Commentary on Analysis by George Saunders of Story by Anton Chekhov


“In the Cart” (Yarmolinsy Translation)

From the book by George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Note: I taught Russian literature in a university for thirty years. Naturally, I was intrigued when the short-story writer George Saunders published a book detailing how he teaches Russian stories in his creative writing classes at Syracuse University. Among those stories are two by Anton Chekhov that I once taught (“The Darling” and “Gooseberries”) and one by Nikolai Gogol (“The Nose”).

I decided that before looking at the Saunders commentary I would publish my own critical remarks on each story. The result would be an interesting contrast: material as presented by a teacher of Russian literature versus material as presented by a teacher of creative writing. The first story treated by Saunders is Anton Chekhov’s “In the Cart.” I have already posted my critical analysis of that story on my blog, “U.R. Bowie on Russian Literature” and on Dactyl Review. What follows below is my commentary on how George Saunders approaches the story.

Prefatory Material: “We Begin”

Saunders begins by describing his creative writing students at Syracuse. These students come to him “already some of the best young writers in America.” Hmm, already? He explains that “we pick only six students a year from an applicant pool of between six and seven hundred.” How, then, does the Syracuse creative writing department deal with these “already good” writers? Over a period of three years “the goal is to help them achieve what I call their ‘iconic space.’” This is “the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves . . . At this level good writing is assumed; the goal is to help them acquire the technical means to become defiantly and joyfully themselves.”

Okay. So these good writers are not yet “themselves” but we’ll give them some “technical means” that will help them find some “iconic space” where they’ll be, finally, themselves—and will also be, for some reason, “defiant” and “joyful.” A lot of promises being made here. Caveat emptor. After his critique of “In the Cart,” sixty-one pages into this book, Saunders tosses off a casual mention of “what Hemingway called a ‘built-in, shockproof shit-detector.’ How do we know that something is shit? We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it.” Turn on your built-in BS detector, reader. We’re only a paragraph into this book, but do not you, gentle reader, like me, already suspect that we may be in the clutches of one outrageous bullshitter?

If you read this book you must be prepared, unfortunately, for frequent digressions on the world of the creative writing seminar. At one point, e.g., Saunders stops speaking about the Chekhov/Yarmolinsky story and tells us how fiction writing is taught at Syracuse. This includes “workshopping” stories by writers in the class. First, we look for the “Hollywood version” of a story: “a pithy one- or two-sentence summary,” meant to answer the question, “What story does this story appear to want to be?” Duh. Later on we get an expatiation on a different issue: “Is this story story yet, or is it not yet story?” That sort of thing.

Give him a pass on all that for now. Let’s see what Saunders has to say about the Russian stories. For years he has been teaching them in his classes, hoping to learn from them, to come to understand “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?’).” These stories set a “high bar against which I measure my own . . . After all these years, the texts feel like old friends, friends I get to introduce to a new group of brilliant young writers every time I teach them.” Near the end of his exegesis of “In the Cart,” we will learn that one of these old friends is the main character of the story. “What I really want to talk about [he says later] is the short story form itself.” But the Russian writers also regard fiction “as a vital moral-ethical tool,” and they “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?”

Early admission by our guide: “I’m not a critic or a literary historian or an expert on Russian literature or any of that.” Saunders goes on to admit that he does not read Russian—or, for that matter, understand all that much about Russian history, literature, politics, culture, mentalities, etc. He is saying, in effect, let’s just pretend that the stories were written in English, since even in English, “they have worlds to teach us.”

Big inquiries that should enter the mind of any reader: why give up so much before you even start? Why begin your investigation into the craft of the short story and literary creativity with texts that are so utterly alien to you? Why not, e.g., use American stories? After all, you, as an American, have profound knowledge of American history, people, mores, culture.

In his prefatory remarks Saunders goes on explaining a few more things. “The main thing I want us to be asking together is: What did we feel [while reading the story] and where did we feel it?” In his explication of the text Saunders, our guide, will “offer some technical explanation for why we might have felt what we felt, where we felt it.” The rest of this page doesn’t say much, but at the end we learn that we will “try to explore the way the creative process really works.” Feeling, it seems, is all important. “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).”

But what, really, is the point of watching ourselves read as we read and trying to figure out how we feel/felt? And assuming a class of, say, twenty students, does not each individual have his or her own discrete feelings? And, if so, what can we learn about the story in question and particular episodes? Only that all different feelings are aroused. Something here reminds me of the standard question of the solicitous psychoanalyst: “How do you feel about that?” Enough preliminary grumbling. Let’s get on to the Chekhov story.

Eleven Pages of Yarmolinsky

Since we know that Saunders reads no Russian and, presumably, neither do any of his students, we must read and discuss the story through the intermediation of the translator he has chosen, Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Sad fact: most Russian literature classes in most universities in the U.S. are taught in English translation. We have no other choice, since picking up a reading knowledge of Russian does not come easily. So before assigning this story in his/her class what does the teacher of Russian literature do? She/he checks available translations with the original text and assigns the best one. Having no Russian, Saunders cannot do this, but he can, e.g., consult a teacher of Russian at Syracuse for advice. Has he done so, has he made sure that his Yarmolinsky story, “In the Cart,” is faithful to Chekhov’s original text? Apparently not.

What might one find in checking translations? Well, here’s one example. The Marian Fell translation of this story, “A Journey by Cart,” which is a good translation, has one serious error, mistaking (twice) the word “thirteen” for “thirty,” and thereby distorting the story. The Fell translation is included in the very popular Norton Critical Edition of Chekhov’s short stories; the error should have been found and corrected by the editors. Is the teacher of Russian literature stuck with that bad mistake in “A Journey by Cart”? No, of course not. All he/she has to do is inform the students, and they can correct the error in their books. But not if she/he knows no Russian.

As for the Yarmolinsky translation, there may be a few places where you can quibble with renderings into English, but, on the whole, the translation is fine. I’ve checked it. So we’re okay to go ahead and read and analyze “In the Cart.”

One Page at a Time

Saunders tells us that we will “track our mind as it moves from line to line” in the story. We want to know “what makes a reader keep reading . . . Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five?” We will read the story “one page at a time,” stopping after each page to “take stock of where we find ourselves.” How do we feel, what have we learned, what do we expect to happen next, do we even want to keep reading?

So here’s a sad fact, but true. If you’ve never read Chekhov’s story before, if you’ve never read “In the Cart” by Chekhov-Yarmolinsky, and you agree to go along with Saunders, be prepared to have this story ruined for you for all time. Going one page at a time, with constant interruptions for workshoppy talk by the pedagogical presence, will destroy the most important connection—of the reader with narrative presence/author—and squelch any possible aesthetic enjoyment on the part of the reader. And why do we read literary fiction? For many reasons, but, above all, for the pure aesthetic pleasure. Saunders, by the way—who says nothing about the aesthetic pleasure of reading great lit—is aware of this problem, at least subliminally. He senses that his one-page-at-a-time approach, with continuous interruptions, will annoy his reader, and he makes semi-apologies several times.

One more thing: what, according to Saunders, should be the state of your mind as you address the story, “In the Cart?” “Let’s note [he says], rather obviously that, at this moment . . . your mind is a perfect blank.” Hmm. So we don’t want any preconceptions or prejudices getting in the way of a pristine reading of a work of fiction. This would be fine, were not any human mind roiling at any given time in preconceptions and prejudices. But I assume that Saunders wants your mind blank, so that he, the pedagogical presence, can tell you what you should be feeling after each line, or each page. Maybe not thinking, but feeling.

Of course, the mind of our guide, Prof. Saunders, cannot possibly be blank at the start, since he has read this story and even taught it countless times. But you get the impression that even for him, ideally, the beginnings should be as blank as possible. Is that a good idea? How does the teacher of Russian literature approach a reading and teaching of this story? Let’s say I have a Ph.D. in Russian literature (I do), and I want to assign this story for a class. First, I read it in Russian, several times, making notes as I go. With each successive reading of it new insights will appear. Then (see above) I check the English translations and select the best one. Then, assuming that I’m not the greatest literary genius who ever lived, I consult the ideas of others who have read this story. I read the secondary sources, critical articles on Chekhov and on this particular work of fiction. Interpretations of this story.

At this point I am ready to prepare a list of discussion questions for my class. Big important point: I don’t want my students looking at the discussion questions until after they have read the story, interacted with the narrative presence. If I stick my questions up in their faces while they are reading I ruin the aesthetic pleasure of their first encounter with the story. So, ideally, they will read the story several times, think about it, let the sparks settle in their minds. Only then will they address the study questions. I say “ideally” of course, because there will always be some students who come to class on the day of discussion, having not read the story even once—let alone having addressed the study questions. I dare say that even Saunders, with all those “brilliant” students of his, will run into some of these.

One more thing: every time I teach this particular story I will get better at teaching it. Because every time you interact with a work of fiction new insights appear. Some of them come from the students in the class, some from reading say, some new critical material on the work. Some of them just pop into your head. But rereading and reteaching a story many times is highly beneficial.

What would George Saunders gain if he had read the story in Russian (which he cannot do), had he read a thing or two about the social and political situation in the south of Russian in the year 1893 (which he obviously has not done), had he read any secondary sources on Chekhov or on the story (which he certainly does not appear to have done). He would gain an in-depth feel for the story, and, above all, he would see the importance of certain specific details. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but we shall soon note that Saunders misses places in the story where Anton Chekhov is practically shouting out to the reader, LOOK AT THIS DETAIL—true, in his soft, almost whispering Chekhovian voice; Chekhov never shouts. You want a writer shouting at you, read Tolstoy.

Of course, Chekhov, who once said, “I can speak all languages, except the foreign ones,” is whisper-shouting in Russian, Посмотри! and since Saunders knows no Russian you might say it’s unfair of me to expect him to read secondary sources in Russian, where the best critical articles are to be found. You’re right, and I’d be prone to excuse him had he bothered to read secondary materials in English, or any other language.

We Begin (Again): On Blurbery

Let me forewarn the reader at this point that in going through this story along with Saunders as guide you’re in for a tough slog. But if you’re bothering to read my extensive commentary here you must have already read what our guide wrote, so you know that. Or you may be one of the many blurbers who have posted their encomiums on the back cover of the paperback book or in the first five front-matter pages. True to the mystical world of blurbery, all of these deluded personages are overflowing with praise for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. No way in hell that most of them made it even through discussion of our first story (“In the Cart”), let alone through the whole book (400 pages). But they work for various periodicals, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, etc., and they were assigned this book to review.

Saunders, of course, has a well-earned renown as a writer of fiction, mostly short stories. I agree. George Saunders is probably the best short-story writer living in the U.S. today. So what’s the rule for any writer of any review of any book by George Saunders? The rule, a cardinal principle for all journals and newspapers of the Eastern Establishment Press is this: your review must be positive. And so they are. And out of those positive reviews come the glowing, mendacious blurbs.

Names, Conveyances, Terrorists, Assassinations

“In the Cart” describes a very muddy ride in a cart (в телеге) by a woman, Marya Vasilievna, who is a schoolteacher in a tiny village in the south of Russia. The cart is driven by a peasant, Semyon. The story, first published in 1897, is set in the year 1893. Once again, I assume that anyone reading my analysis of someone else’s analysis of this story has read “In the Cart.” Surely you would not read me on the story, or Saunders on the story, without reading the story. I hope, for your sake, that you haven’t done it the excruciating way he suggests, one page at a time with interruptions, but, then again, there’s no other way to read his book.

In my critical article (see the post on Dactyl Review and on my blog) I treat the issue of names in Russian, something that Saunders never touches on. Most importantly, our main character’s last name is never revealed. She is referred to by first name and patronymic, which is the normal polite way to address or to refer to someone in Russian. Her driver Semyon (this is his first name, Simon in English) addresses her repeatedly by patronymic, Vasilievna, which is polite enough, but is a peasanty locution that somewhat demeans her. To give her the respect she deserves, he should address her as Marya Vasilievna. Enough about names for now. Saunders calls the character by her first name, Marya, which is congruent with his sentimentalist approach to her (more on the sentimental reader later).

I also go into detail on the importance of Russian conveyances in the story; on my blog post I even include photographs of various Russian carts, wagons and carriages. The most important point being that the central character MV is described as riding в телеге, whereas the title of the story is “На подводе.” So we have two different words—true, they are synonyms—for rough, springless wagons/carts, but the words, nonetheless, are different. Only once in the body of the story does Chekhov use the word in the title, podvoda (подвода), and this is to describe the wagons parked outside the tavern where MV and Semyon stop off to drink tea. Those wagons are loaded with huge bottles of oil of vitriol (concentrated sulfuric acid). This is one of the places in the story where Chekhov is screaming silently and pointing: look at this! The reader should ask—and certainly a writer explaining how the story is written should ask, and then answer—what in the world is this sulfuric acid doing in the story?

Saunders doesn’t ask, or answer. He is too busy telling us things like this (two pages worth): “The three paragraphs we have just read are in service of increased specification. Certain specifics have narrowed the path of narration—certain things can now happen; certain other things cannot. We’re at an interesting place.”

I wondered about the sulfuric acid. So did Aleksandr Karsky, in a critical article available online. In Russian. Karsky’s answer to the question opens up new realms of interpretation of this story (once again, for full details, see my article). Suffice it to say here that the sulfuric acid relates, obliquely, to the issue of terrorism in Russia.

I wondered, as well, about the assassination of the mayor of Moscow, mentioned in passing on the second page of Yarmolinsky. Saunders refers to this passage but makes next to nothing of it. What is this detail doing in the story? For one thing, it allows us to date the story exactly: N.A. Alekseev was shot and killed on Mar. 9, 1893, so we know that “In the Cart” is set a month later, on an April day, 1893. Saunders never bothers to figure this out. Chekhov certainly wanted the detail of the murder in the story, insisted on it being there. How do we know that? Because secondary sources tell us that upon first publication of the story in 1897, the publisher of the newspaper where it appeared asked Chekhov to omit this detail. It was still all too raw in the minds of Muscovites, and the bereaved relatives of Alekseev, wife and daughters, would find it painful. Chekhov omitted mention of the assassination in the first publication, but reinserted it when the story was included in his Collected Works. The information about Moscow’s wonderful mayor and his murder is all over the internet, and in English as well, so if Saunders wanted to investigate this episode, and figure out why, probably, Chekhov wanted mention of it in his story, all he had to do was click on his computer.

Nature Descriptions

The story begins with a long description of lovely nature on an April day in the south of Russia, “with a splendid April sun shedding warmth.” This is the first appearance of the sun in the story. For the most part it keeps its rays in the shadows, but it will flash here and there later on, in preparation for a scene of grand sunlit resplendence at the end.

Saunders tells us—and he’s spot on here—that there’s “an implied tension between two elements of the narrative voice, one telling us that things are lovely [the beauty of nature, ‘into which it seemed that one could plunge with such joy,’ writes Yarmolinsky/Chekhov] . . . and another resisting the general loveliness.” The resister is the main character MV and the insister is the narrator of the story (or the author behind the narrative voice).

Here Chekhov briefly violates the principle of POV (point of view), which is a cardinal sin for most MFA purveyors of rules for writing fiction. The story’s POV is centered almost exclusively on MV, but here somebody else is admiring the beauty of nature. Good writers need not concern themselves incessantly with these rules about how to write. In, perhaps, his most famous, and one of his best stories, “The Lady with the Lap Dog,” Chekhov violates, egregiously, one of the central tenets of the writer’s handbook: “show, don’t tell.” And he gets away with it. In this story, “In the Cart,” he also does a lot of “telling,” backgrounding on the main character, MV.

Assuming that your mind was not the “perfect blank” that Saunders predicates as ideal for beginning a reading of this, or any story, what else could you say about this long nature description? Well, anyone who knows much about Chekhov and has read much of Chekhov will recognize something familiar here. A man who writes consistently about the foibles and fecklessness of Russian humanity—in this story too—Chekhov loves to contrast the loveliness of the world in which we live with the sorry state of humanity living in it. The sun is out there, shining away, but all too often we are mired in the muck. As is MV, along with all the other characters of “In the Cart.”

Early on the local landowner Hanov, one of the most feckless personages in the tale, drives up in his fancy carriage pulled by four horses. There’s a reason why Chekhov places his arrival directly after mention of Alekseev’s murder (see my article). Our guide misses that juxtaposition. Saunders tells us, rightly, that Hanov’s arrival is “a big event of the page,” since a potential romance is in the works. Quoting Saunders: “Notice that, in spite of the fact that we are literary sophisticates, engaged in a deep reading of a Chekhov masterpiece, we feel the sudden appearance of Hanov to be a potential nineteenth century Russian meet-cute: lonely woman encounters possible lover.” The potential for romance is soon squelched, but Saunders goes on stressing the obvious, beating that drum for the entire remainder of his discussion.

Saunders continually emphasizes how a character or a detail in a short story must be there for a reason. If it/she/he has no reason for being, then he/she/ it should not be in the story. He’s right. The short story is, he says, “a harsh form” that has no tolerance for extraneous matters. Right. We read a detail and we are “enacting an expectation of efficiency.” Right. So what is the detail of Alekseev’s murder doing in the story? No comment by our guide. What are the big bottles of sulfuric acid doing in the story? No comment by our guide.

Hanov drives up in his carriage and tells MV that he is on the way to visit another landowner, Bakvist. At this point Saunders may well ask, but doesn’t, What is Bakvist doing in the story? Or, rather, why is he mentioned in the story (his physical self never shows up)? Will we hear more of him later? If Bakvist has no function in the story he should be kicked out of it. True, Saunders does note that desultory Hanov is off on a visit to Bakvist, although Hanov seems to know that Bakvist is not at home. So Bakvist is here, maybe, by way of showing what a dolt Hanov is. True.

A strange surname, Bakvist, not a Russian name (Polish?), a flash of something exotic (the very sound of the name) into the monochrome of a dreary Chekhovian story mired in mud. At the very end of “In the Cart” the name Bakvist will, indeed, reappear, and we can figure out another reason for his name being in the story. Although Saunders never does.

The image of the name “Bakvist” as a kind of glint of exotic sunlight brings me back to the issue of nature description. Throughout the narrative of “In the Cart” the artist in Chekhov provides us with a fascinating display of light effects. Shortly before Semyon and MV reach the tavern—where the wagons with oil of vitriol are parked outside—we get the word “enlightenment” three times in one paragraph: “She had begun to teach school from necessity, without feeling called to it, and she never thought of [her job] as a calling, of the need for enlightenment; it always seemed to her that what was most important in her work was not the children, not enlightenment, but the examinations. And when did she have time to think of a calling, of enlightenment?” This passage, of course, like many other details about the main character MV, serves to further develop our understanding of her. But deeply embedded within the text here are those glints of light, flashing three times.

Next comes the tavern scene, one of the most important in the story (more on its importance later). Amidst a room full of drunken peasants shouting obscenities, MV sits drinking tea, thinking and rethinking her obsessive thoughts about the school, and while a concertina goes on playing on the other side of the wall, Chekhov sticks in some lovely light effects: “There had been patches of sunlight on the floor, they shifted to the counter, then to the wall, and finally disappeared altogether; this meant that it was past midday.”

With those little sunspots, so delicately flickering around while ignoring the hubbub and drunkenness, we are being prepared for the grand epiphany that is to come at the end of the story: the scene of “enlightenment,” when the setting sun blazes on the green roof of MV’s school, on crosses of the church, setting the windows aflame. Just then the train passes and its windows too reflect glaring light, and then comes the vision that crowns the story: MV sees her dead mother standing on a first-class platform of the train. She is flooded with the light of joy and happiness, and, for a brief moment, sees herself back in the Moscow of her childhood. She bursts into tears. Saunders: “She recalls who she once was. She is who she once was.” Chekhov has prepared well early in the story for the sun spangles of “enlightenment” here at the end, but Saunders makes no mention of the foreshadowing. He misses all the gathering up of light effects—something that should be of genuine interest to creative writing students.

Prof. Saunders, our guide through the story, apparently does not appreciate conventional ways of discussing literary fiction. He avoids using terms like narrative arc, climax, denouement, epiphany. Why? At least these words furnish terms for some of the things he treats and remove some of the haze from his nebulous discussion. At some length he gets into the workshoppy issue of “when a story becomes story.” If “In the Cart” ended at the end of its tenth page, would it be a story yet? No, he says, something would be lacking. In reading, or writing a short story we must constantly ask ourselves, opines Saunders, “Is it story yet?” But isn’t this what he seems to be suggesting? That despite his success in developing the main character over the course of the narrative, Chekhov still lacks a high point in the narrative arc, a climax? Give us this climactic moment near the end—MV’s vision of her mother and her sudden joy—and we get that climax, or epiphany, and “the story becomes story.”

The Social and Political Background

Anton Chekhov is certainly not a preachy writer. He does not pound social, ethical or political messages into the heads of his readers. But his fiction is very much enveloped in the social and political milieu of his time, and he has his points to make about the sad state of his country. He makes those points subtly, but, nonetheless, he makes them.

Once in a while, in the midst of his workshoppy exegesis, Saunders takes a look at just where we are in the story, in the rural south of Russian, in the year 1893. Considering the plight of our schoolmistress heroine, he asks, “What kind of Russia is this that compels a person to work a job to which she has no calling, and to be so reduced by it?” Instead of answering that question, which would entail looking at the Russia of 1893, he “finds himself thinking of Terry Eagleton’s assertion that ‘capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.’” Okay, so capitalism is a bad thing, but what was MV’s Russia like? Read secondary sources and you’ll learn about the drought of 1892-93, about the famine. You’ll learn that MV’s purchases in town (flour and sugar) probably cost her a whole month’s salary.

In speaking of the scene in the tavern, how a few of the drunken peasants briefly express animosity toward MV, Saunders remarks that things “will be worse, in about twenty years [24 years, to be exact, URB], when the Russian Revolution breaks out and some of these same peasants march up the road and seize Hanov’s estate.” Good point. They might have done this even earlier, during the turmoil of 1905. In fact, MV’s peasant pupils, grown to be young men, could be active participants in the revolutionary chaos soon to come.

As for that tavern scene, pivotal in the story, Saunders discusses it in some detail, but often his conclusions are pedestrian and self-evident. All the details describing the tavern lead us to “conclude that Chekhov wants to communicate: this is a rough place.” Duh. He notices that MV, while somewhat demeaned by the peasants, is inured to such behavior. This is one more step in the development of our main character (good point). She’s “used to her fallen state . . . no longer particularly outraged about it.”

A central fact that Chekhov emphasizes repeatedly throughout this story, and in many, many of his other fictional works: Russia is on the take. This is particularly important since corruption rules, and has ruled throughout the whole of Russian history. In the year 2022 the country is still morally corrupt from top to bottom. All the characters in this tale, except for MV, live lives of moral corruption. Since he is rich, Hanov does not have to participate directly in this kind of give and take—bribery, kickbacks, mutually scratching the backs of friends, who scratch yours in turn—but he is feckless and sorry, of low moral character.

Near the end of the story we learn that the bridge over the river is built not where the village of Vyazovye is situated, but a couple of miles up the road. Why? Rather than driving out of his way to use the bridge, Semyon fords the river, in an act of foolish bravado that could have drowned his horse in harness. He grumbles about the Zemstvo, the local governing authority. Why? The implication here is clearly that the landowner Bakvist has used his influence, or has bribed the authorities to have the bridge built next to his estate. That implication is probably the main reason why Bakvist is mentioned for a second time in the story. Why does the railway line run here, rather than through the district capital? Same implication. Someone has paid someone off to get the railroad running here.

Meanwhile Saunders, who misses all these implications, is busy telling us what a story is: “A story is not like real life; it’s like a table with just a few things on it. The ‘meaning’ of the table is made by the choice of things and their relation to one another. Imagine these things on a table: a gun, a grenade, a hatchet, a ceramic statue of a duck. If the duck is at the center of the table, surrounded closely by the weapons, we feel: that duck is in trouble. If the duck, the gun, and the grenade have the hatchet pinned down in one corner, we may feel the duck to be leading the modern weaponry (the gun, the grenade) against the (old-fashioned) hatchet. If the three weapons are hanging precipitously over one edge of the table and the duck is facing them, we might understand the duck to be a radical pacifist who’s finally had enough.”

You often feel as if Saunders gave that duck a voice and he is quacking out the sort of empty blather that we get here, and elsewhere—in place of a genuine analysis of our story. As for the tavern scene, Saunders misses the implication in the oil of vitriol on the carts outside (see above), misses the description of the lovely sunspots and how this foreshadows the ending of the story (see above). He mentions how the peasants, led by the little pockmarked man, soften in their attitude toward MV, but makes little or nothing of this. Several of these rough peasants make clear how they respect her. One says, “It’s the school-ma’m from Vyazovye. I know; she’s a good sort.” Another adds, “She’s all right!” The original Russian here reads, “She’s a decent person.” They line up to shake hands with her before leaving the tavern.

Important fact about Russians (or humans) on the take. They assume that not only they, but everyone else as well, lives a life of petty corruption. They tend to condescend to people who don’t play the game of corruption, to use these people, look upon them as saps. We learn later that the peasants halfway believe MV to be playing by the same rules as them. They assume that she pockets (she does not) “the greater part of the money that she received for firewood and for the janitor’s wages.” Yet they must have heard how well she treats her peasant students, how she perseveres in doing her job amidst great adversity; they respect her for a reason. The main point being that once in a while (not often) some deep neuron in the human brain comes to the forefront, and corrupt human beings reveal a grudging but profound respect for rectitude and probity. That’s what the scene of the handshakes is all about. Beaten but unbowed MV is truly the heroine of this story.

Three Types of Readers

“You have lowbrow readers, for whom only the sentimental side of a book counts; middlebrows, fond of ideas, and, finally, the highbrows, responsive to art” (Vladimir Nabokov, Think, Write, Speak, p. 274). Nabokov was not the first to come up with this three-way categorization of readers, and, of course, the thing can only be an oversimplification. But I find it instructive in looking at the way George Saunders approaches his exegesis of this story by Chekhov/Yarmolinsky.

Odd fact: Saunders (see above) at the conclusion to his analysis of “In the Cart,” mentions Hemingway’s “built-in shockproof shit detector,” seemingly unaware that any reader running this BS detector while reading his commentary will hear it clanging perpetually in his ears. A good example is the passage about the duck that I just cited, but you can find other examples on almost any page. At one point Saunders also brings up the issue of what he calls “ritual banality avoidance,” unaware, it seems, that any reader of his commentary will be hard put to avoid the “ritual banality.” Finally, in reference to himself, and his students who are discussing this story, he remarks at one point, “we are literary sophisticates, engaged in a deep reading of a Chekhov masterpiece.”

We’ve already given numerous examples of how superficial this “deep reading” is. Let’s look further now at the “literary sophisticates” in that creative writing class. Since they are deeply invested in the art of literary fiction, should they not be among Nabokov’s “highbrows”? The most astonishing thing of all about the Saunders approach to “In the Cart” is how much it has in common to the approach of what Nabokov calls the lowbrow reader; elsewhere Nabokov has spoken, disparagingly, of the kind of reader who moves his lips as he reads.

Consistently throughout his analysis of the story, Saunders emphasizes his sympathy for the main character, MV, or Marya as he calls her. As mentioned above, at the first appearance of the landowner Hanov in the story, Saunders brings up the possibility of a romantic connection between him and MV. Incompetent and useless as Hanov is, however, we readers are “not sure if we want Marya interested in him or not.” Later MV is thinking of her problems at the school but she “self-interrupts herself” and in her thoughts switches back to the Hanov track: “He really is handsome.” This self-interruption is “a beautiful thing,” since “it says the mind can be two places at once.” Saunders goes on to remark, “Note the little burst of pleasure we feel as we recognize ourselves in Marya.” Huh? Do we recognize ourselves in Marya and does that give us pleasure? How can Saunders speak for how any reader, except himself, feels?

Early on Saunders dismisses the possibility that MV and Hanov can make a connection, but he keeps coming back to this possibility. Well, he suggests, Havov, after all, is a dolt, but the reader (as lip-reading sentimentalist) thinks, “Do I even want them together? I sort of do, I guess.” Later: “The story has just written itself out of the place of its original conception, by removing Hanov as a possible antidote for Marya’s loneliness.” What will happen next we don’t know, but we still kind of want Hanov and MV to get together. “We’re rooting for Marya.” On the other hand, in removing the love interest Chekhov has avoided making his story into a bit of banality about romantic love. This might be called “ritual banality avoidance.” Urgh.

After MV reveals in the tavern scene that she “is used to her fallen state, no longer particularly outraged about it,” the lip reader remarks, “I find myself feeling more tenderness for her, and more protective of her.” After the big epiphany scene at the end, when MV briefly is illumined with joy and tenderness, when she becomes briefly her former happy self, the doofus sentimentalist says, “I love this new, suddenly elated Marya,” and, shortly after that, “I always feel that this harsh world she’s been living in is about to receive a correction.” HUH? Now, where did that come from? One exception to my caviling: Saunders sticks in a nice detail at the very end. When the guard takes off his cap as MV rides back into the little village where she lives and works, it is as if to say, “Welcome back, madam, to your loneliness.” Good point, George Saunders.

Now back to the caviling. What an unusual approach to fiction from one who is a professional writer of fiction: to read a story in one of the most primitive and unsophisticated ways possible, by identifying with the main character. Of course, any reader has sympathies with certain characters in fiction; it’s only natural that we should do so. But to make this the central feature of your piece of literary criticism? Astonishing. At the very end comes this passage of utter imbecility: “Over the course of these eleven pages, the blank mind with which you began [what “blank mind”? URB] has been filled with a new friend, Marya, who, if my experience is any indication, will stay with you forever. And the next time you hear someone described as ‘lonely,’ you may, because of your friendship with Marya, find yourself more inclined to think of that person tenderly, even though you haven’t met her yet.”

So that’s why we read literary fiction: to make new friends. After I get up off the floor from rolling in laughter at this maudlin tripe I imagine great Russian writers in the Afterlife—say Chekhov and Nabokov—also rolling and holding their sides. And just to think: only two pages later comes mention of what Hemingway called that “built-in, shockproof shit-detector.” Surely all those brilliant students in Saunders’ classes at Syracuse—assuming that they have not snored their way through his classroom presentation of “In the Cart”—have detected the BS almost from the beginning. That last bit quoted above, by the way, about making friends with MV, is a perfect example of what is meant by the Russian word poshlost’. In his quirky little book on Nikolai Gogol, Nabokov spends several pages (63-74) expatiating on the meaning of this word, which encompasses different variants of what we translate into English as banality/vulgarity.

Speaking of Gogol. He wrote both fiction and nonfiction. His fiction is often magnificent, sparking with a volcanic creativity unachieved by nearly any other Russian prose writer. It’s as if some creative neuron deep in his brain turned off the pedestrian side of Nikolai Gogol and took over during the writing, say, of “The Overcoat,” or “The Nose.” On the other hand, that neuron was asleep when the time came for Gogol to write his nonfiction, which is rife with sanctimony and utter banality. The pedestrian side of Gogol makes for hard slogging for any reader.

With George Saunders we have a similar situation. His fiction is brilliant, but surely not the same man wrote this analysis of “In the Cart.” The fiction writer would bridle at the suggestion that while writing a story he would have to stop and ask questions like, “Is it story yet?” Or, “Am I properly into my ritual banality avoidance?” That man would read the passage about the duck and the hatchet and marvel that someone named George Saunders wrote that bit of nonsensical badinage.

I had originally intended to read all of this book, A Swim in A Pond in the Rain, but after “In the Cart” I cannot go on. After all, this woebegone book contains the workshoppy take on some of my favorite works of Russian fiction, including two more great stories by Chekhov and Gogol’s immortal “Nose.” I shudder to think of how Saunders will approach the Nose in that story. Will he find a way to make friends with it? Will he ask it how it feels to be blown? Maybe by some miracle the remaining three hundred pages of this book are much better than the first sixty. I’ll never know, given that the first sixty are so bad.


An Elaborate Hoax?

One other way to read this book. It could be a work of fiction, an elaborate hoax on the part of the fiction writer George Saunders, who tells the tale of a creative writing prof—also named, coincidentally, George Saunders—a lip-reading sentimentalist given to pontificating about ducks and hatchets, about what a short story is, how a short story feels, and when a story becomes story. In passages dripping with unintended irony this prof—who knows next to nothing about Russia or Russian literature—reveals his “methods” for teaching something he has no business teaching: Russian literature. In excruciating detail he leads his readers through some of the best fiction ever written—and spoils this fiction utterly for the reader.

So much of the material here lends itself to that interpretation of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  The rodomontade right at the beginning about how he and his fellow writing instructors will lead “brilliant” students to their cherished “iconic space”—and to a new “defiant and joyful” life. The thing about “ritual banality avoidance,” stuck in amidst the many pages of pure banality. And, especially, after sixty pages of persiflage and BS, the casual mention of Hemingway’s BS detector. If this is what the book is all about, am I the first one to discover the magnificent joke that Saunders has played on readers who take it seriously?

U.R. Bowie, author of Here We Be. Where Be We?

2 thoughts on “Commentary on Analysis by George Saunders of Story by Anton Chekhov

  1. New insights always appreciated. I don’t go into the whole of this in my posting on George Sanders, but I elaborate more in my analysis of the story (also posted on Dactyl Review), where I mention things learned by reading secondary sources. We can make much of the carts transporting oil of vitriol, or maybe too much? Thanks for your comment.

  2. About that oil of vitriol: Even though Russia may have been riddled with enigmatic mystery (to paraphrase Churchill) it seems that all too often the scions of academia occupy themselves with the notion that authors insist on indulging themselves by writing in code. Oil of vitriol, or concentrated sulfuric acid, is a common ingredient in the tanning process. And who is the overseer of the local school district but an uncouth peasant who owns a tannery. Could it be that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (S. Freud)? If it’s symbolism that’s desired, look no further than Animal Farm.

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