A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
- George Saunders
- My last highlight
- Number of highlights
Chekhov once said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.” “Formulate them correctly” might be taken to mean: “make us feel the problem fully, without denying any part of it.”
Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of: (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and (2) getting better at articulating that response.
When there are no customers he can usually be seen sitting like a sack on the ground in front of his cottage, his thin legs tucked up under him, exchanging pleasantries with every passer-by.
The whole experience of reading fiction might be understood as a series of “establishings” (“the dog is sleeping”), stabilizations (“he is really sleeping deeply, so deeply that the cat just managed to walk across his back”), and alterations (“Uh-oh, he woke up”).
The contractor’s performance was described in terms of what he could do, Yashka’s in terms of what he caused his listeners to feel.
We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs—or doesn’t—in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.
we feel the story to be saying something about technical proficiency vs. emotional power, and coming down in favor of the latter. It is saying that the highest aspiration of art is to move the audience and that if the audience is moved, technical deficiencies are immediately forgiven.
I teach “The Singers” to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be. As young writers, we all have romantic dreams of being a writer of a certain kind, of joining a certain lineage.
Booby emptied his glass with eager haste and, as is the custom with confirmed drunkards, grunted and looked sad and preoccupied.
This writer may turn out to bear little resemblance to the writer we dreamed of being.
Did Turgenev intend “The Singers” to serve as an apologia for his lack of craft? While he was writing it? After he had written it? I’m pretty sure he didn’t “aim” to produce an apologia—didn’t start out to do that. I doubt he realized what he’d done, and I don’t know that he’d necessarily bless our assessment of it. But here’s the important thing: I don’t think it matters. He did it, and then he let it stand. Which is a form (the ultimate form, for an artist) of “meaning to do it” (of taking responsibility). The blessing an artist gives the final product (which he gives by sending it out into the world) is his way of saying that he approves of everything within it, even parts of it that may, in that moment, be hidden from him. That is to say, final approval isn’t given just by one’s conscious mind.
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference.
To me, “The Darling” is about a tendency, present in all of us, to misunderstand love as “complete absorption in,” rather than “in full communication with.”
Having stumbled back to the sledge Vasili Andreevich caught hold of it and for a long time stood motionless, trying to calm himself and recover his breath. Nikita was not in his former place, but something, already covered with snow, was lying in the sledge and Vasili Andreevich concluded that this was Nikita.
Like any self-respecting Russian artisan, Ivan Yakovlevich was a terrible drunkard.
But I must go and bathe first, I don’t think I’ve had a wash since spring.
“Yes, it’s a long time since I’ve bathed,” he said, as he undressed. “I’ve an excellent bathing-cabin, as you see—it was put up by my father—but somehow I never find time to use it.” He sat down on the steps and lathered his long hair and neck, and the water around him turned brown. “I say—” observed Ivan Ivanych significantly, looking at his head. “I haven’t had a good wash for a long time,” repeated Alyohin, embarrassed, and soaped himself once more; the water about him turned dark-blue, the color of ink.
Money, like vodka, can do queer things to a man.
I made my way to the house and was met by a fat dog with reddish hair that looked like a pig. It wanted to bark, but was too lazy. The cook, a fat, barelegged woman, who also looked like a pig, came out of the kitchen and said that the master was resting after dinner.
But in his best stories (and here I’d include, in addition to the three in this book, “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “In the Ravine,” “Enemies,” “About Love,” and “The Bishop”) he seems to be using the form to move beyond opinions, to destabilize the usual ways we go about formulating them.
The critic Dave Hickey has written about this, the notion that saying what art should do might enable a reactionary establishment to start saying what it must do, and then to begin silencing those artists whose works aren’t doing that. In other words, whenever we get up on the soapbox and sing fiction’s praises, explaining how good it is for everyone, we’re actually limiting its freedom to be…whatever it wants to be (perverse, contrary, frivolous, objectionable, useless, too difficult for any but a few to read, and so on).
At its best, in my experience, artistic mentoring works something like this: the mentor strongly expresses his view as if it is the only and entirely correct view. The student pretends to accept that position: takes the teacher on faith (tries on his aesthetic principles for size, surrenders to his approach), to see if there might be something in it. At the end of the mentoring period (now), the student snaps out of it, disavows the teacher’s view, which is starting to feel like a set of bad-fitting clothes anyway, and goes back to her own way of thinking. But maybe along the way she’s picked up a few things. These are things she likely knew all along, of which the teacher simply reminded her.