A Year in Reading: Gary Shteyngart

December 4, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 7

covercoverHaving made four British friends, this year I decided to devote myself to the fiction of the sceptered isle. I read Middlemarch (totally awesome), David Copperfield (pretty dang awesome), and Pride as well as Prejudice (plain awesome). I was reared in 19th Century Russian literature and then the literature of American Jews (Roth, Bellow, etc.) and I always had difficulty with the relative lack of emotion in English lit. I developed several strategies to make my reading easier. First, I would insert some hot Russian emotion into the chilly scenes by hand. So if a character is carrying on some abstruse conversation about standing for parliament or whatever, I would interrupt it in my mind with: “And then Casaubon Casaubonovich threw himself around her neck and cried violently.” Problem solved. Then I decided to Yiddishize some of the writing to make it more haimish. Take for example the first line of David Copperstein: “Whether I shall turn out to be the mensch of my own life, or whether that station will be held by some other putz, this spiel must show.” Or: “Miss Brooke had the kind of punim which seems to be thrown into relief by her shmatas.” Once you mentally add a dollop of sour cream and a tablespoon of schmaltz to 19th Century British literature, you will find it tastes as good as anything in the Western canon. Mr. Darcyvich never had it so good.

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was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. He is the author of the novels Super Sad True Love Story, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was selected as one of the best books of the year by more than forty news journals and magazines around the world; Absurdistan, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine; and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His latest book, Little Failure, is a memoir about his American immigrant experience and being a life-long misfit. You can find him on Twitter @Shteyngart and Facebook at Facebook.com/GaryShteyngart.


  1. Hilarious!

    Woolf and Forster tremble with emotion. I hear what you are saying re: some of the 18th century novels, but have found that sometimes I may have begin with a fairly abstract view of certain works– Austen, the Brontes, even Shakespeare– but rereading over the course of my life changes this. So does a beautiful film or theatre rendition. I can remember being kind of annoyed in the middle of Sense and Sensibility with all the handwringing about Marianne “catching a cold” on her “ling walk in the rain”– after the movie, I got it. Went back and really got it.

    But the inverse might be true. The brutality of the inheritance issue– and the selfish cruelty of the Dashwood sisters’ in-laws — felt more tangible on the page.

  2. I regret the time I wasted reading this unedifying and unfunny collection of sentences. And I have enjoyed some of your novels.

  3. I’m with UpperWestHazel: “I regret the time I wasted reading this unedifying and unfunny collection of sentences. And I have enjoyed some of your novels.”

    C’mon, Gary!

  4. If you keep going with Eliot and make it all the way to Daniel Deronda, you won’t have to bother Yiddischizing it as there is already the most incongruous and marvelous Zionist subplot where Deronda discovers his Jewish roots and dedicates his future to establishing a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

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