A swim in Grand Traverse Bay in the rain | Features

George Saunders brings the art of Russian literature to TC
By Anna Faller | April 30, 2022

Esteemed writer and essayist George Saunders arrived quite late for the literary evening. “I’ve always enjoyed reading,” he says, “and I had this idea of ​​myself as a writer, in the Hemingway tradition, having adventures.” However, his background in South Chicago did not necessarily lend itself to literary success. “I didn’t know any writer,” he says. “It was a long road. I had to understand how it was done. »

This route held some scenic detours. After earning a degree in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines, Saunders spent time “beatniking,” including a stint in a slaughterhouse, as well as a few years working in the rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia. , all in the interest of “doing a little writing someday” — before his 1985 acceptance to Syracuse University’s Creative Writing MFA.

Since then, Saunders has authored 11 books, including the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner Lincoln and the Bardo and National Book Award Finalist December 10: Stories. Saunders’ work has appeared in the new yorker over the past three decades, and is the recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as the prestigious PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Story. He was even named one of Time magazine‘s 100 most influential people of 2013.

A Russian influence
Almost all of this success comes from the Russian short story – three short stories, to be precise. “When I arrived in Syracuse, my teacher” – author Tobias Wolff – “gave a public reading of Anton Chekhov The little trilogySaunders explains. “Hearing him read it so well and seeing what it did to audiences made me realize that I wanted to be a short story writer.”

So why not focus on American short fiction? For Saunders, part of the answer goes back to his upbringing. “When I was younger, I always read for moral clarity,” he says. “I used to read philosophical authors to understand how to live my life. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to read a book and it will change the way I see the world,'” he says.

Russian writers seemed to address him directly. “To me, they talk about community issues, and also about everyday people’s lives,” he says. Unlike Gibrans and Rands around the world, the fact that 19th-century Russian authors were almost exclusively normal people was something Saunders really liked. “It’s a literature [about] what life is like for most of us here and why we can’t get it right.

So when Saunders started his teaching career, creating a course in Russian literature seemed completely normal. “I didn’t know what to teach, but [the university] gives you a literature course. So I went back to those Russian authors, if only to read them again,” he says.

And he kept coming back to it for more than two decades until, amid quarantine anxiety, Saunders decided the class talk should be public. “We were working with the same stories [each year], so I had this big notebook based on my readings and the readings my students were doing,” he says. “It felt like a real resource to have those generations of Syracuse writers weighing in on classic stories. … I realized it was a precious thing that I could either bring into the world or keep in the dark.

Swimming in a pond in the rain
The result is his new collection of essays, Swimming in a pond in the rain. A mini-masterclass in the art of short story art – with annotations and additional writing assignments – the book focuses on the work of four great Russians: Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol . Interspersed with the discourse produced by his lectures, Saunders’ collection highlights each piece as material for close reading with his own analyzes left behind like breadcrumbs. It’s like a free seat in his Syracuse class.

But, in a world of endless information, is the art of storytelling – and the classic structure – still relevant? For Saunders, the answer is a resounding yes. “I think about [literature] like my personal mental health device,” he says. “It’s a way of refocusing the mind a bit and saying, ‘Okay, what’s under my control?'”

More importantly, fiction is a constant reminder of how it feels to be human. “Storytelling is innate in who we are,” says Saunders. “I think it’s so beautiful for a human being to reach out across time, space, and ethnicity and say something true, and then the reader says, ‘Yeah, I’m with you. This simple action is so soothing, a reminder that you are not alone in the world.

New York Times bestselling author George Saunders joins the National Writers Series for a virtual event on Thursday, May 5, starting at 7 p.m. to discuss his award-winning collection of essays, Swimming in a pond in the rain. The book is available for purchase through Horizon Books with a 20% NWS discount. Virtual tickets cost $10.50. The guest host for the event is Michigan writer and educator Kevin Fitton. For more information, ticket sales and registration, visit nationalwritersseries.org.

Next step: Solving the case with Paul Holes
Law and order lovers, this one is for you. Join the National Writers Series on Tuesday, May 10 at 7 p.m. as they welcome master American criminologist, Paul Holes, for an in-person discussion of his early memoir, Unmasked: My Life Solves America’s Cold Cases. Prior to his retirement in 2018, Holes spent nearly 30 years as an investigator in Contra Costa County, California, with experience in both the crime lab and the district attorney’s office. A specialist in cold case and serial predator investigations (Elliot Stabler, anyone?), Holes has lent his singular expertise to national cases such as the murder of Laci Peterson and the kidnapping of Jaci Duggard, as well as the identification of the notorious Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo. His memoir takes readers behind America’s worst crimes tape and the man who cracked them. The guest host of the event is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Paige St. John.

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