My brother recently sent me a book, an actual hardback book, in the mail. What a miracle!
It is a nonfiction work by the master fiction writer George Saunders, who won the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2017 for “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
The reason, other than being a nice brotherly act, was his wife and daughter had seen Saunders speak at an event out west, and they thought he spoke and acted much like me. I’ve never seen him or heard him so I can’t say what qualities they thought we shared.
But because of his eminence, I found their opinion quite pleasant, although my so-called novel is still in the making and will probably never be finished, let alone be ever published.
The Saunders book gift is titled “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” and is basically his teaching notes for a seminar on four 19th century Russian writers he holds at Syracuse University where he teaches creative writing.
The odd title refers to a section in one of Anton Chekov’s short stories, “Gooseberries.”
I went to college as a musician (clarinet and saxophone) but quickly shifted to a path as an English major for reasons I cannot faithfully recount.
As an English major you can hardly avoid reading “Gooseberries.” Did I remember it? Of course not. Saunders dives very deep into the story to the point that you wonder whether he should take a day off and watch some baseball and give it a rest.
I understand the points he makes but, gee, maybe just chill and let the story play out as a story and not some master work. But Saunders does not let up and that’s why he’s brilliant and I am not close.
His readings of Chekov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol are intense but not altogether un-entertaining. (I still have 30 pages to read and maybe won’t get it done. I mean how much do I really want to know about these short stories?)
The Saunders book lies atop three collections of poetry on the table beside the black leather club chair where I spend way too much time contemplating my place in the universe and what we’re all doing here anyway.
One collection is all the stuff that Emily Dickinson wrote. Another is the stuff that Wallace Stevens wrote. And the third is the collected works of Frank O’Hara.
I cannot explain how these three collections wound up on somewhat precious territory on the table. Yes, they are all fine poets but have I opened these books in the last 20 years to read some poems?
But I give myself some credit to have them ready to go if I someday decide to dig in to try to figure out what Emily was trying to impart to us. Although in her case, it seems clear that she was talking to herself and not caring if anyone else was part of the bargain.
Stevens was an insurance executive in Hartford, Conn., which always fascinated me. What a split life! What a split brain! Of the three, he’s my favorite. You can almost see how his poetic mind is working and how he wants you to go along for the ride.
O’Hara was a gay New York bon vivant who wrote some pretty funny stuff. But what led him to my table (I think) was his cause of death: He was struck by a beach-buggy on Fire Island. What a way to go.
As I write this, I have committed to finishing the last pages of the Saunders book.
But not today.