Martin Scorsese on Fellini and the lost magic of cinema. Tough times for pigeon guys. In this week’s New Yorker: read George Saunders’s mentor, Tobias Wolff, on Hemingway. Viet Thanh Nguyen and unreliable narrators. Listen to your favorite radio stations around the world.

That’s it for this week folks. Happy Birthday Chris Lydon!

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org