“For the last twenty years, at Syracuse University, I’ve been teaching a class in nineteenth century Russian short story translation,” begins George Saunders in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life. “My students are some of the best young writers in America. They arrive already wonderful. What we try to do over three years is help them achieve what I call ‘iconic space’—the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves—their strengths, weaknesses, obsessions, peculiarities, the whole deal.”
And so, class begins. You better sit up straight. And, by the way, do you refer to him as professor or Mr. Saunders? That seems too formal for the handful of us seated at the round table. Do you raise your hand and ask what he prefers to be called? “Can I call you George?” you want to ask. Because George makes you feel like it’s just the two of you on this journey and, remember, it’s a book. He’s doing all the talking. Formalities are irrelevant.
The stories—from the likes of Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy—are like Your Survival Guy choosing a favorite stack of survival cash. I like twenty $100 bills as much as I like four $100s. To me, in reading them, it’s the experience of time travel that matters. What was it like to read these stories at that time? This was “resistance literature in a repressive culture, in a time when a writer’s politics, could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution,” writes Saunders. “The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.” And we’ll leave it at that for the moment.
Turning your attention to Russia today. How much has really changed since the individual spirit has been crushed? In The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1, which was passed around from house to house for Russians to read in 24-hours and pass along, the truth of the torture and destruction of the individual is written by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn for all to see. Imagine, he laments, if all of this could be captured by the once-in-a-lifetime talent of a Tolstoy, for example. But they’re gone along with the spirit of the individual.
Is Putin a man of the people? Please. Where is the champion for the individual? Not on his super-yacht motoring to the Maldives. Not the Olympic skating coach berating a 15-year-old. Not in the U.S. Capitol surrounded by fencing in preparation for tonight’s State of the Union address. This is America? It’s hard not to think that this administration wants the chaos, wants the stock market dislocation and $150 oil to keep their power over you. Where is the champion for small businesses and the power of the individual? Stay tuned.
Action Line: Stick with me. Class has only begun. We’re in this together. Sign up here for my free monthly Survive & Thrive letter. But only if you’re serious.
E.J. Smith - Your Survival Guy
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