Elena Gorokhova’s transformative moment as a writer came in 2004 when she enrolled in Frank McCourt’s memoir class at the Southampton Writers Conference. For the previous 10 or 15 years she had occasionally written—and published—fictionalized bits and pieces about her childhood and youth in Leningrad during the Brezhnev era. Writing was a pleasure, even a necessity, but more tangible concerns—her teaching responsibilities, raising a child, cooking dinner—kept her from taking it seriously.
Then came Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes. “He was a brilliant storyteller, but also just as brilliant a teacher,” Gorokhova remembers during a call to her home in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where she lives with her second husband, their daughter and her 95-year-old mother, a figure who looms large in Gorokhova’s enthralling memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs.
McCourt’s classroom included 11 other students and two celebrities who were auditing the class—actors Alan Alda and Anne Bancroft. “The synergy of these three enormously talented people provided this incredible, electric atmosphere. Magic happened every day in that classroom!” Gorokhova says. “From that moment, from that seminar, A Mountain of Crumbs all came together.”
One thing Gorokhova learned from McCourt was to focus on the “hot spots,” those defining moments in life when something significant changes. “He compared it to walking on the beach. ‘You can just look at the surface of things,’ he said, ‘or you can go with a metal detector and go for the gold that’s deep inside.’ ”
Gorokhova has clearly gone for the gold. The 20 episodes in A Mountain of Crumbs are extraordinarily rich in sensory and emotional detail and offer an engrossing portrait of a very lively, intelligent girl coming of emotional and intellectual age in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Beginning with Gorokhova’s mother’s brutal experiences after the Russian Revolution and in World War II as a doctor, the narrative follows Gorokhova through interactions with her friends and family members, her early education—in school and in the Soviet system—her intellectual and sexual awakenings and her growing disillusionment with the Communist government, until in 1980, at age 24, she meets and marries a brilliant American physics student and leaves Russia for good. Along the way, the wryly ironic Gorokhova illuminates the ludicrous tensions that existed between public and private life in the Soviet Union and tweaks the noses of authorities, including her mother.
“The United States is a different country and has different tensions and different kinds of stresses,” says Gorokhova, a linguist who has taught English as a second language since 1981. “What it doesn’t have is the kind of schizophrenic slicing of your soul in half that we had in the Soviet Union. There were things that I could say and that I could show to my family and friends. Then I would go outside, like everyone else, and I knew I couldn’t say or show that to people I went to school with or worked with, and especially not to any officials. It was the post-Stalin era, so they were not going to throw us into Siberia for a joke [during Stalin’s rule, Gorokhova’s uncle had disappeared in the Gulag after telling a joke to a foreigner]. But we had to be careful, we had to pretend everything was all right. The essence was that the government lied to us and we knew they were lying. They knew we knew they were lying. But they kept lying anyway. And we kept pretending to believe them. It was this duality, this divide, that ruled life there.”
For much of the narrative, Gorokhova associates that duality with her overprotective mother and an equally overprotective motherland. A somewhat more forgiving Gorokhova now says, “My mother was born three years before the Revolution. She went through famine and through two wars. She was a surgeon in World War II at the front. Her first two husbands didn’t last long and my father died when I was 10. She was very strong, obviously, and very controlling. Of course she loved us and was very protective of us but she didn’t show the warm side. She stifled. It occurred to me she was just like the country. What was the intention of the Soviet state? To have a just and equal society, to take care of the people. In the Soviet Union no one starved. No one was out of work. We all got our miserable wages for sitting at a desk for eight hours and doing crossword puzzles. The money was little, the food was scarce, but we were all in the same situation. There was this control and smothering on one side and this protective quality on the other.”
Gorokhova’s path away from the stifling system toward independence opened when a grade school friend played a recording of a basic English lesson. “It was so mesmerizing,” Gorokhova says, “an English male voice speaking English. It was captivating.” Gorokhova begged her mother to pay for English lessons, and her mother finally agreed. Her knowledge of English afforded Gorokhova the opportunity to encounter Western visitors in Leningrad and to catch glimpses of a different sort of life in English-language books and movies. “It was putting these little bits and pieces together that told me that all this about capitalism rotting and crumbling and socialism succeeding and thriving was nonsense,” she says.
“And when I came here, I started writing in English,” Gorokhova continues. “I never tried to write anything in Russian when I lived in Russia. But when I came to this country, I felt the necessity and I allowed myself to write—in English. It took me a few years to learn the English rhetoric. Then in 2004 I saw that the legendary Frank McCourt was teaching his memoir class. I thought, this is ridiculous. Who is going to accept me into Frank McCourt’s class? But then I thought, why not? I submitted an application, and I got accepted. I was stunned. I was stunned.”
And from this beginning, an American writer was born.
Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.
Watch a video interview with Elena Gorokhova: