SWIMMING WITH THE RUSSIANS

Anton Chekhov, medical doctor and writer, died of tuberculosis at the age of only 44. Ironically for such a reticent figure, it was a darkly theatrical death. The refrigerated railway car repatriating his corpse from Germany to Russia in 1904 was marked ‘FRESH OYSTERS’. His widow Olga became a leading actor and spy in post-Revolutionary Russia, but Chekhov was too much a libertarian to have submitted to any dictatorship.

George Saunders, Booker prize-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, sees Chekhov as commendably “anti-ideological” in his literary ambitions. His characters yearn always to be somewhere else – preferably Moscow – but they suffer from a divan-bound inertia. A mood of Chekhovian apathy pervades the short stories of Raymond Carver as surely as it does the terminal theatre of Samuel Beckett.

 

What can a long-dead Russian writer tell us of ourselves today, of life? A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a collection of essays, guides us through seven incontestably great 19th century Russian short stories. All seven stories are included here, three of them by Chekhov. Written in the late 1890s, ‘In the Cart’, ‘The Darling’, and ‘Gooseberries’ radiate an atmosphere of unfathomable yet quite ordinary strangeness. Ordinariness – life in all its drab wonder – was Chekhov’s great theme.

 

 

 

By means of grids, graphs and diagrams, Saunders shows how the typical Chekhov story proceeds by minute plot twists and micro “escalations”. Tennessee Williams thought Chekhov held rather “too much in reserve”, yet overstatement was anathema to him. Like his compatriot Vladimir Nabokov, Chekhov flinched from Dostoevsky’s mystic histrionics.

Saunders, a former petroleum engineer, likes to disassemble and analyse, yet this is not a dry, technical guide on how to write. For over 20 years he has taught the Russian short story in translation at Syracuse University in New York State, and communicates in plain prose much of what his students have taught him, as well as his own personal musings on life, art and death.

 Suffused with a wry humour, the essays are aimed at anyone interested in how fiction works. Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev are as relevant to us today in these stricken times as they were in Tsarist-era Russia.

If Chekhov is tantalizingly elusive, Tolstoy conjures an atmosphere of impassive Christian grandeur. ‘Master and Man’, Tolstoy’s great 1895 parable of social inequality and sacrifice, unfolds in a December snowstorm. A wealthy merchant-landowner sets out with his serf across a frozen immensity of tundra, only to get fatally lost. Tolstoy’s is the “kind of story I want to write”, Saunders says, “the kind that stops being writing and starts being life.”

 

 

Tolstoy, a moral-ethical giant, towered above his predecessor Gogol, whose satirical short story ‘The Nose’, written in around 1836, relates how a nose detaches itself from the face of a St Petersburg petty official and develops a life of its own. Kafkaesque? Gogol’s is less a proto-surrealist fable of identity, Saunders argues, than an exercise in blunt realism, that scrutinizes the topsy-turvy world of Tsarist officialdom.

Saunders can neither speak nor read Russian, yet he has studied his adored Russian writers in the faithful, if now slightly fusty, Constance Garnett translations of the 1920s, which remain good enough. His book is what every lover of pre-Revolution Russian literature needs close by: not an academic interpretation, but a reader’s companion. I was pleasurably absorbed from start to finish.

 

This review first appeared in the Evening Standard on 8 January 2021