Monday, September 1, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart  2014

"Hilarious as it often is, Little Failure is a record of existential homelessness, of living in a limbo between two different countries and identities." from a review by Peter Conrad in The Guardian March 2, 2014

For those of you who have read any of Gary Shteyngart’s novels, the settings, “characters” and laugh lines in this memoir will be familiar. Born in 1972 in the Soviet Union, he immigrated with his parents to the United Stated in 1979 and settled in Queens, New York. In this memoir he takes us back to what he remembers about his early childhood in Leningrad as Igor, then to his growing up in America as Gary.

In many ways this is the classic immigrant story.The Shtayngarts had come from a country and a culture where they had had deep roots. He dramatizes his parents’ clinging to their Russian ways and the Russian language in America, and the confusion he feels trying to become an American amongst the American born. At the same time that he and his parents marvel at the riches and possibilities America has to offer, they also are discomforted at what they see as an intellectually impoverished environment compared to what they left behind. They are quite perturbed at a far inferior education system in America and constantly push their son to be the best. Hence the title: Little Failure – a nickname his mother bestows on their only child because she’s not satisfied with how much he is achieving.

One of the great strengths of this memoir is Shteyngart’s ability to re-create how he felt and what he understood as a youngster. He deftly sketches in the economic and political climate - the  actualities of Soviet life, including the debilitating anti-Semitism that they experienced.  And he writes with compassion about the terrible choice his mother had to make in deciding she would emigrate, having to leave behind her sick mother in the care of her older sister. He writes lovingly about the influence that both of his grandmothers had on his life, and he conveys his father’s fervent attachment to his Jewish religion here in America which he wasn’t allowed to practice in the Soviet Union. Throughout he adds authenticity and color by sprinkling Russian language phrases into the ongoing family conversations and declarations.

Like most immigrant families who leave their homelands, the Shteyngarts immigrate so that the next generation will have more opportunity. The author understands and appreciates their motives, but the story he tells reveals that what drove them came at a cost. At the same time they were rescued from a hostile environment, they were displaced and had to start in an alien environment with nothing. His mordant, dark humor drives these points home.

This memoir includes many family photos.

To watch a video of Gary Shteyngart reading from his memoir and discussing his life, click here.
To read an article about Soviet Jewish immigration to the United States click here.

Author's mother's family
Seina Nirman
   Gayla  – daughter of Seina; married Dmitry Yasnitsky
       Lyusya Yasnitskaya – daughter of Gayla
          Victoria – daughter  of Lyusya
      Nina Yasnitskaya – daughter of Gayla; married Semyon Shteyngart
             Igor (Gary) Shteyngart – son of Semyon and Nina; author
      Tanya Yasnistskaya – daughter of Gayla
   Aaron – son of Seina 

Author's father's family
 Isaac Shteyngart (formerly Steinhorn)-  married Polya Miller
    Semyon Shteyngart – son of Isaac and Polya; married Nina Yasnitskaya
Igor (Gary) Shteyngart – son of Semyon and Nina; author
Fenya Miller – sister of author’s paternal grandmother, Polya Miller (see above)

Chemirovets, Ukraine
Dubrovno, Belarus
Orinino, Ukraine
Olgino, Russia
St Petersburg, Russia
Queens, New York