Viv Groskop

The art of the short story: what we can learn from the Russians

In a dazzling creative writing masterclass George Saunders examines stories by Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev and explains what makes them so great

Illustration for Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ by Léon Bakst, 1904. Credit: Alamy

This is such a superb idea that it’s a wonder a book like this has not cropped up before. Here we have a critically acclaimed, best-selling novelist, who also happens to be a highly sought-after creative writing teacher, setting out the curriculum of his over-subscribed ‘How to Write’ class in a way that is accessible to anyone… and the book reproduces the texts under discussion. Wow. This has to be the best York Notes ever, flawlessly designed for the exam we all sit without realising: life.

In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain you get all Saunders’s commentary (which is both charming and addictive) and the original (translated) versions of seven short stories by four writers: Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’, ‘The Darling’, and ‘Gooseberries’; Tolstoy’s ‘Master and Man’ and ‘Alyosha the Pot’; Gogol’s ‘The Nose’; and Turgenev’s ‘The Singers’.

It’s rare to read a book and love it so much that you think it’s simply perfect

The book ticks a pleasingly ridiculous number of boxes. It’s a guide to craft that is every bit as stunning as Stephen King’s On Writing; it’s an insight into the mind of a great writer (Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize); and it’s an extraordinary meditation on our lives as readers. It’s also a passionate argument for the enduring power of the classic Russian short story. At a time when many well-intentioned readers have been in lockdown for months and still haven’t quite got round to, er, finishing War and Peace, Saunders whispers reassuringly over our shoulder: ‘Here’s an immaculate Chekhov story in 11 pages. Surely you’ve got time for that.’

Saunders has taught a three-year course in the 19th-century Russian short story in translation for the past two decades.

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