Bowne Hall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Bowne Hall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday in the Class With George

It was a cold, gray October morning, misty and drizzling, when I arrived at Syracuse University’s Bowne Hall, a handsome three-story brick building that first opened for classes in 1907. The Syracuse campus is postcard gorgeous; literally a city on a hill, with beautifully-tended grounds and fine Victorian buildings spread across acres of lawn. But Bowne 110 is as plain a classroom as you can imagine. There were standard-issue arm desks with molded plastic seats loosely arranged in a half-circle, facing a large chalkboard and desk. Classical musicians were rehearsing in a distracting manner next door; first tuning up and then practicing pretty loudly; nobody in class would pay them the slightest attention over the next three hours.

After a few minutes about about 15 students had assembled, all carrying backpacks heavy with books; a young man in a Mao cap; a woman in a striped shirt, who casually put her hair up in a bun before class began. The most fancifully dressed was a young woman in a button-up vintage wool vest and a boyish mint-green shirt, with a careful, tidily short haircut. Later I would speak with a number of them, including a wonderful young man recently returned from Iraq/Afghanistan who had just the wickedest sense of humor, and a beautiful “older” one of around 30, very gentle and delicate in her ways. Now they were all milling around, chatting, several finishing cups of steaming coffee or tea.

And then in came George, casually and plainly dressed—a soft black shirt with the top button undone, revealing a slender silver chain weighted with a pendant that I was too timid to ask about, and over that a heavy dark blue cotton zip-front sweater. He kibbitzed a little with this and that student. On television he comes off a little shy, but not here, in his element. Not that he looks so terrible in photographs or anything, but photographs don’t do Saunders justice; he’s very good-looking, approachable, lively, with an indefinably elegant way about him. We all arranged our effects—books, scarves, bags and coats, readied ourselves to converse about Chekhov. It changed my life.

George began by telling us about his own relationship to the Little Trilogy. He moves around constantly as he teaches, not in a theatrical way, but just from being so lively and animated in his thoughts.

I heard it for the first time when I was a student here; the first semester we were here. Tobias Wolff was around, but we weren’t in class with him. So, it was announced he was going to do a reading down at Syracuse Stage, but the day of the reading he was really sort of not feeling well. So instead of reading his own work, he read this whole trilogy… It was just incredible, you know. Just as he got to the end of “About Love” it started to snow in front of the big glass window.

So for me it was a huge moment, because I sort of knew Chekhov a little bit, and I’d always been vaguely bored by him. And when Toby read it, especially this first story, “The Man in the Shell,” it was so funny, you know, so something kind of opened up in my head about this relation between being humanly entertaining, and great literature. That was a big day. So this story, I think it’s almost impossible to get to the bottom of, but we’ll spend the whole three hours trying to.

In other words, these exact stories had been bred into his bones in this very place—and by Tobias Wolff, too. The stability and continuity described in these casual, homely opening remarks implied certain foundational values, I thought. A sense of order and artistry. Of permanence, too; of loyalty. Saunders met his wife Paula when they were fellow grad students here; he is very private about his personal life but he’s had a very happy marriage, it seems, and has two grown daughters; his whole life seems very much tied up in Syracuse. Class began with the understanding that we were taking part in a tradition, a ritual almost, and a history.

There was also an ambient atmosphere of luck, a continued quiet awareness of our good fortune, I thought, among all those present. There had been nearly six hundred applications for six places in the MFA program in 2013. Those selected spend three years in a space apart—like a twelfth house enclosure, if you’re into astrology—a place of reckoning.

But even at far humbler reaches than these, literature is a rarefied discipline. That is, you can’t be very concerned at all about literature if you’re struggling on the lower floors of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you were lucky enough to make it into a good college, maybe you’ve felt a little guilty about that luxury. Here you are, studying chemistry or government or history or geology or music or writing. Your life is totally saturated with privilege that you are told you must check. But no; there is no checking the priv. Not only have you got enough to eat, not only a clean, safe place to sleep every night, not only a hot shower every day and a place to do your laundry, but the time and space to read and think, develop goals for your life, be taught by wise and patient adults who wish only for your success.

Then let’s say you make it through undergrad and you decide that nothing else will do: you are going to get an MFA. There probably is not a lot of material “success” awaiting you in the field of creative writing, or in any of the fine arts. Maybe you will become the next Joshua Bell or David Foster Wallace. Or maybe you will teach. Maybe you will become a middle manager in a tech company. You may find fulfillment, or never find it, in any of these roles, and maybe you know that, too. You buy the lottery ticket. You come to Syracuse to learn to write from George Saunders, a very great writer. You are going to enter the most civilized confines that exist in the modern world. And here you will study Chekhov, who writes about: Peasants.

Among other things, obviously. In my three-hour window into this world I came to see literary practice as taught by George Saunders as almost like a priestly undertaking. It’s a path toward empathy and reconciliation as much as a matter of intellect or craftsmanship. It’s about the truth, and honors human impulses, ideas and personalities high and low. This sounds precious, I know. And it is. But it’s precious in both the dismissible way, and the literal way. Which I suspect is something Anton Chekhov meant for you to think about.

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