Gary Shteyngart interview

Leningrad-born author looks at his past in Little Failure A Memoir

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Leningrad-born author Gary Shteyngart looks at his past in Little Failure A Memoir.

Read this author’s memoir and it becomes clear: The name Gary Shteyngart wasn’t given, it was earned. As a child growing up in Leningrad during the Brezhnev era, he was known as Igor Shteyngart. After he emigrated to the US, unkind classmates hurled jabs his way because of his accent and homeland. Desperate to make friends, he adopted a variant of the name of a character from 1980s kids’ show The Great Space Coaster, Gary Gnu. Later, as he tested out new freedoms at Oberlin College, he went by Scary Gary.

Through it all, he thought of himself as a lovable bumbler in the mold of the protagonist from 1960s US TV show Gilligan’s Island. But when he published his first tome, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, the writer finally felt at home in his own skin. ‘In a way,’ says Shteyngart, ‘that’s when Igor and all the other monikers went away and I became Gary Shteyngart.’

Though 2014’s Little Failure A Memoir is Shteyngart’s first autobiography, the central journey of an immigrant becoming an American echoes throughout his satirical fiction, thanks to such characters as Absurdistan’s Misha Vainberg – who, fattened by American abundance, returns to St Petersberg after his rich father dies. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, many aspects of Vladimir Girshkin’s story closely mirror Shtetyngart’s own – a point Shteyngart repeatedly alludes to in his latest book.

In Little Failure A Memoir, however, the scenes of familial strife, growing pains and personal transgression are served as raw as his father’s famous garlic sandwiches. ‘Satire is fun, but it puts up a lot of little screens,’ says Shteyngart. ‘With this, there are no screens; it’s just full-on pain.’

One of his father’s mottos roughly translates to, ‘He who does not hit, does not love,’ and papa proves this to his little ‘Snotty’. After being badgered by classmates and his parents, the young Shteyngart takes out his aggression on the only kids weaker and smaller than he is – the universally reviled schoolmate who says little more than, ‘Agoof!’ for instance. In later chapters, the author does not flinch as he depicts himself throwing himself at a paramour with a boyfriend and bullying his New York benefactor. Which is not to say that the stories are not heartfelt or without their share of humour; there are, in fact, many tender moments
and laughs that accompany each and every harsh truth. There’s a touching scene in which his longtime girlfriend convinces the skittish Shteyngart to slow dance, and the book ends as he and his parents acknowledge the weight of their family’s history while in Russia.

Spanning nearly all of Shteyngart’s life, Little Failure certainly feels like a naturalised immigrant’s maturing process. Coming-of-age stories don’t consider their protagonists’ middle ages, generally, but it takes time for the bewildered, uprooted boy to become his own sort of man.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of the storytelling, each of the book’s themes directly reflect some aspect of the writer’s growth: He comes of age, and then some. He then embraces American life while quietly yearning for lost moments of his past and abandoned homeland.

‘No one sits down, writes their memoir and then suddenly becomes a changed person,’ says Shteyngart. ‘I’m still the failure I was before, but with better sweaters.’
Little Failure A Memoir costs Dhs62, and is available at www.amazon.com.

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