Little Failure: a Memoir
Hamish Hamilton, 368pp, £16.99
There are two ways in which you could read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. First of all, as a sort of crib to the author’s acclaimed fiction. His first (and most autobiographical) novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), won the National Jewish Book Award; his second, Absurdistan, was named as one of the 10 best books of 2006 in the New York Times; and his third, Super Sad True Love Story (2010) won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize – which pretty much covers all the bases, critically speaking.
Born in Leningrad in 1972, Shteyngart emigrated with his parents to the US when he was seven, and one of the greatest strengths of his fiction is the way in which he has mined the immigrant’s ridiculous, tragic, wonderful plight. His novels are sophisticated – and hilarious – conversations between cultures in which characters must navigate the double displacement that results from leaving one place and yet never quite belonging in another.
So, Shteyngart wouldn’t want to stop you looking for connections between the life and the art; indeed, occasionally the author will, not a little wistfully, point them out. But there is another way to read this book, and that is in the understanding that you don’t have to have read any of the author’s novels to find it ridiculous, tragic and wonderful.
“Little Failure”, if you are wondering, was little Gary’s nickname – given to him not by some playground oik but by his very own parents. But his parents were Jewish! I hear you cry. Jewish parents adore their children! (Allow me this: I have some experience here.) This is not the dynamic in little Gary’s family, however. Indeed, little Gary did not start out as Gary at all but as Igor; he only becomes Gary when his family is allowed to leave the Soviet Union thanks to a bad harvest in Russia and a deal cut by the American president Jimmy Carter: “Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.”
The move to the US (via Austria – pretty nerve-wracking for a family scarred by the Second World War – and Italy, portrayed, despite its history of fascism, as a land of fat tomatoes and sybaritic bliss) is like a move to another planet. The Pan Am terminal at JFK looks to Gary – who is still Igor at this point – like a flying saucer. Throughout the book, Shteyngart skips back and forth between the present and the past, the deep past of his Soviet childhood at the book’s beginning, his school years and drunken, stoned college years as his life progresses. But even though we know that little Gary finally achieves success in this brand-new country, we are given to understand that it is only success when seen from the outside. From within his family, things look different. “I read on the Russian internet that you and your novels will soon be forgotten,” his father tells him.
Yet his father loves him and he loves his father too. This memoir is one of the best depictions I have read of the precarious, passionate triangle that makes up an only child’s relationship with his parents; in the Shteyngarts’ case, both the passion and precariousness are exaggerated by the wrenching shift not just from one country to another, but from the Soviet Union to a place that would describe their homeland as the “Evil Empire”. “We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party,” Shteyngart writes. “And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn’t know who we were. In this book, I’m trying to say who we were.”
And who is Gary? A writer. The memoir is punctuated by the moments in which he gradually finds his voice – whether that’s writing his first book, “Lenin and his Magical Goose” when he was five, or, some years later, securing his first publishing deal. He turns his keen eye mercilessly on himself, presenting a ruthless catalogue of anxiety, narcissism, rudeness and folly (he campaigns for George Bush Sr! And he thinks this is going to get him laid!) that somehow always has, hovering over it, the hope of redemption. Yes, this is in part the redemption offered by a country like America, the land where anything is possible, from success as an author to that author’s parents discovering that they might, after all, be able to get along.
The best memoirs are ones that are perfectly individuated, particular – and yet somehow speak to every reader’s life, every reader’s family. This is one of those rare books. It is suffused not only with the author’s trademark wit but also with raking honesty. The one need not preclude the other – a lesson that bears repeating. “People who think literature should be Serious – should serve as a rocket that will never take off – are malevolent at best, anti-Semitic at worst,” Shteyngart notes.
And yet he knows that sometimes humour has its limits. “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” No: there is no safety, not ever in this life. How can this dreadful knowledge be borne? By keeping books such as Little Failure close to your heart.
Erica Wagner is British Library Eccles Centre writer-in-residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize