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HOW RUSSIAN FICTION STUMPED GEORGE SAUNDERS

By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with [1]

On the subject of Russia and the Russians, American exceptionalism pops up in the most unexpected places.

Take the case of a new book from the Russia-warfighting publisher Random House of New York fetchingly sub-titled “In which four Russians give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life”. The Guardian, lead Russia-warfighter in London, managed to review the book as “a delight”, but it avoided [2]mentioning the word “Russia” even once.  The New York Times, perpetrator of every propaganda line the Russiagate plotters and Kremlin regime changers want to see in print, managed  the word “Russian” three times in its review of the new book [3],  but consigned it to the 19th century, safely locked up by reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s “classic lectures on Russian literature, first delivered at Cornell.”

Now forest rangers may refer to the particular tree in the wood on which their dogs choose to urinate.  But in the history of modern Russian literature the place in upstate New York where Nabokov was paid to deliver himself of his opinions before he fled to Switzerland for life is quite unexceptional — except to the New York Times. In the upstate New York forest, Nabokov’s Cornell tree is just one hour’s driving south of the tree at Syracuse where the author George Saunders (lead image) has produced his book on the four Russian guides to life. No dog, no tree in Saunders’ title, but plenty of relieving liquid – “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain [4]”.

What makes Saunders the master in the “master class” is spelled out in the reviews. His lectures to undergraduates on creative fiction are “top-ranked”; another book of his won a Pulitzer prize for fiction; also a Booker prize; he’s been on a best-seller list; there is a “rack of National Magazine Awards”; and he has been given a “genius grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. In short, this is a master situated squarely in the American marketplace, and advantageously at that. Russia is his latest selling-point, a barker’s come-on.  

About that place and its people far away, Saunders claims on page 6 to know nothing – “I’m not a critic or a literary historian or an expert on Russian literature or any of that.” At the same time – actually two pages earlier, on page 4 – Saunders had already declared he knows quite enough. The lessons from Russia he selected for his story-telling are “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”.

Phew! That relieves Saunders of the Russian pain in his pants as he approached his exceptional upstate New York tree.  But he’s gotten too close — too many dogs, too much liquid in the roots, a gust of wind, and the tree is keeling over. Look out! Timberrr! Exceptionalist American fiction writer has been topped by log of Russian truth.  

As MacArthur Foundation geniuses go, Saunders can’t help but reveal he’s still a nervous sort of fellow, unsure of where he belongs and whom he
is talking to. He has tried to make sure readers think he’s working-class by displaying his blue collar on the backflap of his book (right). They are the readers who don’t subscribe to the Guardian or the New York Times. In the book’s introduction Saunders says he studied engineering at the Colorado School of Mines; laboured in the Texas oilfields; and drove around in an “old RV”.  Every so often in the running text he uses slang to sound working-class – “mensch”, “wow”, “jeez”, “booby”. “stinker”. He’s given away, though, by the carefully trimmed van Dyck beard (right).

Saunders also needs the backing of the American intelligentsia to help disguise his clichés and camouflage their triteness: Terry Eagleton, for example, for saying “capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body”; David Mamet for the idea that “we need characters so that they can fulfil required of them by the story”; Donald Barthelme for claiming the writer “is one, who embarking upon a task, does not know what to do”; Marilynne Robinson for the model of “a deeply spiritual writer”; and Dr Seuss for the rhetorical question,  “Why are you bothering to tell me this?”.

There’s also the point when Saunders leaps out of the blue-collar class, past the professors’ common room, beyond the reach of his book-prize peers —  in fact right out of this world altogether. “I feel about Olenka,” he writes about an Anton Chekhov character, “the way I think God might”.  Can American exceptionalism get more exceptionalist than that?

Saunders cannot have realized that he’s tossed the reductio ad absurdum, but unlike Archimedes of Syracuse and other ancients, it has boomeranged back – above the blue collar and van Dyck beard, right between the eyes. Russian readers would credit Saunders with making fun of himself, as a Russian writer might, but they would be mistaken.  

Unconcussed, Saunders presses on with lessons he recommends to his students. Chekhov’s “In the Cart” (1897) is put down for: “loneliness has always been with us and always will be” plus “as long as there’s wealth, there’ll be poverty”. Ivan Turgenev’s “The Singers” (1852) is a “rather hard-ass model of a story…that every part of it should be there for a reason”, and “the Russian version of: ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat’”.

Leo Tolstoy’s high-school primer “Master and Man” (1895) is pronounced: “it’s not much of a stretch to say that his fiction changed the way human beings think about themselves.” Perhaps in Saunders’ rubberised universe it’s not much of a stretch to say this; Russians think it’s preposterous. Saunders tries to save his stretch by likening Tolstoy’s story to a near-death experience Saunders once had himself when the engine of an aircraft he was travelling on caught fire, the other passengers began screaming, and Saunders thought he was going to die. He doesn’t say if the plane crashed; apparently like the peasant Nikita —  the man, not the master in Tolstoy’s story —  he didn’t die. Nikita lost three toes to frost-bite; Sanders kept his full set.

It’s when he comes to Nikolai Gogol that Saunders comes a cropper, an irreversible tumble into an American exceptionalism which every time it opens its mouth about Russia, it proves it hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s talking about, let alone how to wage war against it.  This is harmless out of the mouths of pretend-working class professors in upstate New York. It’s much the same, anodynically speaking, when repeated in newspaper copy written by immigrants to the US who studied at Harvard.

On the other hand, it’s a very serious matter when the cropper over Russia comes to generals of the US Army on the battlefield, or POTUSES sitting in their Oval Offices.

Saunders reprints Gogol’s “The Nose” (1836), the tale of a barber who thinks he’s cut off the nose of a junior bureaucrat and is arrested by a policeman as he throws it off a St. Petersburg bridge. The bureaucrat thinks he’s met the nose while it is walking about in the uniform of a higher rank. The bureaucrat blames his misfortune on a spell cast on him by a lady of his acquaintance trying to compel him to marry her daughter. In the end,  the nose returns to the face of the bureaucrat; the barber gets out of jail and returns to business as usual, shaving the bureaucrat carefully.

“That is the kind of affair that happened,” Gogol winds up, “in the northern capital of our vast empire. Only now, on second thoughts, can we see that there is much that is improbable in it…. Whatever anyone says, such things happen in this world; rarely, but they do.”

Saunders cannot fathom the humour, the irony, the realism, especially now, so he tries to wrestle  Gogol’s story into headlocks and strangle holds like these:
– “what we’re really learning about is what we might call the fictive world’s psychological physics?” Might we?
– “This scene, like the entire story,  is infused with what we might call Multiple Superimposed Weirdness Syndrome?” Might we?
– “The narration…is a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz.Unreliable is not what skaz [5] means, not to Russians, not in Wikipedia.
– “This isn’t graceless writing; this is a great writer writing a graceless writer writing.”
– “Since all narration is misnarration, Gogol says, let us misnarrate joyfully”
– “It’s like a prose version of the theory of relativity.”

To reinforce for the reader who’s the really great writer passing judgements like these on the lesser lights, Saunders claims: “I’m reminded of a story”; he means to say one of his very own (as yet unpublished and without a prize). It starts: “A rich Hollywood agent’s Ferrari breaks down in the desert outside Los Angeles.” The story ends when a farmer in a “beat-up pickup truck” comes along. “‘Need a lift?’ asks the kindly farmer. ‘Fuck you!’ shouts the agent.” In case the reader misses the moral of this tale, Saunders invites him to collaborate: “If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, ‘given how generally sweet people are, why is the world so fucked up?’ Saunders says that “Gogol has an answer : we each have an energetic and unique skaz loop running in our heads…”

Saunders also recruits three professors without household names — Viktor Vinogradov, Robert Maguire, Val Vinokur – to accuse Gogol of “substandard speech”; “enthusiasms outrun[ning] common sense”; “improper narrative emphasis”. At this point, a Russian reader might think that Saunders is cribbing from Gogol’s irony. But no, Saunders presses home against Gogol the one telling authority in the New York world  — a Jewish memoir of the Holocaust in Germany which, Saunders insists, “has something in common with Gogol’s printing office.” Something indeed.

Then Saunders does the God trick again, the Jewish one this time, not the Christian one from before. “None of the writers we’re reading here, including Gogol, could have imagined the horrors of the Holocaust (or the Russian Revolution or the Stalinist purges), but Gogol, I think, could have narrated these.”

Notice that Saunders inserts in parentheses the Russia war-fighting line that the Bolsheviks  followed by Stalin are the moral equivalent of Hitler and the Nazis. In his parenthesis Saunders also breaks new ground by claiming the Russian Revolution is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust. It’s safe ground, though, for a fellow aiming to stay in the good books and on the payslips of the New Yorker.

Source: https://www.newyorker.com/ [6]

The Russian story-tellers from the 19th century may not prove to be more masterly at writing, reading or life than those of other cultures. That’s a matter of taste and of learning, not of war propaganda and race hatred.  But the Russians will survive this exercise match with the middle aged fellow from Syracuse, showing off his muscles to teenagers. What an embarrassment to see in his dedication to “my students at Syracuse past, present, and future”, that Saunders isn’t confident of keeping his job after this book goes into remainders.