Last updated on February 20, 2024
Narrating a new mythology of Russian-Jewish immigration
Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart, is my next book on the Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10 list. It’s not the first or only Russian-Jewish memoir — and it’s not just because Gary Shteyngart is one of the most famous Russian-Jewish writers of the past twenty years. No, its significance lies in its ability to capture the complexities of becoming an American for a new wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants — a wave that left behind a Soviet, not Tsarist, Russia.
If you’re familiar with Shteyngart’s fiction, especially his earlier work like Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Little Failure was a significant departure into a more moving and non-satirical story. It’s simultaneously a personal coming-of-age memoir and a universal outsider immigrant journey. It was one of my favourite reads in 2014, a year that saw an explosion of Russian-Jewish writing.
I don’t know how our children and grandchildren will understand their heritage in another 25, 50 or 100 years. What I do know is that our immigration journey — our transformation into Canadians and Americans — is not that of the Lower East Side era. We haven’t spilled out into crowded streets as peddlers, or pickle-purveyors, or factory-floor garment workers. We were urbanized, assimilated, highly educated. We spoke no Yiddish and we knew no religious Judaism. We need a new story of Russian-Jewish immigration at the end of the 20th-century, and Little Failure amply fulfills that requirement.
And ok, I, too, was born in 1970s Leningrad. Our family immigrated the same year as the Shteyngarts in 1979. So though I’m well-read in Russian-Jewish immigrant lit, this book struck a particular nerve with its flash of a life I almost lived. It’s full of if moment. If we’d been refused, if my parents had waited a few more years to apply for immigration, if… if… if…. Just a bureaucrat’s pen stroke and I’d have known these streets in that same childhood way and had similar memories. An almost life.
And of course, Shteyngart’s family history, with its assorted tragedies and near-misses, resonates with an immediate familiarity to any SovietRussian-Jew, as does the often fraught relationships with parents who’ve sacrificed everything and yet remain so outside the world in which they’ve raised us.
Amidst everything else the book covers, which has been well-discussed in numerous reviews, one moment in Little Failure has stuck with me in the years since I first read it. (I’ve briefly mentioned it before in the Soviet Samovar, my semi-regular, monthly newsletter.) It takes place in Vienna, after the family leaves the Soviet Union, when Shteyngart’s parents take him to a clinic and must explain the Soviet cupping method with which they treated their son’s asthma.
I will be six years old and breathless from asthma per usual and have to be taken to a Viennese medical clinic. Herr Doctor…will laugh and say ‘How old-fashioned!’ or ‘How idiotic!’… He will give me something I have never encountered back in the USSR: a simple, steroid-fueled asthma inhaler. For the first time in my life, I will enjoy the realization that I do not have to choke to death every night.
Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart
Somehow, this one scene completely summed up for me the casual cruelty and utter disregard for human life in the USSR. Shteyngart was just one child — one of millions over 74 years, and yet, this one small, coughing, barely-breathing child stands for so much.