George Saunders on Chekhov's Different Visions of Happiness

The Lincoln in the Bardo author dissects the Russian writer’s masterful meditations on beauty and sorrow in the short story “Gooseberries,” and explains the importance of questioning your stance while writing.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

This week marks the publication of Lincoln in the Bardo, the long-awaited first novel by the acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders. Before I’d read the book, I planned to ask Saunders about the obvious thing: After years of writing only stories (and the occasional novella), why take on longform, and what was difficult about it? But then I started to read—and short versus long stopped seeming like the most meaningful distinction. Lincoln, regardless of its length, is not like anything Saunders has ever written before. It’s not like anything anyone has written before. The author may have set out to write his first novel, but the work he completed is a genre unto itself.

The book reads like a play for voices, with no narrator or stage directions, mixing 19th-century dialogue with descriptive passages cribbed from Abraham Lincoln’s real-life biographers. Since there’s no explanatory voiceover, it takes a few pages to absorb the audacious premise: It’s set in a Civil War-era limbo/purgatory, a twilight world where dead souls linger and converse. These, we learn, are the inhabitants of Oak Hill cemetery in Georgetown, who all cling to the same obvious lie: They are “very sick,” they insist. (Not dead. Never that.) So it is all very perplexing when a tall, angular man in a top hat appears among them, distraught and crying out for his lost son—12-year-old Willie Lincoln, who fell ill and died in 1862. Ultimately, the book explores the ways we are made grotesque by our absurd attempts to deny death; at the same time, the portrait of a grief-wracked president humanizes, even sanctifies, that denial.

As I read, I stopped worrying about  “story” and “novel.” Instead, I wondered: How does a book as singular as this one even come into being? In our conversation for this series, Saunders suggested that fiction is about abandoning everything you think you know—especially ideas about what to write and how to say it. As we discussed Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” a story that seems to both assert and undermine the author’s most deeply held beliefs, the author explained how his process requires him to question his intellectual and aesthetic convictions, entering an ambiguous realm where almost anything is possible.

George Saunders is the author of the story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation, and The Tenth of December, which won the Story Prize. A MacArthur fellow and Guggenheim recipient, he teaches at Syracuse University’s MFA program in Fiction. He spoke to me by phone.

George Saunders: I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.

The story is an extended meditation on the idea of happiness. It’s basically a story of two friends who get caught in a rainstorm while they’re out hunting, and they go to a nearby house of someone they know named Alekhin. After they take a swim, one of the friends, Ivan, tells a story about his brother, who had an obsession with owning a small estate, and with eating the gooseberries that he grew on the porch. As Ivan tells the story of his brother it becomes a kind of a screed about how happiness—especially his brother’s happiness—disgusts him, how pig-like people who pursue their own happiness are.

Ivan’s story builds in intensity, and by the end he’s making this beautiful, passionate case for why happiness is a confusing, undesirable emotion. In his telling, it’s almost a delusion to be mindlessly happy when others are sad. The sentiment is so heartfelt that it’s almost as though it came right out of Chekhov’s journals:

At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him—illness, poverty, loss—and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of his life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen—and everything is fine.

I always come out of that passage feeling like it’s a beautiful piece of rhetoric, one that articulates something I really believe. I’ve quoted this line on book tours, trying to explain why I don’t mind writing dark fiction: One role of literature, I’ll tell them, is to be the guy with the hammer, saying, “Look, we’re all pretty happy right now, but let’s just not forget the fact our happiness doesn’t eradicate the suffering of others.” It’s a beautiful insight about the lazy nature of happiness—and, for a few minutes, I think we’re meant to think that this stirring speech by Ivan is the whole point of the story. In a way, it is. Except, on the next page, we see that Ivan’s audience is bored and disappointed by the story. They wish that he’d had something better to say, and the whole evening ends on a flat note.

But then there’s this wonderful little reversal at the end, a mysterious and beautiful turn. It happens when Ivan goes up to his room, which he’s sharing with his friend Burkin. They’re both in bed, beds which have been made up by Alekhin’s beautiful maid:

Their beds, wide and cool, made up by the beautiful Pelageya, smelled pleasantly of fresh linen.

Ivan Ivanych silently undressed and lay down. “Lord, forgive us sinners!” he said, and pulled the covers over his head.

His pipe, left on the table, smelled strongly of stale tobacco, and Burkin lay awake for a long time and still could not figure out where that heavy odor was coming from.

Rain beat on the windows all night.

Ivan leaves his unclean pipe out all night, keeping his friend Burkin awake. And that’s how Chekhov gets away with putting his real feelings about the oppressive nature of happiness into a character’s mouth. Without irony, without condescension, he just lets the character have his say. But then, here, Chekhov destabilizes the beautiful rhetoric of the previous section by showing another side of the guy who made that impassioned speech: He’s also self-obsessed and thoughtless enough to burden his friend with a smelly pipe. It's a great double whammy. You get the beautiful, articulate case against happiness, and then you get this complicating overtone of selfishness in the person who just made that beautiful speech.

We’re often told not to put our passions and political feelings into a story. But I actually think it’s a good idea. Put them in there, then step away. Imagine that the idea isn’t you, that it’s just an idea that part of you expressed. Then you can use the structure and the form of the story to kind of poke at your own beliefs a little and see if you can get more light out of them.

That’s exactly what happens, structurally, in “Gooseberries.” Ivan starts to tell his story right on the first page, but he’s interrupted by the rainstorm. And while they get in out of the rain, meet their host, and bathe, a full third of this nine-page story goes by. I always ask my students: What’s the point of this digression? Because the short story form makes a de facto claim of efficiency—its limited length suggests that all the parts are there for purpose. If there’s a structural inefficiency that never comes home to roost, or never produces beauty later, we note that as bad storytelling. And so whatever ultimate meaning “Gooseberries” has, it has to have something to do with what's contained in that digression—or else it’s a flawed piece.

Looking at what happens during the digression, then, you start to realize that the story is a reflection on different forms of happiness. There’s a beautiful scene where they’re all taking a sensuous bath—“Oh my God, Oh my God,” Ivan keeps repeating, so completely moved by the feeling of the water. Then, later, this woman Pelageya waits on the men—and she’s so beautiful that they can only turn and stare at each other with their jaws on the floor. Why are these things here? Why are they worth giving space to in this extremely short piece? It’s because they’re both manifestations of beauty in the world, celebrating the things that make us pointlessly happy, and they complicate the dark vision of happiness that Ivan spells out later.

That’s one of my favorite things about Chekhov: his ability to embody what I call “on the other hand” thinking. He'll put something out with a great deal of certainty and beauty and passion, absolutely convincing you—and then he goes, “On the other hand,” and completely undermines it. At the end of this story you ask, “Chekhov, is happiness a blessing or a curse?” And he’s like, “Yeah, exactly.”

Now, who knows how Chekhov did this. It could be that he was there on page one, with Ivan about to tell his story—but something in him was just saying quietly, “Too soon. It doesn’t feel right yet.” Then, his genius produced this rainstorm, and the rainstorm produced this house that suddenly appeared on the horizon, and then his curiosity followed the characters there, and got them into the pond. Or it could be that Chekhov created this whole digression just following the thrill of the language—and that he invented the rest of the story only to justify the digression. We don’t know how he wrote—I have a feeling that Chekhov wrote in a different way than any other mortal. But I would guess that writing this story required him to be flexible, to let the story’s form wander away from his original intentions.

When I write, I’m just hoping that the story will surprise me in some way. You’ve got to let yourself write freely, with a lot of joy and conviction. Then, having done that, step back a little and see what you’ve done. See if that thing you’ve expressed is actually iron-clad. Just poke at it somehow, or let another character poke at it. And see how it’s asking you to challenge it, this object that you’ve made. As Einstein said, “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” Whatever lame-brained notion I had about the story, I’m praying to god that it gets overturned and turns into something more intense.

A writer’s stance is basically to suss out the energy: Where does the story want me to go? That’s complicated, because I think everybody goes into a story with some notions of what they hope to accomplish. You need to be willing to renegotiate the things you thought you knew for sure. And so the question for any writer is: On what basis am I renegotiating?

For me, it’s usually about sound. If I think I want to go in Direction A, but in going there the prose I’m creating is no good or is bland or doesn’t pop, that’s when I start looking for ways to renegotiate. You think the story is about this nervous mailman, but when he goes to his first house, there’s a much more interesting guy there—and you know he’s more interesting, because you can write him better. Well, that’s the story telling you that the mailman isn’t actually the point.

I often find my way forward by finding the right voice. If I can find one that’s urgent, somehow, I just start writing—and the overflow of that mode always produces so much, it produces all the things we need, it produces theme and character and plot and all that. For me, to be able to throw that switch and have a voice that really comes naturally and is a lot of fun, is the best way into a story.

I never read my own stuff aloud as I’m doing it, but … I don’t know how to even explain this. There’s a little thing in my head, sort of at the base of my skull, a kind of voice generator. As I’m trying to write something, I can feel it kick in, and in my head there’s a sound, there’s an accent, there’s a pace. Whatever this thing is, it’s the same thing you use in improv—something I used to goof around with. It's that same thing: You throw a switch, and suddenly you're “doing” somebody. I use that all the time in writing. In fact, that was a big breakthrough for me—when I finally let that thing, whatever it is, come to the table.

This book is tricky because I was working with 19th-century voices. That offset my process somewhat, because the voices that I can do naturally are all contemporary voices, often working-class voices. For this book, I had to make allowances for the fact that I’m trying to convince the reader that this is taking place in 1862. That was almost like running with leg weights a little bit because I couldn’t necessarily do the voices that I would naturally create. But it was fun.

I think at any stage in your career but maybe especially later, it's really important to keep putting hard shit in front of yourself and stuff that you could fail at in front of yourself. Because the tendency—in terms of career, and also in terms of just basic biology—is to kind of hunker down and do what you did before. That’s dangerous. In writing, maybe like in life, the worst setting is auto-pilot. If, as a writer you say, “I do it this way,” you’re already about half-dead—there are going to be situations where, if you didn’t do it that way, you’d find more life in your work.

I did a reporting piece about the Mexican border. I drove from Brownsville to San Diego and saw all kinds of stuff along the way. Everyday, I kept making new theories about what we should do on the border, and by the time I got to San Diego, I had a pretty good working model. I ran my theory by these two border patrol guys as I crossed back into the States. They were real nice guys, but they just dismantled it. Everything that I had come to believe, they just went: “No.” And they had that terrible weapon, facts.

They were just laughing, by the end of it. They had taken my theory and pulverized it. They were both on horseback, and as they rode off it was like my concept-demolition team had come in, reduced everything I thought I knew to rubble, and left me with nothing—nothing except all the pain and confusion I’d seen along the border. I had to walk three miles back to my car, completely befuddled, not sure of anything. But I think that’s a holy state, one we’re not in very much anymore with social media. Somebody posts a picture of their dog and you’ve got to weigh in on it. Literature is a useful counterweight to that kind of very shallow, very certain sort of thinking.

Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think. We can’t stay there very long. It’s not in our nature. You can be truly confused by something and then ten minutes later you're grasping for your opinions like somebody going for a life jacket. But that brief exposure to the land of ambiguity is really, really good for us. To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that that which we know right now is not complete. Just to know that for ten minutes a day is unbelievable.