Super sad, super true, super funny stories
Chekhov meets Borat? Woody Allen when he was funny? Author Gary Shteyngart’s blackly humorous vision is all his own
When I finally get through to Gary Shteyngart’s London hotel room, after a Fawlty Towers -style mix-up, he’s in bed. Not because he overslept but because he prefers to spend most of his time there writing, and jokes that he only leaves bed to go on book tours. “It’s not good for my health or my posture but it works for me, and it’s probably me psychically interacting with who I was as a child.”
The Russian-American writer is in the UK to discuss his new memoir, Little Failure . The bed story goes way back to his childhood in 1970s Leningrad. He was tormented by chronic asthma, and his parents frequently stayed up all night with him, propping his mouth open with a spoon so he could breathe. “It set down this idea that it’s important to constantly immerse yourself in the world of words, and that definitely happened because I was a sickly child.”
I mention the theory that Bram Stoker’s imagination and literary sensibility sprung from the fact he was confined to bed for years as a child with a mystery illness. “Oh yes, so many writers – and readers – are that way,” says Shteyngart. “On my book tour in the US people brought me their asthma inhalers to sign. I felt like I was in this great fraternity of people who can’t breathe very well but enjoy books.”
Shteyngart’s creative nous emerged early; in his very funny, occasionally bleak memoir, it transpires that he wrote his first book – a 100-page comic novel called Lenin and His Magical Goose – aged five. His grandmother rewarded the writing with gifts of cheese, but in his mind it created an even deeper motivation. “Both of my grandmothers gave me oodles of unconditional love. It was the equivalent of one of those 12-course American meals where everything is fried. But in my mind I also associated writing with sharing something intellectual and getting something emotional in return.”
The family moved from Russia to New York when Shteyngart was eight, and he changed his name to from Igor to Gary (“Igor is Frankenstein’s assistant, and I have enough problems already.”) Fearful that his son would forget their homeland, his father took him on long walks in Queens, recounting stories of family history, which Shteyngart junior nicknamed “Planet of the Yids”. This sense of dislocation and upheaval works its way into all of his fiction. Vladimir Girshkin in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is a Russian Jew who moves with his family to the US as a child; in Super Sad True Love Story , the protagonist Lenny Abramov is the son of Russian emigrants. If the expanse of fiction offers space to cover autobiography, why write a memoir – a narrative space where there is nowhere to hide?
“I’m 41, which is very old in Russian years. I’m 74 in Irish years, so I don’t have much time left. I’m at the stage in life where I can look back at youth without the emotion overpowering me and with enough senility, ahem, I mean brain matter left to remember things.”
Before beginning the project, he knew there could be no self-censorship. Nothing could be omitted. “I poured all of myself into it. It’s a giant Shteyngart cocktail, although I did wonder how many readers I would lose by having three pages describing a late-in-life circumcision.”
What he also funnelled into the pages was the horrors of what happened to his Russian relatives. Some were sent to Stalin’s camps; his grandfather was killed; one cousin jumped out of a window because starving rats were pursuing her.
“Oh, everyone was killed. My father’s first memory is of diving under a train as the German bombers came in. On my mother’s side, there was a photo album with uncles who were buried alive. When I started to make American friends, I realised people just didn’t have stories like that. I knew something was wrong, because my parents were so different.”
This harrowing family ancestry doesn’t sound like the kind of writing Shteyngart is known for, which is satirical humour and self-deprecation. One journalist called him “Chekhov-meets-Borat”, and being Jewish, awkward and frequently unlucky in love (which make for some of the funniest parts of the book) often draws comparisons to Woody Allen (when Allen’s films were funnier and his personal life less publically complicated). Shteyngart attends a therapist, and thinks it was helpful in writing Little Failure . “Well, very neurotic New Yorkers go five times a week but I only go four times so that makes me something of an outlier. My therapy is almost over, which is bittersweet.”
In the online trailer for the book, he and his former student, the actor James Franco, wear matching dressing-gowns and are a couple “on an erotic journey”. Comic writing is looked down on, explains Shteyngart, and he points to an over-emphasis on seriousness in literature. The Wodehouse Prize for comic writing “is important”, although he laments that his Jewishness prevents him from eating his actual prize (a pig called Super Sad).
“All Russian humour is from the edge of the grave. It’s about the worst thing that could happen and then you laugh at it. Also, coming from a country that has failed . . . the old Soviet Union fell apart and Russia today is a disaster. That was the stain . . . this feeling that the failure of my country reflected upon me. I was a kid wearing this giant fur hat, with no TV, so it felt that I was representing this terrible failed system and other kids never let me forget that.”
We talk about language and the transition from speaking Russian, to English and Hebrew. He still speaks Russian to his parents, whose English is not fluent, so they’ll have to wait for this book to be translated. “It’s a lovely language, it’s very expressive. I often think that sad countries produce such amazing literature - and Ireland is a spectacular example of that. There’s often a correlation between how much a country suffers and the kind of artists it produces. In that case, Ireland and Russia win the sweepstakes.”
For all the unfulfilling relationships and the perils of technology in Super Sad True Love Story , Shteyngart’s stories pivot on their ability to make a reader laugh. That narrative was also his first experience of writing a female voice, something he wants to return to. “I got to write from the point of view of a woman, and one from a different race, and it was one of the most interesting things I’ve done as a writer. So with the next book, I want to write a whole book from a woman’s point of view.”
Super Sad (as Shteyngart truncates it) also addresses our symbiotic and frequently soulless connection to technology. He is a fervent Twitter-user, realising that in the face of decimated book sales, writers need to be their own publicists. “My prognosis for books is not that bright, so when I was writing Super Sad True Love Story , I thought of it as an epitaph for the reading experience. Lenny is the last book-reader. To me, the idea of the writer in the garret is finished. In the US, it used to be that every small city had a newspaper with an entire book section and everyone would read it. I was 29 when my first book came out in 2002 and now all those book sections are gone. Now you have to pursue every lead possible. I just want the story to get out there, and to find a decent audience. It requires 365 days of publicity, and that’s why writers only produce a book once every four years.”
He enjoys book tours, even if it takes “a lot of Xanax” to get him over his fear and up on the stage. This time around, being away is harder, as Shteyngart recently became a father and hasn’t seen much of his four-month-old son. Fatherhood has made him re-evaluate many things about his relationship with his mother, who called him “Failurchka” (the translation of the book’s title) and his stoic father. Does he think he’d have been a writer if the family had stayed in Russia? “Absolutely not. No I would have either been a depressed mid-level worker, or if I had a little more guile, I could have been an oligarch of some kind.”
Little Failure: A Memoir is published by Hamish Hamilton