Litscope: Gemini & George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

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BmoreArt’s Picks: June 8-14

After a year of missing friend gatherings and family hugs, many people are reconnecting and getting out to enjoy all the city has to offer. June ushers in more than warm weather and cicadas; it also boasts the first official day of summer, June 20. While many of us are ready to forget those spring jackets at home, be careful what you wish for! You really may forget (in more ways than one) considering we’re starting this month under a Mercury retrograde. Astrologically, the other big news this month is the solar eclipse in Gemini happening on June 10. Be on the lookout for fresh starts and surprising opportunities around communication and short-distance travel. 

Speaking of good old Gemini, late May to late June is the season of the Twins, their symbol. That symbol represents them perfectly considering sometimes you feel as if Geminis contain two people. One day you can find them witty, smiling, and in a jovial mood, and the following day they could be crabby and downright mean. But don’t worry, their Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde won’t persist and before you know it this air sign will be moving on to their next intellectual pursuit


Saunders' approach embodies that non-committal Gemini spirit and demystifies the craft of short stories. Those who find formal fiction definitions constraining will feel relieved.
Celeste Doaks

The book that embodies the Gemini spirit is George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Saunders is a professor in the Syracuse University MFA program; he’s been teaching for 20 years and is a heavily awarded prose writer. His latest book draws from a course he adores teaching on the 19th-century Russian short story in translation. While it may seem strange to choose A Swim in a Pond for the sign of Gemini, duality is ever-present throughout this text. Metaphorically, engaging with a Gemini can be like experiencing two sides of one coin. A Swim in a Pond illustrates this quality because it is erudite yet transparent, periodically serious, and in other moments downright witty. 

A Swim in a Pond presents readers with two distinct ways to engage with seven full stories by Russian masters Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev: either as a teacher/scholar or as a creative writer. Each story is printed in full and also includes an essay by Saunders. In the first chapter, Saunders walks readers through Chekhov’s “In the Cart” page-by-page, then provides his thoughts in an essay afterward. Here, he reminds us that core terms like plot, character, development, theme, and structure are “placeholders, and if they intimidate us and block us up . . . we might want to put them aside.” Saunders doubles down by adding, “I’ve never, as a writer, found these very useful.” This approach embodies that non-committal Gemini spirit and demystifies the craft of short stories. Those who find formal fiction definitions constraining will feel relieved. However, the literary side (the other side of that Gemini coin) is never far away: Saunders is an intellectual trickster who won’t let writers forget our obligations either. Later in the same essay, he writes, “If we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will (we aspirationally assume) present itself.” Here, he reminds writers to not take the easy way out. Or perhaps a better translation is: by aiming high, we can achieve more.


In addition to presenting these two ways of engaging, Saunders is also humorous and at times even contradictory. When talking about Chekhov’s Hanov appearing in “In the Cart,” Saunders says we expect the character to “alter, complicate, or deepen things. It’s a story, after all, not a webcam.” This captures the levity of Gemini and draws readers in, if they weren’t already engaged. Also, Saunders doesn’t stick to one definition of a story. On one page, he calls a story “a system for the transfer of energy,” and ten pages later he pivots to “a story is a linear-temporal phenomenon.” The definition shifts and changes like the wind. Readers may feel a bit frustrated at this, but Saunders is a philosopher at heart. He shapes and reshapes his thoughts in order to build what’s urgent in the moment.

Ultimately, I believe creative writers and scholars alike will enjoy this book for its approachability, earnest ideas, and curiosity. Saunders’s philosophical approach makes readers reflect inwardly on how they write and their own perceptions of these stories. Lines such as “does this delight me?” (which of course makes me think about Ross Gay’s Book of Delights) will follow me long after I put this text down. It rises above almost all stiff academic texts. For someone like me who has read Chekhov and Tolstoy, but not Gogol or Turgenev, A Swim in a Pond offers an exploration into new literature. And for Russian lit aficionados like my hubs, the book offers fresh ways of looking at old literary friends. But readers who are totally new to these masters should prepare for a lesson in examining and writing. I think readers will find, as I have, that A Swim in a Pond soars confidently in its dualities. Therefore, it’s not surprising to discover that Saunders finds “Gogol is two people at once.” Often, we clearly see the thing that we most know.


The card for the collective this month is the Hanged Man. This major arcana card (think trump cards in a standard playing deck) hails from the Rider Waite deck. Any time a querent draws this card the message is to step back and pause before springing into your next action. Whether this break is voluntary or involuntary, use the time to rest, contemplate and prepare for what’s next. In a month where we’re in a few planetary retrogrades, it’s smart to pause and surrender. Remember the image of the man has one foot tied to the tree. The other is loose and he looks fairly relaxed. You have more control than you think, so just chill and dig into your intuition. But if we don’t settle into this temporary period of delay, obstacles could arise due to our impatience.

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