Interview: Koffler at the IFOA (Bezmozgis & Shteyngart)
International Festival of Authors (Lakeside Terrace). Sunday, October 23, 2011.
A full house in the Lakeside Terrace, with rollicking borsht-flavoured folk tunes filling the air as the crowd filed in for this co-presentation with the Koffler Centre. The session was hosted by Gal Beckerman, author of When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone, a seminal work on the Soviet Jewry movement, making him an apt interlocutor for two authors with similar backgrounds.
Though both came to North America during the Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union at the end of the 70's, David Bezmozgis and Gary Shteyngart came across as an odd couple so perfectly crafted that it might have suggested the hand of a literary author. Bezmozgis, the polite Canadian, was in a light, casual suit, reserved but with flashes of a sly smile. Shteyngart came across as more brashly American, a mile-a-minute Noo Yawk talker in a plaid shirt, his countenance providing no concealment for his emotions. There was a cool/warm dichotomy on display — if not quite Kennedy/Nixon than perhaps more like the possibilities suggested by a few day's facial growth: the subtle difference between a carefully-groomed beard and scraggly unshaven jaw. Just looking at their body language and hearing them speak, one could almost imagine Shteyngart throwing a plate of linguine against a wall to tweak Bezmozgis.
The session began with a brief reading from each author to give a taste of their work, and those glimpses of personality in their appearance were drawn even more sharply, with Bezmozgis giving a straightforward, slightly dry recitation of his material, letting the words themselves carry the task of bringing to life an excerpt from his recent novel The Free World. The book is set in the inbetweenrealm of Italy, 1978, where recently-departed Soviet Jews wait (and wait) for their fate as refugees in various Western nations to be decided. In the selection read to the audience, paterfamilias Samuel, a true-believer in the Soviet cause despite being denounced and forced to flee with his family, feels displaced from both his past and future.
Shteyngart then read from his Super Sad True Love Story, which is "set slightly in the future, when a completely illiterate America is about to fall apart. [beat] So, next Tuesday." From the get-go, he was a gregarious ham, reading with gusto, throwing in gestures and voices and accents for his characters. His book is a distopian vision marking him as "the Nostradamus of three months from now", including such of-the-moment events as tent cities in NYC.
Beckerman began the conversation with a look at the authors' common origins, both departing to the West in the massive '79 wave of immigration. Despite landing in different countries, both felt similar lingering effects of being at the vanguard of Russian Jews moving into unfamiliar communities, dealing with culture shock and class snobbery — both at Hebrew School and in wider society. This might explain how their origins could hold an outsized place in their work and imagination.
Discussing what set their experience apart from the previous waves of Jewish immigration to North America, Beckerman asked about the projections of the hosts, who had banded together to "save" the Russian Jewry, creating a particular power dynamic with the new immigrants. Coming into communities where there was less of a continuity with the pre-existing Jewish culture — as well as the fact that they were coming from a country that had the stigma of being "the enemy" — gave an outsider's edge to both men as youngsters, branding them with feelings of pride and shame in their backgrounds.1 As for how that contributed to their work as authors, immigrants have more of an ability to compare societies — which is a pretty explicit theme in The Free World.
Turning to influences — Richler, Roth, Malamud, Elkin, Leonard Michaels and Bellow were listed off — Bezmozgis said, "I was reading excellent books about people who, like me... had come of age, growing up in a Jewish immigrant community. And I looked around and I thought... I have some aspirations to write, and I found myself in the midst of yet another wave of Jewish immigration that is no less interesting than what has come before." Bezmozgis is comfortable in situating himself in that tradition, and enlarging it with the richness of material, both comedic and tragic, in his own experience.
In addition to those North American authors, Shteyngart also talked about drawing from the Russian literature — moved by Chekhov as a child, he was also influenced by the satirical tradition, including works like Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. he also talked about his sarcastic edge emerging when "everything you've believed with all your heart, you're told is bullshit. After that it's hard to latch on to any[thing] political. It's always taken with a grain of salt." And regarding not writing "seriously", he added: "my fear is that I want to entertain a little too much sometimes," having to learn to modulate the humour to serve the literary purpose.
Amongst the topics in the Q & A period, Bezmozgis was asked who his "envisioned reader" was, and he talked about being aware that he's writing for a general North American audience — goyim like myself — having to find the right balance in explaining specific cultural references without being pedantic. There was also some back and forth on the current vogue for Russian Jewish stories (viewed as rather inevitable, given the demographics) and the role of arts funding (Bezmozgis passionately defended the need for support for authors travelling and taking their stories abroad).
And as the setting sun slanted into the windows, filling up the room and causing the participants on the stage to have to squint to look out over the crowd, Bezmozgis closed by musing on the sadness of the lost dreams of the Soviet true believers (embodied by Samuel in his novel) and the loss of cultural continuity with the disappearance of the Yiddish traditions of Ashkenazi Jewish life — leaving it unspoken that it's through literature that we can maintain something of these connections, creating empathy and understanding as our own identities shift and meld.
Photo credit: readings.org.
1 There was also an intriguing discussion of cultural differences in the sense of victors and victimhood in the generation of Jews that grew up in the Soviet Union (Bezmozgis: "we won that fucking war!") compared to those who had fled the Holocaust.