The stories Saunders picked for his book stayed with me. I tried to describe them to a friend but none of the adjectives I sampled ("great", "epic", "thought-provoking") would do - until I got it. These stories made me feel uncomfortable. See for yourself.
In Tolstoy's "Master and Man", an arrogant egotist never reforms. No character transformation from the moral-ethical giant!
In Chekhov's "In the Cart", a woman is forced to live a hard, boring life of a provincial teacher no one appreciates. There is no hope for her to get out, no Prince Charming comes to the rescue either.
In Turgenev's "The Singers", peasants are deeply touched by the holy beauty of music - only to get utterly wasted later, the only thing they know.
In Gogol's "The Nose", a sycophant who loses his nose gets it back and continues to live a shallow life, chasing skirts.
In Chekhov's "The Darling", a woman only becomes alive when attached to a man. She has no opinion of her own, no purpose. She never learns.
"Alyosha the Pot" follows orders, never causes trouble, gets pushed around a lot. What does Tolstoy do? He kills him. End of. Life is unfair.
In those short stories (all Russian short stories?) there are no happy endings, no escapism - Bridgerton it is not. You root for Alyosha the Pot to stand up to his father, but he meekly resigns to his fate, like any poor uneducated young man in the turn of the century Russia. You hope that "The Darling" starts to love herself but her clingingness never subsidies. You want Chekhov to give his schoolteacher "In the Cart" some hope at the end of the day, but she just cries "Mama!" and bursts into tears. It's just like in life - we don't get our big breaks and instead are repeatedly crushed down with a myriad of tiny disappointments until we harden with resilience.
The truth of these stories made me feel uncomfortable. But it gave me some consolation too. We live in seriously testing times which have exposed human flaws like never before. News stories about the UK government officials giving away huge contracts to their mates make us feel indignant, but what of the well-publicised reluctance of some people to get vaccinated against Covid-19? These jabs, a triumph of science and technology, are our way out to save lives, open economies, help people get back to work and improve mental health of billions of people after months of lockdowns. Yet the reluctance is understandable too: some are worried about long-term side effects of vaccines, others do not trust their governments. People who refuse to get jabs are selfish. Consciously or not, they rely on the herd immunity, same as people who throw litter rely on someone else to clean the streets after them. What to think?
I found that uncomfortable stories helped me attune my own compass to today's moral dilemmas. I will not forget PPE contracts awarded to Tories' mates at the next General Election, nor will I hire a Moscow-based photographer whose otherwise busy Instagram account stayed silent during anti-corruption protests in Russia. I'm proud of the UK government's success with the vaccination roll-out, and I understand that posting #FreeNavalny may cause one lose certain clients, but unlike women or peasants in the XIX century Russia, most of us have the agency to make choices and I, for one, want to do the right thing.
Come to think of it, the best stories have always been uncomfortable. You may watch Emily in Paris but you'll forget it in a week. It's a Sin, on the other hand, will haunt you. Writers like Lionel Shriver, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mohsin Hamid, Svetlana Alexievich take on difficult issues and odious human behaviour which get under the skin. Their books are sometimes - often even - not well received by the general public because they force us to consider our own flaws and skeletons in the closet. But you know your conscience is working extra hard when you feel frustrated having been denied a happy ending in a story you've invested in.
The reason uncomfortable stories stand out is because there aren't many of them around. As Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out in a recent interview, a "climate of fear" is preventing some people from writing what they want. "I very much fear for the younger generation of writers" who are self-censoring by avoiding writing from certain viewpoints or including characters outside their immediate experiences. He said they may be concerned that an "anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery". God forbid a white creative comes up with a black protagonist or expresses a non-liberal mainstream view on consumption of meat, transgender, sweat shops or climate crisis.
At the beginning of the year I felt a little dispirited as neither books nor TV series I consumed got through to me. But I now I feel reinvigorated. True, reading Tolstoy and Chekhov makes any - even Booker-Prize winning writers - feel like they'll never be good enough. But the lesson here for all of us is that if you have came across an uncomfortable story in a book or on screen, give yourself a break. Have a rest. And then seek another one.