Book Review: This is a book that feels like a conversation

This is a book of old Russian short stories where, after each one, a writing teacher analyses why they’re good. No wait… come back. Bear with me. It may sound so niche only three people would ever want to read it but, trust me, this book is something special.

Thursday, 3rd June 2021, 12:00 am
A Swim in a Pond.

George Saunders is a Booker-winning novelist himself, winning the grand prize in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo. So, this is a man who knows a thing or two about good writing. And it turns out he knows a thing or two about much more than that.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a hymn to independent thought, finding and celebrating the things that make every individual ‘uniquely themselves’ - this applies equally across writing, reading and, well, living.

It’s also a celebration of hypocrisy or, more specifically, the ability to believe two contradictory opinions at the same time.

Apparently this ‘lack of a political or moral stance’ was a particular tendency of Tolstoy’s, and he was criticised for it in his day much as we would now criticise someone who professed a definite moral standpoint on an issue, then expressed the opposing view just as decisively.

In the current political and social context, though, this ability to consider two opposing ideas as equally valid seems almost miraculous, and at the very least something worth exploring.

One of the most compelling things about this book is the style in which it’s written - possibly the closest an author can come to making a book feel like a genuine conversation.

Saunders has a tremendous gift for making you feel you’re there, sitting with him over a cup of tea, comparing notes on the Russian masters. It comes as a shock to realise that you’ve been silent throughout.

Have I convinced you yet? Are you ready to dive into the lessons Saunders, via Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol, has to teach us? If not, don’t worry. By choosing to leave it on the bookshelf, you’re exercising your independent and self-determining mind - and Saunders would wholeheartedly approve of that.