I’m recommending Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure, especially for aficionados of contemporary American letters and contemporary Jewish culture. Born in Leningrad, Shteyngart charts his way from Queens to Oberlin, Ohio and North Carolina via Manhattan and back to Brooklyn. He explores those mid to late 1970s landscapes, his place there, and his own Russian American milieu. He colors the ridiculousness and cruel stupidities of that time and place, those people, his people, with a deep undercurrent of sentiment and sentimentality, aware of the weight of traumatic memory as perhaps only a Jew from the ex-Soviet Union can be. The failure that weighs over the book is cultural, historical, geopolitical, personal, and physical. It’s also “Jewish.”
Readers of his fiction will understand that the always funny, ironic affect in Shteyngart’s self-telling is recognizably his own –boozy, sad, a touch louche. What struck this reader, however, as more genuine, if I may, were underlying sentimental attachments, an emphasis on culture and community, a “desperately trying hard to have a history, a past,” a “flooding of memory, melancholy and true” (p.277). Along with the harsh light thrown upon them, there’s no little amount of warmth expressed for “These people [who] know one another, understand one another, came of age with one another…[t]ied by kin and outlook, as were their parents. As were their parents before.” Waxed nostalgic, fond mention is made of rugelach in “advanced baking ovens,” fathers talking about their new Lincolns, and “the drowsy, hypnotic hum of cantors and rabbis on Saturday mornings” (204).
American Jewish readers of a more conservative bent won’t take to the snide digs thrown at American Judaism and the American Jewish community in its more institutional form. But others might find even a little gentle the vignettes from Queens Solomon Schechter Day School, saturated as they are in American popular culture. How you come to that judgment might depend upon how you read the closing coda of the memoir. About a trip back to Russia as an adult with his parents, Shteyngart tells how they drove out to visit a battlefield site that was part of the siege of Leningrad. He comes back to the memory of his paternal grandfather, an artillerist, who died in the fighting in defense of the city. Recalling the kaddish for mourners that they said there, Shteyngart writes out segments of it in the Hebrew-script, transliterating some of the Aramaic, translating into English, and then a little in Russian, the small part that he says he knows well.
Shteyngart calls the Kaddish gibberish, presenting himself tripping over and mangling the words, claiming that he can read it but he cannot understand it. I don’t necessarily believe it. The graveside kaddish is pretty much the standard form that one assumes Shteyngart would have prayed every day at Solomon Schechter as part of the mandatory morning service. Either the education at Solomon Schechter Day School in the 1970s really was substandard, or Shteyngart never quite learned the prayer, or he’s simply lying, embarrassed a little about what would otherwise have to look like a pious act. My bet is that Shteyngart understands quite well the meaning of the prayer more than well enough to know the significance of the decision to conclude his memoir with it. I may very well be wrong about all of this, in which case I beg the author’s forgiveness. But the conclusion to this touching and beautiful memoir, super sad, feels like an impious fiction.