On George Saunders and the Russians; plus warm lights, conflicts, and comforts.
What follows is something I've written about before. But as with all things moved in torrents to the past, they often shift and change by a few degrees over time, in perfect accordance with all the ways we do. Little lights appear from the distance and shine themselves on shadows we didn't know existed.
The first time I came to the Thai city where I now live and have a wife and a house being built on land in a village near rice paddies and train tracks, I was utterly alone, living in a tiny apartment in which I opted out of basic comforts like refrigeration and air conditioning, and the basic discomforts of socialization. It's how I'd designed it: Leave the U.S. Go somewhere I don't speak the language. Don't speak the language. Write, read, walk the streets at night, and do whatever else was required of me to sustain this way of living for a bit longer, as long as it took.
It was 2013 and then it was 2014, and I remember vividly sitting many nights in a fairly frenetic restaurant near the river and weekend walking street, reading short stories on my iPod Touch. I didn't have a smartphone or a desire for one. And the only thing the iPod really offered me was the ability to read books via the Kindle app. Looking back now, I can't recall reading anything for the whole of that time but George Saunders stories. That's not to say that I didn't, in actuality, read anything else; I imagine I probably did. But those things, I can only guess, must not have shone their lights on the hidden (and not-so-hidden) shadows I'd carried all those miles to sit alone and scour. So my mind, carrier pigeon of the future that it is, at least in my imagination, either discarded those other texts or put them into a subconscious storage bin somewhere, perhaps to be of use at a later date. I'm no expert. But I think this is basically how it works.
Those days for me were largely about reconciling my desire to be almost athletically alone with my conflicting desire to have deep and intimate connections with others. And it occurs to me only now, via writing this and the various occurrences that have led me to write this, that things haven't really changed that much. What has changed is not the desire but the degree. I've had to sacrifice some degree of aloneness to make room for some degree of connection, and (now, subsequently) I sometimes have to tilt the other way.
In a few words: I've had to find balance.
In a few more: One must, I think, at least dip a toe in the waters of balance, and allow for a diversity of life and living, in an effort not to overburden oneself with any one thing or view or way of being. One can do this in part by ridding oneself as much as possible of absolutes and sureties, and opening oneself up to the swells of nuance and wonder and discomfort. One can even, with varying degrees of care, allow such things as refrigeration and smartphones and other people into one's life.
Sitting in that restaurant with my George Saunders surrogates all those years ago—the same restaurant I ate at last year with my wife, and her family and mine, who'd gathered uneasily in those precarious early days of this uncaring pandemic to attend our wedding—warm lights did shine. I was alone, which I wanted to be, but also often depressed and lonely and feeling adrift, which I didn't particularly want to be, and those stories rushed into me full steam ahead, like paramedics of the soul, administering unalloyed care and comfort.
In doing so, I now know, they opened windows in my mind. Those windows were the source of the aforementioned warm lights. And those warm lights thus produced the thrust needed to open more windows.
Earlier this week, between reading chapters of a book I'm reading now for a book club I'm involved in, I started squeezing in chapters of George Saunders' new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which he dissects seven of the classic Russian stories he's been teaching in a creative writing MFA program for twenty years. "Hearing" his voice again, for the first time in a long while, the same warm rush, or maybe a distant cousin, from that special place in the past made its immediate return. And so the circle goes. A breeze blows and a window opens and a light shines. And a light shines and a window opens and a breeze blows.
Brian Leli, January 2021
Over an actual semester we might read thirty stories (two or three per class), but for the purposes of this book we’ll limit ourselves to seven. The stories I’ve chosen aren’t meant to represent a diverse cast of Russian writers (just Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol) or even necessarily the best stories by these writers. They’re just seven stories I love and have found eminently teachable over the years. If my goal was to get a non-reader to fall in love with the short story, these are among the stories I’d offer her. They’re great stories, in my opinion, written during a high-water period for the form. But they’re not all equally great. Some are great in spite of certain flaws. Some are great because of their flaws. Some of them may require me to do a little convincing (which I’m happy to attempt). What I really want to talk about is the short story form itself, and these are good stories for that purpose: simple, clear, elemental.
For a young writer, reading the Russian stories of this period is akin to a young composer studying Bach. All of the bedrock principles of the form are on display. The stories are simple but moving. We care about what happens in them. They were written to challenge and antagonize and outrage. And, in a complicated way, to console.
Once we begin reading the stories, which are, for the most part, quiet, domestic, and apolitical, this idea may strike you as strange; but this is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories 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.
We live, as you may have noticed, in a degraded era, bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced, too rapidly disseminated information bursts. We’re about to spend some time in a realm where it is assumed that, as the great (twentieth-century) Russian short story master Isaac Babel put it, “no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)
To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time. What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read (trying to reconstruct how we felt as we were, just now, reading). Why would we want to do this? Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.
Throughout, I’ll be offering some models for thinking about stories. No one of these is “correct” or sufficient. Think of them as rhetorical trial balloons. (“What if we think about a story this way? Is that useful?”) If a model appeals to you, use it. If not, discard it. In Buddhism, it’s said that a teaching is like “a finger pointing at the moon.” The moon (enlightenment) is the essential thing and the pointing finger is trying to direct us to it, but it’s important not to confuse finger with moon. For those of us who are writers, who dream of someday writing a story like the ones we’ve loved, into which we’ve disappeared pleasurably, and that briefly seemed more real to us than so-called reality, the goal (“the moon”) is to attain the state of mind from which we might write such a story. All of the workshop talk and story theory and aphoristic, clever, craft-encouraging slogans are just fingers pointing at that moon, trying to lead us to that state of mind. The criterion by which we accept or reject a given finger: “Is it helping?”
George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
P.S. After I started reading George Saunders, I started writing fiction, mostly unsuccessfully. Here’s a short story I wrote a few years back that came to mind both while I was reading Saunders’ new book and writing this letter.
There was a small man in a small town who’d been feeling off and managed to convince himself that he’d lost an electron. So sure was he that he visited an art store and purchased high quality paper and a set of black Sharpies with a wide range of tips for producing different line widths and drafted MISSING signs. Then he went to the general store and bought materials for making wheat paste and carried them home in a bucket with various other adhesives and began that afternoon posting the signs. People stopped and looked at him strangely and he knew that what they must have been seeing was the loss of his electron, the monster therein and not his real person. In the evening he posted a photo of one of his MISSING signs on all of the most popular social media networks. He included along with the photo a brief plea for help that while displaying no emotion did little to mask his distress. After posting his posts he ate a dinner of white rice with nothing else and read a short story from one of the Russians, whose work had begun resonating with the man instantly upon gaining an understanding of the source of his otherwise baffling state: the disorienting loss of a mere electron. In his sleep that night the man dreamt of traveling a world made only of electricity. In the dream the man was not a man but a part of the electricity. The rest of the electricity it would therefore follow would have been made of other men and women no longer men nor women, as well as the charges of organisms previously animals and trees and so forth. The part of electricity the man had become saw the images in its dream as a bat might see them, which is to say that it saw them in monochrome. In the hours that the man slept the electrical charge came to the realization that it was in fact the result of an electron gain rather than a loss, which did much to explain the negativity of its charge but also made a great fool of the small man and his postings and signs. In the same nocturnal hours the negative charge’s post on the single most popular of the social media networks received seven Likes, one Love, and two Hahas. It also prompted one concerned email from the man’s mother, who’d commented as well on the negative charge’s post with a series of question marks, a comment which itself received three Likes. But it didn’t see any of these things. When it awoke the following morning it did not get out of bed. It did not open the curtains or turn on the lights or look at its computer or phone, which were also now but other elements in the electricity it wanted only to stay away from by staying wrapped in and silent and still and alone inside of. But from under its host’s covers and their manifest conduit in space, it moved through more of the Russians and their charges and peculiar statics, wherein travels a steadied resilience that hums not separately from life’s more comedic cruelties, but rather precisely and peaceably within them, as was the case with the small man who’d mistaken his electron gain for a loss, which, as well as his own debilitating darkness, brought a muted laughter to the whole of the land.