A sensitive, sickly child in Soviet Russia, Gary Shteyngart struggled at everything, even the basic act of breathing. The only treatment available for his unrelenting asthma, cupping, left him covered in welts and unable to sleep. Since Russia’s state-issued televisions were known to catch fire, TV wasn’t an option. Shteyngart took refuge in reading and writing.
In 1979, Shteyngart’s family was among thousands of Russian Jews allowed to immigrate to America, “in exchange for tons of grain and some high technology, presumably television sets that won’t explode with such regularity,” Shteyngart, 42, writes in his memoir, “Little Failure.”
Sickly children, with nothing to entertain them but their imagination, make for good novelists. Shteyngart’s three tragicomic novels, “Absurdistan,” “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” read like fever dreams, simultaneously realistic and fantastical.
“Little Failure” is as funny and heartfelt as Shteyngart’s fiction, and it’s the topic of his Wednesday talk at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. We questioned him beforehand.
It seems you’ve been a writer your entire life.
It’s one of the few things I’m good at. I worked as a paralegal once and as a janitor at a nuclear power plant, but those jobs didn’t last long.
You wrote your first book, “Lenin and His Magical Goose,” at age 5?
I wrote it less for artistic considerations and more for the cheese that my grandmother gave me to write it. I really loved cheese. Even today, Random House pays me in cheese, so the circle hasn’t been broken. We left that book in Russia — we didn’t take much with us when we left. I wish I still had it. It was about how Lenin rode a magical goose to conquer Finland.
In America, your parents enrolled you in Hebrew school, where you wrote “The Gnorah,” your first foray into satire.
“The Gnorah” was a takeoff of the Torah, with Exodus becoming Sexodus. That was my first introduction to English, in a way. I still had a huge accent, but when I wrote there was obviously no accent. Writing in English gave me the confidence later to speak it.
And “The Gnorah” didn’t get you into trouble?
It was under the radar. The rabbis must have been a little bit illiterate.
How was writing your memoir different than writing novels?
With a memoir, you are relying on memory more than you are relying on imagination to create new scenarios, so I think it exercises a different muscle. There are also a lot of similarities, in terms of getting your thoughts together. A good sentence is a good sentence no matter what you are writing about.
Your past has been such good fodder for your fiction. Are you worried that now you’ve published a memoir, you’ll have less material for your novels?
Writing this book frees me up to do a different kind of fiction, stuff that doesn’t necessarily have to do with Russian Jews. Now I’m writing a thriller that’s set in 12 different cities around the world. The protagonist is a woman who works in the financial industry.
How have your friends reacted to your memoir?
I was just talking to a former roommate from college, and he said there was a lot in my past he didn’t know about.
So when you were at Oberlin, you didn’t tell people about being circumcised as an 8-year-old?
I didn’t, though that would have been pretty cool at Oberlin. I could have had a rock band called “Wounded Penis.”
You described your alma mater as “established in 1833 so that people who couldn’t otherwise find love, the emotional invalids and Elephant Men of the world, could do so.” Has Oberlin invited you back for a reading?
No, no, they have not.
Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW; Wed., 7:30 p.m., $26.50.
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