Gary Shteyngart, author of three well-regarded novels, has just published a memoir, Little Failure. Everyone loves it, but in Canada, at least, it’s been overshadowed by comments he made criticizing our literature for being too safe. Here, Shteyngart talks about writers he does like, including a Canadian, and defends his position that government grants can produce unambitious writing.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
The main influences were Nabokov, because of the attention to craft and sentence and detail. Chekhov, because that’s the empathy I wanted, which I never quite got – but to develop that sense of empathy was what I really wanted. Roth, because he was hilarious, and at the same time very sad. Richler was this big surprise. Somebody got me a copy of Barney’s Version, with that big cigar on it. It’s a long book, and I read it in an hour, it felt like. I inhaled it. The sadness, the mortality – the sadness of losing one’s faculties. In a strange way it made me feel that same old immigrant dirge I’ve always had: I don’t quite know what’s going on. Barney’s end was like my youth!
Did you imitate any of them?
I wasn’t trying to imitate, I don’t think. The closest to imitation was Nabokov, I guess. He came to the States in the 1940s, and he had a different kind of playlist with the English and Russian languages because he had an English governess growing up, which, sadly, I did not in Soviet Russia. But that same idea of playing on those two languages and having the melody of one and the form of another, that was very important to me.
Are non-Russian speakers inherently poorer readers of Nabokov, because we don’t recognize that Russian melody in his English prose?
I think you just register it as a kind of foreignness, whereas I register it more as a kind of comfort food, almost. The cadences, the way the sentences are structured. I don’t think he could think of a sentence without some kind of Russian equivalent knocking around in the woods. That’s my guess, at least – it has to be there.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
Often it’s each other, because we’re all taught in MFA programs. I teach in one. There is a danger, which is what I was talking about when I mentioned Canadian arts council grants. The danger is you’re writing for a committee. There are people you’re trying to please. One has to develop voices that are unique to one’s own voice. What you’re saying inside has to somehow make it on the page, whether it’s set on the Moons of Gandor or wherever. Every writer we’ve talked about has channelled their voices so beautifully.
This interview has been condensed and edited.