The renowned author delivers a master class on the Russian short story and on the timeless value of fiction.
Though Saunders is known mainly as an inventive, award-winning writer—of novels, short stories, cultural criticism—he has also taught creative writing at Syracuse since 1997. “Some of the best moments of my life…have been spent teaching that Russian class,” he writes. This is the book version of that class, illuminating seven stories by the masters: three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Turgenev and Gogol. All stories are included in full, and readers need not be familiar with Russian literature to find this plan richly rewarding. Opening with Chekhov’s “The Cart,” Saunders shows just how closely we’ll be reading—a page or two of the original text at a time followed by multiple pages of commentary. The author seeks to answer “the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?” As he shows throughout this thrilling literary lesson, the answer has little to do with conventional notions of theme and plot; it’s more about energy, efficiency, intentionality, and other “details of internal dynamics.” Saunders explains how what might seem like flaws often work in the story’s favor and how we love some stories even more because of—rather than in spite of—those flaws. Saunders is always careful not to confuse the internal workings of a story with authorial intent. Once we become accustomed to reading like he reads, we proceed through the stories with great joy, anticipating even further delights with his explications to follow. “The resistance in the stories,” he writes, “is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.”
A master of contemporary fiction joyously assesses some of the best of the 19th century.