‘In Memory of Memory’ by Maria Stepanova (Review)

The ever impressive Fitzcarraldo Editions, as many of you will know, release their books in plain, stylish covers, with blue denoting fiction and white reserved for non-fiction.  However, the line between the genres isn’t always as clear-cut as you might imagine, and there was a minor kerfuffle in the literary world a couple of years back when Annie Ernaux’s The Years (translated by Alison Strayer) made the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, despite its white livery.  Well, whispers have been circulating that history is about to repeat itself, and given that the book in question unexpectedly dropped into my letterbox recently, I thought it might be wise to take a quick look for myself.  Although when I say quick…

Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (translated by Sasha Dugdale) begins with the writer in the home of her late aunt, sorting through the accumulated belongings of a long life.  As she does so, a sudden thought strikes her:

All these objects were inextricably bound together, everything had its meaning only in the whole, in the accumulation, within the frame of a continuing life, and now it was all turning to dust before me.
p.19 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

The photos, crockery and diaries are reminders of times and people long gone, and soon to be left even further back in the shadows.

Long thinking herself destined to write a book about her family, Stepanova realises that this is the moment.  She plunges herself into a work that will remember the forgotten, and bring the dead out of these shadows, back into the light of the present day.  It’s a task that will involve travelling around Russia, and beyond, looking for archives in an attempt to fill in the gaps in her family history, even if the more she learns, the more she realises how difficult the task is.

In one sense, then, In Memory of Memory is a very personal work, a writer’s attempt to create a family chronicle.  Stepanova tells us the story of her dead relatives, such as her great-grandmother, the formidable Sarra Ginzburg, a doctor who gained her degree in Paris before coming back to Russia (or, rather, the Soviet Union).  As the book progresses, we are told more stories, slowly moving forwards in time, now hearing about the writer’s grandparents and parents in tales taking us from one side of Russia to the other.

Yet there’s another aspect to the book, too, as interspersed between the family portraits, there are a number of essays on writers and artists.  Stepanova examines Rembrandt’s self-portraits and compares them with the very modern cult of the selfie; she muses on the works of Osip Mandelstam and W.G. Sebald; there are entertaining pieces introducing the artists Charlotte Salomon and Joseph Cornell.  But after these artistic interludes, we always go back to her family, and her memories.

In Memory of Memory is a fascinating book, and while it’s rarely flashy, it’s usually enjoyable, thanks in large part to Dugdale’s smooth translation of Stepanova’s calm, measured voice.  In truth, though, I was never quite convinced, and certainly not as blown away as many other readers appear to have been, which led me to wonder why.  I suspect that my doubts are to do with the structure of the work.  I’m not convinced it all hangs together as well as it might, with some of the essays appearing a little too tangential.  This really could have been two books, examining the personal and the artistic, and it probably would have been better for it.

My preference was definitely for the family side of In Memory of Memory.  Stepanova frequently mentions the ordinary nature of her family, and there are no celebrities among the host of hard-working people described here.  Surprisingly, perhaps, there are also no catastrophes, which in itself is unusual in a Jewish family living through the twentieth century.  At times, the writer appears almost apologetic for these tales of mundane survival, although we later learn that life didn’t run quite as smoothly for her ancestors as Stepanova initially makes out.

What really comes across the further we get, though, is a suspicion that In Memory of Memory is just as much about the writer as her subjects.  She’s obsessed with wanting to bring the past into the light, but it takes a while for her to consider whether it actually wants to be disturbed.  The first sign of this comes when she asks her father for permission to include one of his letters in a series of interludes she has planned throughout the book, and is dumbfounded when he shoots down her request.  The letter is merely a snapshot of one moment of time, and it’s not how he wants posterity to remember him.  Perhaps, the other family members would have felt the same way…

A major idea running through the book is the impossibility of truly remembering the dead, anyway, and this is summed up nicely by the metaphor arising from the fate of a small china doll:

The boy broke into three pieces: his stockinged feet slipped under the bath’s deep belly, his body lay severed from his head.  What had struggled to symbolize wholeness in my own and my family’s history had, in one fell swoop, become an allegory: the impossibility of telling these histories, the impossibility of saving anything at all, and my inability to gather myself up from the splinters of someone else’s past, or even to take it on as my own convincingly. (p.95)

Stepanova attempts to balance the right to be forgotten against what she feels is the tyranny of oblivion, the way amazing people like her great-grandmother are destined to fade into oblivion.  Now, if she’s remembered at all, it’s as just another old woman who used to sit in the corner.  Perhaps the writer fears this is to be her own fate.

If we return to where we started, and the question of the IBP longlist, I wouldn’t imagine this will make it, both for the factual nature of the work and the slight lack of cohesion I felt at times – which is not to say it’s not a good book.  There’s a lot here to enjoy, and other readers have been far more positive about it than I have.  I just doubt in my case that this, pardon the pun, is a book that will leave many lasting memories, which is, of course, what it’s all about 😉

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