Gary Shteyngart writes in English, but his memoir draws on the Russian and Yiddish of his Leningrad childhood, and the Hebrew of his schooling in New York.
The memoir is called "Little Failure." The title is based on an English-Russian mashup expression ("failure" plus a Russian diminutive) invented by his mother.
"I love the way [my parents] play with language," says Shteyngart. "Even when it's a little bit hurtful."
Hurtful goes both ways in Shteyngart’s family. “Little Failure” won’t be a comfortable read for his parents. It’s full of fraught family moments—and worse. The memoir also delves into the past, documenting the terrible suffering of some Shteyngart’s grandparents and great-grandparents.
And although his parents do have a copy of the book, Shteyngart says their English isn’t great, so they may wait till the Russian translation comes out.
Shteyngart has previously written three novels, “The Russian Debutante's Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story.” The memoir reads like a novel—gripping narratives, expertly-etched characters, telling details.
When Shteyngart was seven, his family moved from the Soviet Union to the United States. Like many Soviet Jews they’d been trying to leave for years to escape anti-Semitism. But Soviet authorities blocked the immigration of many Jews until they could strike a deal with the United States. It was 1979. The Russians needed grain—their harvest had failed. So they allowed Jews to leave in exchange for American grain.
So the family became “Grain Jews.”
“I was worth maybe 300 loaves and a croissant or something,” says Shteyngart. “I don’t know who got the better deal.”
The family settled in New York, where Gary was sent to Hebrew school. He didn’t bother too much with learning Hebrew. He was more interested in picking up English from TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
At the dinner table, though, the family spoke only in Russian, for which Shteyngart is grateful now.
“Retaining Russian meant retaining all those memories,” he says. “Whenever I write, it’s in English but there’s always a Russian soundtrack in the back.”
It took Shteyngart about seven years to lose his Russian accent: “Lots of practice in front of a mirror.”
He would repeat words he couldn’t pronounce, trying to “get rid of a bunch of consonants to get English right.”
One such word: attic. The family had moved to an apartment with an attic and Shteyngart was anxious to master this expression. But one of those pesky extra consonants came back to bite him. He pronounced it addict, as in: “We have a new apartment with an addict.”
Shteyngart recently became a father for the first time. He’s relieved that his son wasn’t born into the kind of calamitous world experienced by previous generations of Shteyngarts.
“The Yiddish word is tsuris—troubles,” he says. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I mean pretty soon, Manhattan might be underwater, so I hope this kid learns how to swim real good. But there is a feeling that…he’s growing up in relatively wonderful circumstances.”