Writing Lessons from the Russians

Radio Open Source
7 min readFeb 21, 2021

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.

Chekhov seems to be . . . making a statement: “We should be suspicious of happiness.” Then he comes back and complicates it and says, “Well, maybe so, but God forbid we should try to live without it.” And in the end, he adds a third complication. And then he sort of bows and walks out of the room.

Suddenly, we’re newly aware that happiness is a thing. You know, our relation to happiness is a thing. And you go, “Yeah, actually, that’s true. I, George, have a relation to happiness, you know, that contains all the complications that Chekhov posited.” And I think really the effect is that you’re just more aware, you’re just more alert to that for a couple of minutes and then you fade back into your normal self. But in some ways, to me, the beautiful tightrope walk that he does there is: he resists simple judgment.

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:

I’m noticing that it’s a little nervy of [the main character]: kind of burst into this place and start telling this long story to these older women, women who are older than him. I’m wondering what they think about it. In my reading, that’s what’s hanging over the story. He’s going on and on paraphrasing the Bible; how are these women going to receive it?

This is an example of what I call an “expectation bubble.” Chekhov has made this question in our mind: how is this story being received? And depending on the answer, it becomes a different story. If one of the women smacks him with a broom and says, “You’re an idiot, leave me alone, I’m busy,” that’s one story. If the woman does something else, it’s a different story.

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):

And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.

When he crossed the river by the ferry boat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigour — he was only twenty-two — and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.

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:

Vasili is a real stinker, you know, he’s a really greedy guy. He talks down to Nikita and dismisses him and ignores his advice. We said earlier that a story’s got a question that it’s asking. And we understand that question pretty early. In this one, the surface question is, “Will they survive?” But the deeper one is, “Is it possible for somebody like this guy to change?”

Tolstoy does a beautiful job of representing the mind of a narcissist in his internal musings. So, a little bit like A Christmas Carol, the story says, here’s a guy who is a bad guy. We all know somebody like this. Maybe we’re like this from time to time. Is it possible for somebody to change? And if so, please tell me how.

Tolstoy kind of corners himself, because he’s made such a stinker that we aren’t going to believe it if the angels just come down and inspire him. And it says something about the way that change might be possible for any of us, which is: you’re not going to totally reboot your personality. You’re not going to totally morph into Gandhi or something. But you’re going to take some inclination that you have, that has been misdirected, and you’re going to direct it towards something good. And that’s kind of what happens to Vasili.

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:

I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly — this has been the richness of my life.

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!

Your OS Storytellers

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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