In 1951, Vladimir Nabokov published Speak, Memory, which guided readers through his life up to 1940. In the memoir, he detailed his aristocratic upbringing in pre-revolutionary Saint Petersburg. He talks openly about his family, his love for butterflies, his first crushes and his emigration to America. Four years later, Nabokov published Lolita; two years after, he published Pnin; five years later, Pale Fire. The trajectory begs the question: Is the memoir a necessary step towards literary legend?
Gary Shteyngart — a self-admitted fan of Nabokov — may be following in the classic Russian novelist’s footsteps. Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, couldn’t be more different from Nabokov’s, yet Shteyngart references Nabokov many times, even within the first few pages: “I've returned to St. Petersburg to be carried away by a Nabokovian torrent of memory for a country that no longer exists.” Speak, Memory is even mentioned in particular:
“As I am being tossed up and down by the many weak Oberlin arms, am I thinking of the book I have just read — Nabokov's Speak, Memory — in which Vladimir Vladimirovich's nobleman father is being ceremonially tossed in the air by the peasants of his country estate after he has adjudicated one of their peasant disputes?”
In an interview with Mother Jones, Shteyngart explains that his time had come to stop writing fiction based loosely on his own life: “I've been using this material as the sauce for my pasta, so to speak, and I decided to give away the recipe.”
Shteyngart isn’t the only novelist to come out with a memoir this year. Tom Robbins published Tibetan Peach Pie this May — but he refuses to call it a memoir. He told The Seattle Times: “My publisher calls it a memoir because they don’t know what else to call it. It’s as typical to a memoir as Dumbo is typical to an elephant.” There’s actually no doubt that when fiction writers turn to their lives, it feels like a totally different breed of memoir.
I wouldn’t call 2014 the year of novelists writing memoirs, but, so far, it’s been my year of reading them. I don’t typically gravitate toward memoirs, but considering that two fiction writers I love unconditionally were publishing them, reading each was inevitable. I wanted to know where all their stories came from and how things changed when those works were recognized.
Despite each author’s effort to break away from fiction, Shteyngart’s and Robbins’s memoirs are worlds apart. Robbins’s motivations, as he told NPR, stem from a very particular place: “The driving force was the women in my life. ... I've been telling them stories over many many years, and they were pestering me to start writing some of them down.” Shteyngart, on the other hand, had therapeutic motivations for Little Failure, as he explained to Guernica:
“This memoir is in large part a product of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis really has quite a bit to do with writing. You’re publishing things into the air. Not formally, but at least the raw material of what will often be in the books is presented there, and then you go home and you think it over some more. One of the goals of analysis is you become your own analyst. You continue the process even if you’re not in therapy, whether you continue the process by walking down the street thinking about things or whether you continue the process, as I do, by writing about them.”
This may explain why Shteyngart’s memoir is so bleeding raw, all of his fears on display with his deepest introspections. Of course, Shteyngart charms readers with his self-deprecating humor — the shameless details about his late and painful circumcision, his college Jesus hairdo, the nicknames given to him by exes, like “Big Furry Bitch” — but he also puts his heart on display.
The charm of Robbins’s Tibetan Peach Pie comes from sweet details, like his childhood nickname “Tommy Rotten,” or confessions from his first drug trip, but he woos readers most with what they care about: his novels. One of the most hilarious stories from the memoir recounts the FBI briefly suspecting him of being The Unabomber because of Still Life with Woodpecker, whose protagonist builds explosives. Two beautiful, young female FBI agents arrive at Robbins’s house to interrogate him, but when they neglect to contact him afterward, he reaches out to the FBI and discovers no agents were assigned to visit him. It’s these out-of-this-world meetings of fact and fiction that read like a literary bonus feature to Robbins’s 10 previous novels. It’s almost like having the privilege of sitting down with the author himself.
Perhaps, though, this is why many of the Robbins fans I know feel skeptical about it, betrayed even. Although it goes where the author has never gone before with his writing, it relies heavily on the fame of his previous works. The ideal reader has to love Robbins unconditionally outside of his fiction, as NPR noted:
“You gotta be itching to know about his first acid trip, his feelings on tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches and his long list of ex-wives. You gotta imagine yourself washed up on a barstool in La Conner, Washington, trapped by a typhoon or a toad-rain or worse, and fortunate enough to find yourself sitting next to the now aged cosmic fool as he starts to talk and tell you the tales of how he got from Blowing Rock, North Carolina to here, consorted with artists and idiots, drank some beer, ran away with the circus, predicted the weather, loved some women, sired some children, traveled the world and, somehow, found the time to write a few books along the way.”
Little Failure hasn’t been labeled with the same disclaimer. A shining review from from The Guardian confesses, “Gary Shteyngart's memoir is even better than his autobiographical novels,” but even readers who’ve never read his other work would enjoy Little Failure on its own. The memoir seemed inevitable; he’s been writing about his life for years. Robbins, on the other hand, has always charmed readers with the fictional heroes he’s created.
It’s easy to call memoirs egotistical or make a crack about novelists tackling their own lives to beat out fictional biographers, but at the heart of these two books is something much greater: catharsis. Robbins can now put his legacy behind him, and Shteyngart has wiped the slate clean for his next novel. Now let’s see how inventive each writer’s next novel will be.