Gary Shteyngart is widely regarded as one of the most entertaining storytellers in contemporary literature. The highly enjoyable memoir Little Failure (Random House, 2014), his fourth book after three well-received novels, is his story as a Jewish immigrant from Russia trying to make sense of his place in the new world.
Celebrity memoirs are often intended to settle accounts or redeem reputations. Shteyngart uses his memoir to share the important moments of his life, from his birth in Leningrad through his difficulties as an immigrant to the publication of his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which won the Stephen Crane Award for first fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.
In Little Failure, he writes with humor and introspection about the family’s struggles – the poverty, the hesitation in abandoning ways of the old country and the missteps in trying to fit in. As he moves through a Hebrew parochial school and on to Oberlin College, he delves into the frustrations and absurdities of immigrant life.
Tales of violence at home and unrelenting bullying in the schoolyard are followed by comical accounts of teenaged drinking, pot-smoking and attempts to connect with women. Several incidents will be familiar to those who have read his novels. He often uses events from his own life in his writing.
The memoir jumps back and forth from his recollection of events in his life to his thoughts as he writes the book. Throughout, Shteyngart keeps coming back to his relationship with his parents, and especially his father.
While writing the memoir, his father apparently told him that he read on the Russian Internet that Shteyngart and his novels would soon be forgotten. His mother identified the blogger who made the comment.
“Do you want me to be forgotten, Father?” Shteyngart thought to himself. His parents have not read his latest book but they know the name of the blogger who says he will be soon forgotten, Shteyngart moans.
His father persisted. Shteyngart was 30th on a list of New York writers. “David Remmick (editor of The New Yorker) was eight positions ahead of you,” his father said. His mother tried to calm the waters. Many writers aren’t acknowledged until after their death, she said in an attempt that did not make Shteyngart feel any better.
A few days later, his parents were kvelling over a book review in France. The French Internet described his book as one of the best of the year.
He appreciates the humor in the situation. “After each teardown, after each discussion of Internet rankings and blogs, after each barrage of insults presented as jokes, my father finishes with, ‘You should call me more.’”
What should he make of these exchanges? “Down and up. Up and down. I am forgotten. I am remembered. I am number thirty. I am beloved in France. What is this? This is parenting.”
Beyond biography, Little Failure offers a rare glimpse into an international phenomenon. The emigration of Jews from Russia has been a cause célèbre for many Jewish communities over the past four decades. Shteyngart’s memoir offers the perspective of Russian immigrants, facing numerous difficulties on the way out of the country and in starting life over in a foreign land.
His family left Russia near the end of a decade that saw 250,000 Jews coming to the West. Israel “begged” them to move to the Holy Land, he writes, but his father “courageously” resisted. A Jewish immigrant aid group helped them establish a home in New York. Shteyngart was sent to Solomon Schechter School in Queens. He does not write about those who helped the family.
The memoir also omits something I would have liked to find out. Shteyngart does not write about authors who have influenced his work or what he reads. However, he does pinpoint those events in his life that helped shape the making of the writer Gary Shteyngart.
To some extent, he was born a storyteller. He writes that he has never been stuck for words. “My mind is running at insomniac speed,” he says in the memoir. “The words are falling in like soldiers at reveille. Put me in front of a keyboard and I will fill up a screen.”
He was introduced to the art of storytelling at an early age. With debilitating asthma from birth, much of his early years in Leningrad was spent in “a fort of pillows and duvets and comforters,” fighting suffocation. He became “a pathological reader.” He recalls at age 5 reading The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a dense 160-page volume by Selma Lagerlif, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
Around the same time, his father was making up comic stories, dubbed “The Planet of the Yids,” about a Hebraic corner of the galaxy besieged by gentile spacemen who attacked with torpedoes filled with salted raw pig fat. Famous Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky ran the planet. Whenever the KGB was on the verge of gaining the upper hand, a fearless leader called Igor (Shteyngart’s name before he changed it to Gary) saved the Yids.
Shteyngart remembers inventing his first story at the age of 5. His grandmother, Galya, who once worked as a journalist and editor at a Leningrad newspaper, suggested he write his own novel. She offered him slices of cheese for every page he wrote, a sandwich with bread, butter and cheese for each chapter.
He put together a surrealistic tale of political adventurism and betrayal involving Lenin, Finland and a wild goose. The novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose, probably cost a hundred pieces of cheese and at least a dozen sandwiches, he estimates.
His first attempt at writing a story in English came when he was 10, three years after arriving in New York. He was a misfit at school, constantly bullied and ridiculed by his classmates. He considered himself to be one of the most hated boys at Hebrew school.
The 59-page novella, The Chalenge (sic), was an imaginative space adventure involving a blond kid who does not look Jewish, a best friend and a girl caught in the middle between the two boys.
“I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary,” he says in the memoir.
Shteyngart hated himself and the people around him. He was not strong enough to stand up to those who hit him, and he struck back with rage in the imaginary world he created. He discovered the power of laughter from a teacher who was ridiculed during a show-and-tell session in the classroom. He thought the teacher would burst out in tears when kids made fun of her. Instead, she just laughed and continued what she was doing. It was a revelation to him. “She has laughed at herself and emerged unscathed!”
The teacher asked him to bring The Chalenge to school and read a few pages to the class. Excited, he stood at the front of the class and read as fast as he could. “Slowly,” she said. “Read slowly, Gary. Let us enjoy the words.”
Her response startled him. “I breathe that in. Ms. S wants to enjoy the words.”
His classmates listened closely as he read the story aloud over the following five weeks. Reading his story changed how the children interacted with him. They were eager to hear the next instalment. He was not yet one of them on the playground but the terms of engagement had changed. He was no longer a Russian outcast.
Responding to their enthusiasm, he felt the pressure to write something new every day, lest he fall out of favor. It’s a responsibility that has haunted him for the rest of his life, he writes.
“God bless these kids for giving me a chance,” Shteyngart says. “May their G-d bless them every one.”
While still at Solomon Schechter School in Queens, he also wrote a satire of the Torah, called The Gnorah. He described the book as a hatchet job directed at his parochial school religious experience: rote memorization of ancient texts, aggressive shouting of blessings and an ornery rabbi who was the principal. Foreshadowing his writing style over the following decades, he mixed comic references to popular culture figures with the lives of characters in his story. Exodus became Sexodus, Moses was renamed Mishugana and the burning bush was turned into a burning television.
The Gnorah in 1984 marked the beginning of his true assimilation into American English, he writes. It would take almost two more decades before he started to receive awards for his writing.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was published in 2002. His second published novel, Absurdistan, was chosen as one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. And, Super Sad True Love Story won the 2011 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature – the Jewish Independent interviewed Shteyngart when that book came out, prior to his participation in the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival (see “Satirist launches series,” Nov. 12, 2010, jewishindependent.ca). Shteyngart’s work has been translated into 28 languages.
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Little Failure is available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve this book, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.