I read/heard somewhere that you and your students usually go through about thirty stories when you teach the Russians class, and that you just picked seven of the most teachable ones for A Swim in A Pond In The Rain. What were the other twenty-three stories? I would love to read them.
Yes, very happy to do this.
The first two pages of the pdf below are the syllabus from the last time I taught the Russian class at Syracuse – I think this was back in 2016. I count a total of twenty-two stories, which includes the seven discussed in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
Over the years, I found myself cutting back on the number of stories because I’d found that the discussions were better that way – we could really slow down, look at individual paragraphs and sentences and so on.
(When I sent out the pdf for “I Stand Here Ironing,” some of you found you couldn’t open it. If you experience a similar issue with this one, just drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send as an attachment.)
(Also - Chekhov’s “‘About Love’ trilogy,” mentioned in the syllabus, includes three stories, “Man in a Shell,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love.”)
Below are listed the translations we used, although, honestly, any version is fine, and I never obsessed much over which was “the best.” I always figured that, since we were pretending that the stories were written in English in order to look at them analytically, it almost didn’t matter which version we read (unlike if were, say, reading them in the context of Russian literature and history and so on):
Anton Chekov. From “The Portable Chekhov,” Anton Chekhov, Penguin Portable Library, ISBN0-14-015035-8. Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinksy.
Ivan Turgenev. From “First Love and Other Tales,” Ivan Turgenev, WW Norton, ISBN 0-393-00444-9. Translated by David Magarshak.
Leo Tolstoy. From “Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy,” Leo Tolstoy, Perennial Library, ISBN 0-06-083071-9. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
Nikolai Gogol. From “The Overcoat and Other Short Stories,” Dover Thrift Edition, ISBN 0-486-27057-2. Translated by Mary Struve.
“The Death of Ivan Illych & Other Stories,” Vintage, ISBN978-0-307-38886-5. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Pages 3-5 of the pdf are my quickly written notes in prep for the first class, including a weird list of the lifespans of various writers, Russian and otherwise, just to give the students some context about when the stories were written. You’ll notice that, for some of the writers, I’ve dropped in a number after the name – looks like this number is the age at which that writer died. Why was I doing that? Mortality-obsessed much? For others, who are just as dead, no number. Who knows why? But – Jane Austen died at 41?
The class is roughly chronological, but there’s also an attempt to move from relatively simple stories to more complex ones - that’s why, for example, Gogol comes later in the semester than he would if the order was strictly chronological.
What I’ll ask the students to do is read the stories twice and prepare some sort of written notes before class. That way, they’re forced to look past their first-read impressions and try to put some meat on the bones. As we do here in Story Club, I ask them to try to say where they first started to feel a thing, where precisely in the story. When they’ve prepped their notes like this, the conversation is always deeper.
The first thing I’ll usually do is just ask the students to propose question or issues that we want to be sure to address. I’ll stand at the board and record these. The point is to make sure that the talking I do will address an concern they’ve actually had. The medicine goes down much easier that way, ha ha. But really: I do my own prep, of course, and have four or five bits that I want to make sure to offer them — but these can be customized and timed better if I first really listen to their thoughts (and questions, and even objections).
I sometimes use this analogy: say a doctor comes up to a party and starts offering a lengthy lecture on health and wellness. Compare this with a situation when you’re actually sick and go into the office with an urgent and specific question. In the latter, you are suddenly really listening. And what the doctor has to say has a really good chance of getting in there….
So, my job is to put aside any idea of what I think they should be thinking of the story, and see what they’re really thinking, and then tailor my approach accordingly.
Anyway, that’s the list. There are many more that could be in there (and have been, in past incarnations of the class). But this list seems to be about right, in trying to strike the balance between coverage and quality of discussion…
Just looking at these notes make me nostalgic. I’m really looking forward to September, when I’ll be teaching again in Syracuse.
Story Club with George Saunders is a reader-supported publication.