This is a fun book to read. Award-winning writer George Saunders has spent decades teaching Russian short stories in his writing classes, and in this volume he chooses several of his favorite stories and expounds upon them at length. In several instances, Saunders’s commentaries are significantly longer than the stories. The four Russian authors represented with stories are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Turgenev and Gogol have one each, Tolstoy has two, and Chekhov has three (but his are also the shortest).
I approached this book with eagerness to venture into realms of literature that were (and are) relatively unfamiliar to me. I’ve read a collection of Chekhov’s stories before, but it was a long time ago. I’ve read some of Tolstoy’s short works too, but not the ones that Saunders has selected for this volume.
Overall I like his selections, although I enjoyed some much more than others. One of my favorites is “Gooseberries” by Chekhov, a subtle discourse on the purpose and possibility of happiness in life. From “Gooseberries” Saunders gets the title of the book; at a certain point one of the characters takes a swim in a pond and relishes the experience intensely.
My other favorite is “Master and Man” by Tolstoy, which is also the longest story in the book. A landowner takes one of his servants with him on a trip to another town to conduct some urgent business; however, a snowstorm is raging and they keep getting lost. The landowner’s selfishness and disdain for his servant is brought out again and again as he refuses to hunker down and wait out the storm but continues to try to get to his destination. Finally they become trapped in the snow. The landowner selfishly takes the carriage horse and rides off to save himself, but in the storm he gets turned around and ends up back at the carriage where his servant has almost died of the cold. In the end, the landowner has a change of heart and throws himself on top of his servant to keep him warm. The landowner freezes to death, but the servant survives.
Chekhov’s stories are always well-crafted at least and masterful at best. The Turgenev story, “The Singers,” I felt was overlong and told in somewhat of a dated style, the Gogol story, “The Nose,” I thought was merely silly, and the other Tolstoy story, “Alyosha the Pot,” I thought was slight. For another example of brilliant Tolstoy I would have chosen “God Sees the Truth, but Waits” instead. However, here we come to one of the great pleasures of the book, which is Saunders justifying and explaining his choices. He takes the obvious objections that modern readers would have to these stories and delves into why the writers made the choices that they did. Some of his explanations are historical, while others have to do with plotting and character development and theme and even peculiarities of various translators. Most of the time, though, on whatever topic, they are witty, intelligent, and erudite. Saunders’s love of writing shines through it all.
Saunders closes the book with a short epilogue called “We End.” In it he sums up his ultimate message to his students: “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.” In this book, Saunders explains how he approaches story writing and how these Russian master writers went about it, but when it come down to it, each writer is different, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whether you pick up any practical tips for your own reading and writing or not, this book is worth reading for its entertainment value. Odds are, you’ll learn more than a thing or two as well.