Immigrant song: Gary Shteyngart enthroned as Billy Idol in 1985.
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Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Reborn in the USA

The Russian-American novelist's memoir shuttles back and forth between the deep past of his Soviet childhood to the glimmering possibilities of George Bush Sr's America.

Little Failure: a Memoir
Gary Shteyngart
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

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser