In January 2021 George Saunders came out with a new book,A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. It includes and then discusses seven short stories by (in order of their birth) Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. For me, as the cliché has it, this—Saunders and the Russian writers—was a marriage made in heaven. Saunders is one of my favorite writers, and nineteenth-century Russian thinkers and writers were one of my academic specialties, spurring me to write a book dealing mainly with Russian writers during the reign of Alexander II and a book-length essay on Chekhov.
Much of what Saunders has to say, however, is about the art of writing—as he tells us, “I decided to write this book, to put some of what my [writing] students and I have discovered together over the years down on paper and, in that way, offer a modest version of that class to you.” (He also offers insights into artists’ creations in general, whether they be writers, painters, or composers, and he acknowledges that he is analyzing translated stories, which loose something in translation.) But presuming that most readers of this essay are not writers or other artists, we’ll ignore most of his advice on good writing and instead focus on what the seven translated stories—three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Gogol and Turgenev—have to offer to the average reader. And then we’ll conclude with some observations about the value of Russian writings and literature in general.
In considering the seven stories, we’ll take them up by author from Gogol to Chekhov, and the first thing we should note is that Saunders’ observations about all of them are valuable. Even though I had read each of the stories earlier, and some of them more than once, Saunders’ comments revealed new insights.
First, and the most bizarre of the lot, is Gogol’s “The Nose” (1836). Bizarre because a certain barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, cuts open a loaf of bread and finds a human nose inside. He recognizes it as belonging to Kovalyov, a man whom he shaved twice a week. Kovalyov’s civil service rank of collegiate assessor puffs him enough to think he deserves to be called “Major Kovalyov.” The story is mainly about Kovalyov discovering he is without a nose, and then (in more detail) his trying to get it back.
The main point Saunders makes about the tale is that despite its unlikely occurrence it reveals some fundamental truths. One concerns the difficulty we have communicating with one another—a truth I have thought about often in recent years. “Gogol hears,” says Saunders, “in everyday life, the first hints of the small miscommunications that, under duress, become catastrophic. It’s funny enough when Kovalyov, in the cathedral, can’t seem to get a straight answer from his own nose, but this same species of miscommunication, writ large, causes revolutions and genocides and political upheavals and family disasters that never get healed (divorces, estrangements, bitter grudges) and is, Gogol implies, at the heart of all human suffering—that is, at the heart of that constant nagging feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction that attends every human interaction.”
Two main causes of communication failures are 1) language’s inadequacies and 2) almost all of us are too full of ourselves. According to Saunders, “language, like algebra, operates usefully only within certain limits. It’s a tool for making representations of the world, which, unfortunately, we then go on to mistake for the world itself. Gogol is not making a ridiculous world; he’s showing us that we ourselves make a ridiculous world in every instant, by our thinking.” Language is too simple to convey all the complexities of reality, including all the thoughts, images, and feelings swirling inside us.
Regarding our being too self-centered, Saunders notes, “There is no world save the one we make with our minds, and the mind’s predisposition determines the type of world we see.” And what fills our minds too often is only our own petty concerns. We usually fail to follow the advice of the French philosopher Simone Weil, who recommended emptying our soul “of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.”
Besides illustrating communication difficulties, Gogol is especially good at capturing the pettiness, pompousness, and poshlost (banality) of 19th century Russians, including officials and clerks. Witness, for example, his novel Dead Souls and his play The Inspector General. In “The Nose,”as Kovalyov goes about trying to find his nose, we once again find these negative traits on display. On one occasion, Saunders asks, “What prevents Gogol’s clerk from being truly helpful?” The answer: “The clerk’s firm location in himself, his extreme preference for, and protection of, all that is his: his viewpoint, his habits, his interests, his understanding of the limits of his responsibilities.” Not so very different, Saunders suggests, than the mindsets of many German and Soviet officials under Hitler and Stalin.
Our second story, Turgenev’s “The Singers” (1852), depicts a song contest between two men in a Russian village pub called the Crazy Corner. What struck me most about the story was something that Saunders also emphasized, the need we all have for beauty. “Here,” writes Saunders, “we feel the story saying something about our need for art. People, even ‘lowly’ people, crave beauty and will go to great lengths to get a taste of it. . . . It was beautiful, what just happened in that pub, and needed. Something lovely in these people rose to the occasion.”
Most beautiful was the singing of one of the competing men. In his voice, Turgenev relates, “there was . . . also genuine deep passion, and youthfulness and strength and sweetness, and a sort of charmingly careless, mournful grief. A warmhearted, truthful Russian soul rang and breathed in it and fairly clutched you by the heart, clutched straight at your Russian heartstrings. The song expanded and went flowing on. . . . It quivered, but with the barely perceptible inner quivering of passion which pierces like an arrow into the hearer’s soul, and it grew continually in strength, firmness, and breadth.”
Several years ago, in an essay dealing with beauty and other sources of transcendence,
I mentioned that to the poet Carl Sandburg “music was like poetry in its ability to help men and women transcend their humdrum existence.” I cited a 1942 letter he wrote “to Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich commenting on the uplift given to so many people around the world by his Seventh [Leningrad] Symphony.” I also mentioned a “Leningrad woman in a bomb-shelter that echoed with German bombs exploding outside [and how she] recalled how an old man got out his violin and played a beautiful melody. She thought that the terror people had been feeling lost its grip, replaced by an ‘extraordinary sense of belonging.’”
The first of Tolstoy’s two stories is the long one “Master and Man” (1895). As the title suggests, it’s about a merchant, Vasili, and one of his workers, a peasant of about fifty named Nikita. More specifically, its about their trip in an open, one-horse sleigh to see another property owner who possess a grove which Vasili “had been bargaining over for a longtime. He was now in a hurry to start, lest buyers from the town might forestall him in making a profitable purchase.” But the “master and man” never reach their destination. Instead, they often get lost in blinding snow, on one occasion even resting a bit inside a peasant’s hut before resuming their windy and fruitless journey, which ends with their hunkering down for the night outside, amid the snowstorm.
The final fate of each man can be discovered by reading the story—all the short stories treated here can be freely downloaded from the Internet.
Saunders describes Vasili well: He “is a blusterer and a bully. To be happy, he has to be in control, correct, victorious, obeyed. We imagine him at home, a petty tyrant, not loved much, not feared much either; avoided when possible, probably; laughed at behind his back for his incompetence and ego.” He believes “to preserve and broadcast his power, a ‘master’ must be firm, strong, and unpersuadable.” “One thing . . . constituted the sole aim, meaning, pleasure, and pride of his life” (i.e., money).”
But then in a final crisis, he changes, and in a way that Saunders thinks is believable. Like Ivan in Tolstoy’s better-know novellaThe Death of Ivan Ilyich, Vasili, faced with death, becomes a better man than his previous self. Unlike Ivan—who asks himself, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” What if “he had not spent his life as he should have done”?—Vasili does not rethink or regret consciously his past life, but still he changes. And readers are left to contemplate, “What should we live for?” “What should we strive for in life?”
Tolstoy’s second story “Alyosha the Pot” (1905) is very short ( 5 or 6 pages) and according to literary scholar D. S. Mirsky “a masterpiece of rare perfection.” Alyosha attended a village school for a while, but “writing didn’t come easy” for him and “there wasn’t that much time for study. . . . Six years old and he was already watching after the sheep and the cow in the pasture.” When he was nineteen, “his father fixed it for Alyosha to get his brother’s old job as hired man with the merchant,” with whom he then went to live. What characterized Alyosha was that he always did what he was told, and he did it without complaining. This was true regarding whatever his father told him—his father even appropriated his son’s regular pay—and it was true regarding his merchant-boss and the merchant’s family. “Alyosha was forever running and taking care of things and looking after things and he never forgot and managed it all and kept on smiling.”
At the merchant’s house there was a cook, Ustinya, and she treated Alyosha differently than anyone else ever had—with tenderness and affection. They fell in love, and began talking of marriage, but when his father discovered this development, he told Alyosha the marriage was not going to happen. As always, Alyosha obeys and tells Ustinya, “Looks like our plan won’t work. You hear? He got mad, won’t let me.” Even though “she began to weep quietly into her apron,” he replies, “Have to mind him. Looks like we have to forget about it.” Nevertheless, after the merchant’s wife asks him if he is going to obey his father, he says with a laugh, “Looks like I have to,” but “then he began to cry.”
In order not to ruin the enjoyment of HP readers desiring to read this very short story, I’ll write no more of the story’s ending. But Tolstoy’s final paragraphs can be interpreted in different ways, and Saunders thinks Tolstoy was correct to leave the ending ambiguous. As it stands, the story can spark a profound discussion on how one should live. (When I discussed it many years ago with my students, it generated passionate responses.) Is the adult Alyosha just an ordinary fool for still obeying his dad or is he a good, humble, meek son following in the tradition of Russian “holy fools”? Does he discover something new at the end of the story? Throughout his life Tolstoy was profoundly interested in the question, “How should one live?” And it is still a vital question for us all. (For more on holy fools and the vital questions of life, as perceived by nineteenth-century Russian writers, see my “Wisdom from Russia.”)
Finally, we come to Chekhov’s three stories. And we guess that he is Saunders’ favorite Russian short-story writer. 1) Three of the seven stories are by Chekhov. 2) The collection’s title, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, refers to a scene in one of the Chekhov stories included here, “Goosberries.” 3) Besides the three Chekhov stories here, Saunders mentions “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “In the Ravine,” “Enemies,” “About Love,” and “The Bishop” (all available on the Internet) as other ones he’d rank as Chekhov’s best. And 4) Saunders has many admiring words to say about Chekhov. For example, “What I admire most about Chekhov is how free of agenda he seems on the page—interested in everything but not wedded to any fixed system of belief, willing to go wherever the data takes him. He was a doctor, and his approach to fiction feels lovingly diagnostic. . . . If he has a program, it’s being wary of having a program. . . . This quality is what we love him for now. In a world full of people who seem to know everything, passionately, based on little (often slanted) information, where certainty is often mistaken for power, what a relief it is to be in the company of someone confident enough to stay unsure (that is, perpetually curious).” (See my long essay on Chekhov’s wisdom where I write, “it is primarily this tolerant attitude that sets Chekhov off from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, two fellow Russian writers sometimes considered wise, but lacking Chekhov’s humility and tolerance.”)
The first (chronologically) of Chekhov’s three stories is “In the Cart” (1897). It tells the story of provincial teacher Marya’s one-horse cart trip from a town where she has gone to get her pay. On the journey she encounters a rich landowner, Hanov, in an expensive carriage. He says some words, as does the cart driver Semyon and a few people in a tearoom where Marya stops on the trip home; but the story mainly relates her thoughts, as well as her background. “She had once had a father and mother; they had lived in Moscow in a big apartment . . . . [But] her father had died when she was ten years old, and her mother had died soon after. She had a brother, an officer; at first they used to write to each other, then her brother had stopped answering her.” “She had begun to teach school from necessity, without feeling called to it,” and had now been teaching thirteen years. “She had never thought of a call, of the need for enlightenment; and it always seemed to her that what was most important in her work was not the children, not enlightenment, but the examinations. And when did she have time to think of a call, of enlightenment? Teachers . . . are always filled with thoughts of their daily bread, of firewood, of bad roads, of sickness. It is a hard, humdrum existence.”
As the story proceeds Chekhov tells us a little more about her. “Her quarters consist of one little room and a kitchen close by. Every day when school is over she has a headache and after dinner she has heartburn. . . . This life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything. . . . and no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances.”
As we might expect in a story about a lonely teacher, not yet middle-aged, who comes across a good-looking single man (Hanov), she thinks about what life would be like with him “living in his great house”—as opposed to her present life, “living in a Godforsaken village alone.”
As Saunders comments on the story, he thinks “What if a lonely person can find no way out of her loneliness?” This, he writes “is where, to me, the story starts to feel big. It’s saying: loneliness is real and consequential and there is no easy way out of it for some of us who are in it and sometimes there’s no way out at all.”
As I read about Marya, the Beatles lines from their song “Eleanor Rigby” occurred to me:
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All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Like some of my favorite literature, “In the Cart” helped me empathize with someone (albeit a fictional someone) who was experiencing a serious and widespread human problem—loneliness.
A year after “In the Cart,” Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” (1898) appeared. The setting is mainly on the property of Alyohin, a “gentleman farmer.” Visiting him there are two acquaintances, Ivan, a veterinary, and Burkin, a teacher, who were apparently hunting when a rainstorm led them to seek shelter at Alyohin’s farmhouse. The heart of Chekhov’s story is Ivan’s reflections on happiness, occasioned by the story he tells of his younger brother Nikolay. But two other occurrences that happen while the visitors are at Alyohin’s should also be noted: 1) the appearances of Pelageya, a “chambermaid, a young woman so beautiful that both of them [Ivan and Burkin] stood still at the same moment and glanced at each other” and 2) Ivan’s diving and swimming in nearby waters after the three men have exited from Alyohin’s sauna.
One of the aspects of the story that appeals to Saunders is that it displays Chekhov’s appreciation of the complexity of life, of “being wary of having a program” (see above). Ivan dislikes the pedestrian, smug, self-satisfied happiness that some people display. Nothing pains him “more than the spectacle of a happy family sitting at table having tea,” while outside exists the “ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, [and] lying.” And he states “there is no happiness and there should be none, and if life has a meaning and a purpose, that meaning and purpose is not our happiness but something greater and more rational. Do good!” Furthermore, he adds, “Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him.”
But, as Saunders points out, Chekhov is wary of such a one-sided view. While one part of him agrees with Ivan, the beautiful Pelageya and the joy that Ivan experiences swimming tell us that Ivan’s view reflects only partial truth. (A similarly complex view of happiness emerges from Chekhov’s story “In Exile.”)
As Saunders states, the “beautiful,” “soft,” “delicate,” “pretty” Pelageya’s “purpose seems to be to represent undeniable beauty. . . . Ivan and Burkin’s reaction to her proves that no one is immune to an outburst of startling loveliness. . . . She is, in short, a source of gratuitous delight, a reminder that beauty is an unavoidable, essential part of life.”
His statement reminds me of the lines in W. B. Yeats’s poem “Politics”:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
Ivan’s delight in swimming—“By God!” he kept repeating delightedly, “by God!”—also suggests that Chekhov approved of enjoying such simple pleasures, and provides a corrective to his “there should be none” words about happiness.
The final Chekhov story (at least chronologically) that Saunders presents is “The Darling” (1899). Like the previous two that Saunders analyzed, this one deals with an important topic. Loneliness in “In the Cart.” Happiness in “Gooseberries.” And now, in “The Darling,” love. This last story revolves around Olenka, the daughter of a government official.
Chekhov tells us,“She was a quiet, kind, soft-hearted girl, with meek, gentle eyes, and she enjoyed very good health. . . . Men said to themselves, ‘Yes, not half bad,’ and smiled too, while the ladies present could not refrain from suddenly seizing her hand in the middle of the conversation and exclaiming delightedly, ‘You darling!’” Most significantly, however, “she was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been her papa, who was now ill and sat in an armchair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.”
During the course of the story she marries and is then widowed by two men. The first was Ivan Kukin, a theater manager, and the second was Vasily Pustovalov, the manager of a lumberyard. While married to Kukin, her whole mental world was filled with him and his work. “She presided over the box office . . . kept accounts and paid salaries.” She told others that “the theater was the most remarkable, the most important, and the most essential thing in the world, and that it was only the theater that could give true pleasure and make you a cultivated and humane person.”
But then Ivan dies while away on a business trip to Moscow, and some months later she falls in love with Vasily and soon marries him. They get on “very well together” and she helps out at the lumberyard office. She now tells acquaintances that she and Vasily “have no time for the theater” and that they’re “not interested in such foolishness.” To her it now seems “that she had been in the lumber business for ages, that lumber was the most important, the most essential thing in the world, and she found something intimate and touching in the very sound of such words as beam, log, batten, plank, box board, lath, scantling, [and] slab.”
The couple lived “in peace and quiet, in love and harmony for six years,” but then Vasily got sick and four months later Olenka is again a widow. But it does not take her long to find some consolation from a young army veterinary, Smirnin, who had been renting a wing of her house. He had been married, but the marriage ended after he discovered his wife had been unfaithful. She, along with their son, had moved away, and he sent her child-support money.
Smirnin and Olenka soon become intimate, and “she now repeated the veterinary’s words and held the same opinions about everything that he did. It was plain that she could not live even for one year without an attachment and that she had found new happiness” with Smirnin. Although he occasionally got mad at her when they had company and she talked about veterinary matters she didn’t fully understand, they were generally happy. But “this happiness did not last long. The veterinary left, left forever, with his regiment, which was moved to some remote place, it may have been Siberia. And Olenka remained alone. . . . Her father had died long ago . . . She got thinner and lost her looks. . . . Her best years were over. . . . Worst of all, she no longer had any opinions whatever. She saw objects about her and understood what was going on, but she could not form an opinion about anything and did not know what to talk about.”
Years passed and Olenka remained unhappy. As Chekhov relates, “She needed an affection that would take possession of her whole being, her soul, her mind, that would give her ideas, a purpose in life, that would warm her aging blood.” Finally, an event occurs that reanimates her. Smirnin returns. He tells her that he has retired from the army, made up with his wife, and is going to settle his son, Sasha (almost ten), in a local school. When he further relates that he is looking for lodgings, she tells him that he and his family can move into her main house, while she moves over to its smaller wing.
After some time, Sasha’s “mother went off to Kharkov to visit her sister and did not come back; every day his father left town to inspect herds and sometimes he stayed away for three days together, and it seemed to Olenka that Sasha was wholly abandoned, that he was unwanted, that he was being starved, and she moved him into the wing with her and settled him in a little room there.”
The boy now becomes the center of her existence. “How she loves him! Not one of her former attachments was so deep; never had her soul surrendered itself so unreservedly, so disinterestedly and with such joy as now when her maternal instinct was increasingly asserting itself. For this little boy who was not her own, for the dimples in his cheeks, for his very cap, she would have laid down her life, would have laid it down with joy, with tears of tenderness.”
In the final scene of the story Sasha, in the room next to hers, occasionally shouts in his sleep: “I’ll give it to you! Scram! No fighting!”
In his analysis of “The Darling,” Saunders comments on this shout and much more.
He thinks Sasha’s sleeping words reflect an unhappiness, but Olenka is “going to keep ignoring Sasha’s feelings. She hears what he says in his dream, but . . . life between them will go on as it has. And this is . . . scary. She’s modeling the state of every autocrat: happy with her version of things, uninterested in anyone else’s. Her trait, her need to be totally absorbed in whatever she loves, charming enough when applied to Kukin et al., now feels narcissistic and oppressive.” Thus Olenka’s feelings toward those she becomes “absorbed” with do not reflect “real love” [Chekhov’s words] but her own more limited psychological needs. (For a fuller analysis of love, see here.)
Taking an overall view of the seven Russian stories analyzed here, what do we see? They deal with the difficulties of communication, beauty, how one should live one’s life, loneliness, happiness, and love. Important subjects, right? In a long essay and subsequent short book dealing with Russian writers from Turgenev (1818-188) to Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), I wrote of “Russian writers and thinkers [who] plumbed the depths of human consciousness and complexity while dealing with the big questions of life: “How should one live?” “What is the meaning of death?” “Is there a God?” “What does true freedom mean?” “What are my responsibilities toward other humans?” And “the Russian writers dealt with these questions in a concrete, existential, artistic way so that their characters capture our imagination and their arguments and struggles become ours.”
These words also apply to the seven stories that Saunders analyzes in his A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Past Russian writers, although especially talented at dealing with life’s big questions through fiction, were not alone in this ability, as other writers like Dickens, Melville, Goethe, and Tagore demonstrate.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, reading literature from around the world can “help us develop wisdom values like empathy, love, compassion, humility, and tolerance.” And this is especially true, if we are helped by wise guides such as George Saunders.
Walter G. Moss