“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz. Gary Shteyngart quotes the Polish poet near the end of his new memoir, “Little Failure,” titled from his mother’s amalgamated Russian-English nickname for her only child, “Failurchka.”
Shteyngart, the National Jewish Book Award–winning author of “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” has written a memoir as freewheeling, irreverent and pointedly observant as his novels.
He will appear at the JCC of San Francisco at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, in conversation with local author Daniel Handler.
Shteyngart proves himself the arbiter of his family’s narrative as he brings the same polylinguistic and wickedly playful sensibility to his own story as he has to the lives of the quasi-autobiographical heroes of his fiction.
Born in 1972, and at age 7 part of the wave of refuseniks emigrating from the crumbling Soviet Union, Shteyngart was the asthmatic only child of history-scarred parents who had lost numerous relatives during World War II. Shteyngart recreates their desperate and angry love for him in his early years, played out in the confines of a tiny Leningrad apartment where he slept on the sofa in the same room as the 1960s Signal television model that had a reputation for exploding at any moment.
His childhood was punctuated with passionate but haphazard reading, playing outside with his father in a forest of spruce trees and beneath a towering statue of Lenin, and his parents’ attempts to treat his constant wheezing with traditional and terrifying “cupping” treatments. Shteyngart brings us into the claustrophobic world of a young child gasping for what feels like his last breath, as his mother strikes a match, heats one glass cup after another, and suctions the stinging cups along his back.
After the family’s flight to Vienna, the doctor who gives him his first Western-made inhaler will sweep away that past with a simple, “You crazy Russians, what will you do next, huh?”
Shteyngart renders his minutely detailed memories with both harsh realism and tenderness for their protagonists — his quarreling, striving, stringently conservative parents who were often beaten down by circumstances, and for his younger self.
“Survival will mean replacing the love of the beautiful with the love of what is funny, humor being the last resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind,” writes Shteyngart in what could stand as a summary not only of his memoir, but of his entire body of work.
Among his own kind in America, growing up in Queens, N.Y., with his Russian accent, secondhand clothes and his increasingly Republican parents, Shteyngart was alternately ignored, ridiculed and bullied by his classmates at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, a place he endows with so much personality it becomes one of the most unlikeable characters in the book.
Humor, in escapades like rewriting the Torah as his own bleak but uproariously funny pop-culture “Gnorrah,” points the way to his salvation.
“Soplyak,” or “Snotty,” his father’s hostile-affectionate nickname for him, came of age in a 1980s suburban world of “Star Wars,” painfully slow computer games and “Three’s Company.” As Sheyngart struggles to become someone else, he also struggles with watching his parents learn the idiom of an unknown culture. One of the funniest, most heartbreaking moments in “Little Failure” is the story of their belief that the Publishers Clearinghouse letter addressed to “S. Shitgart” announcing, “You have already won,” is the real thing.
Shteyngart, 41, takes us through the angst, anger and pursuit of sex, love, literature and self-understanding through psychoanalysis that have defined his adult years. And in doing so, the Manhattan resident gives us a book that can stand alongside Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” as one of the most evocative memoirs in English by a Russian.
Shteyngart references Nabokov’s hatred of poshlost, the heavily freighted word that evokes for Russians a sense of extreme tackiness or vulgarity. In rendering the world of one immigrant Gen Xer grappling with American poshlost, Shteyngart manages to simultaneously skewer it with savage precision and transcend it with the warmth and wit of art.
Gary Shteyngart appears 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, JCCSF, 3200 California St., $25-$45. www.jccsf.org
“Little Failure” by Gary Shteyngart (349 pages, Random House, $27)