“During 35 days at Civitella I was able to completely revise a novel-length manuscript. The environment is very conducive to the writing life. I worked in the morning, then took a peaceful walk around the countryside, then worked some more. When inspired to do so, I would run down the hill and eat a porchetta, a delicious stuffed pig.”
From an essay called The Mother Tongue Between Two Slices of Rye, originally published in the Threepenny Review:
When I return to Russia, my birthplace, I cannot sleep for days. The Russian language swaddles me. The trilling r’s tickle the underside of my feet. Every old woman cooing to her grandson is my dead grandmother. Every glum and purposeful man picking up his wife from work in a dusty Volga sedan is my father. Every young man cursing the West with his friends over a late morning beer in the Summer Garden is me. I have fallen off the edges of the known universe, with its Palm Pilots, obnoxious vintage shops, and sleek French-Caribbean Brooklyn bistros, and have returned into a kind of elemental Shteyngart-land, a nightmare where every consonant resonates like a punch against the liver, every rare vowel makes my flanks quiver as if I’m in love.
Lying in bed in my hotel room I am hurt to the quick by the words from an idiotic pop song: “Please don’t bother me,” a cheerful young girl is singing on a Russian music channel, “I’m going back to my mama’s house.”
If I’m in some cheap Soviet hell-hole of a hotel, I can hear the housekeepers screaming at each other. “Lera, bitch, give me back my twenty.”
“You, Vera, are the bitch,” says her colleague. These words Ti, Vera, suka replay themselves as an endless mantra as I sink my face into a skimpy, dandruff-smelling pillow from Brezhnev times. For the time being, Lera and Vera are my relatives, my loved ones, my everything. I want to walk out of my room and say, in my native tongue, “Lera, Vera, here is twenty rubles for each of you. Ladies, dear ones, let’s have some tea and cognac in the bar downstairs.”
If I’m in a Western hotel, one of Moscow’s Marriotts, say, I try to tune into the airplane-like hum of the central AC and banish Russian from my mind. I am surrounded by burnished mahogany, heated towel racks, and all sorts of business class accoutrements (“Dear Guest,” little cards address me in English, “your overall satisfaction is our ultimate goal”), but when I open the window I face a stark Soviet-era building, where the Veras and Leras carry on at full pitch, grandmas coo to children, young men while away the morning hours in the courtyard with beer and invective.
In order to fall asleep, I try speaking to myself in English. “Hi there! Was’ up? What are you doing Thursday? I have to see my analyst from 4:00 to 4:45. I can be downtown by 5:30. When do you get off work?” I repeat the last words to my phantom New York friend over and over, trying to regain my American balance, the sense that rationalism, psychiatry, and a few sour-apple martinis can take care of the past, because, as the Marriott people say, overall satisfaction is our ultimate goal. “When do you get off work? When do you get off work? When do you get off work? Hi there!” But it’s no use.
Please don’t bother me, I’m going back to my mama’s house.
Lera, you bitch, give me my twenty rubles.
And in a final insult, an old Soviet anthem from my youth, hummed through the back channels of memory, the little chutes and trap doors that connect the right brain and the left ventricle through which pieces of primordial identity keep falling out.
The seagull is flapping its wings
Calling us to our duty
Pioneers and friends and all our comrades
Let us set out for thejourney ahead
Sliced down the middle, splayed like a red snapper in a Chinatown restaurant, stuffed with kh and sh sounds instead of garlic and ginger, I lie in aMoscow or St. Petersburg hotel bed, tearful and jet-lagged, whispering to the ceiling in a brisk, staccato tone, maniacally naming all the things for which the Russian language is useful—ordering mushroom and barley soup, directing the cab driver to some forgotten grave, planning the putsch that will for once install an enlightened government. Khh…Shh…Rrrrr
Home at last.