Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘In Memory of Memory’ by Maria Stepanova

31 May 2021

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. Paperback 448pp ISBN-978-1913097530 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2021)

Published in Russian in 2017, Maria Stepanova’s book, In Memory of Memory, has been hailed by one literary critic as marking “the triumphant return of Russian literature to the world stage”.  It has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021 and in her Translator’s Note, Sasha Dugdale thanks the author for permission to “recreate her brilliant work in a new poetic language”. 

The book begins, prosaically, with the death of Stepanova’s Aunt Galya.   An elderly spinster, she left a set of diaries, fastidiously kept throughout her long life.  But far from being a key to her inner thoughts and emotions, they are nothing but a ledger, full of everyday appointments and visits, the bare details that show proof of an existence.  This, in a sense, becomes the leitmotif of In Memory of Memory: what can you ever really know about a dead person from their letters and photographs, diaries and journals, passports and documents?  In the end, does not the very presence of such mementoes dupe you into false memory, untrustworthy feelings of belonging and knowing, and perhaps leave you more untethered and astray than ever?

With this as her jumping-off point, Stepanova takes the reader on a long and discursive path, crossing timescales and continents, in search of elusive memory, her own, her family’s and all of ours.  It feels like a story that finally brings  contemporary Russian literature to a place hitherto inhabited by W. G. Sebald, Nabokov in Speak, Memory and a host of other predominantly Western writers grappling at the juxtaposition of historical and personal memory in the turmoil of the 20th century.  

Stepanova also finds a useful ‘travel-guide’ in Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory (2012): “I knew everything she described immediately and intimately: the ceaseless fascination with one’s family’s past…”.  But Hirsch’s seminal work deals with great trauma experienced by survivors of the Holocaust, for example, and how it is passed on to the future generations, who have no direct memory of it; the central feature of Stepanova’s family is how ordinary and unexceptional they were: her “grandparents’ efforts in life were largely dedicated to remaining invisible, to achieving a desired inconspicuousness, to hiding in the dim household light and keeping themselves apart from the wide current of history, with its extra-grand narratives and its margins of error: the deaths of millions. (…) Everyone else’s ancestors had taken part in history, but mine seemed to have been mere lodgers in history’s house.”  This ordinariness was, she admits, a cause of some embarrassment to her younger self.  No one died in the Stalinist Purges; no one died in the Holocaust; no one was murdered; no one was a murderer.  They all died their own death, a phrase often used to describe that unusual fate in Stalinist Russia of death by natural causes. By the end of the book, Stepanova writes: “Now this seemed doubtful, or simply untrue.”

It’s not so much that Stepanova’s quest to find out about her family, stretching back to her great great grandparents, revealed any new startling facts to justify that claim (although for years she scoured available archives, visited known addresses, talked to local historians and read deep and wide).  It’s more that the intellectual and sentimental journey she embarked on led to an understanding of how much known ‘facts’ can distort and warp ‘memory’ and how little can be known, really known, about people who are dead.  It’s a meditation on time and history, the ties that bind, the fates that unite and those that separate us.

The title page has an added subtitle: “In Memory of Memory. A Romance”.  It is an easily overlooked clue to the tenor of both the message and the medium.  A central tenet of the book is the elusiveness of memory, a ballad sung to its memory, describing all the false turns and dead ends along the way, often literally.  Among Aunt Galya’s papers, Stepanova found a cache of letters sent by her father from Kazakhstan, where he worked as a young civilian instructor on the Soviet secret space installation at Baikonur.  Stepanova transcribes the letters thrilled at such a treasure trove of thrilling detail about her father’s young and adventurous life.  But when she sent him the transcript, telling him that she wanted to include the letters in her account, he refused to give permission, on the grounds that nothing really happened that way.  After arguments and entreaties, his final words were: “I can’t bear to think that someone will read those letters and think that’s who I am.”   

The written text creates a false impression of its own immortality: a silly billet-doux is set in stone, an irritable exclamation puts down a claim to be the last word. … I was prepared to betray my own living father for the dead text, because I believed in it more. (…)  In the place of respectable research, I had been occupied all this time with the Freudian family romance, the sentimentalized past.

This episode provokes a long discussion about the absence of any human rights for the dead; her father, being alive, could exercise his veto, but increasingly the fate of the dead is like a new gold rush, made into novels and films, dramas and ‘based on real events and characters’ blockbusters: “I believe this must change and change within our lifetimes, just as it has changed over the last hundred years for other groups of the abused and humiliated.”

Before she arrives at such a radical position, Stepanova’s journey reveals what she recognizes as her true motives for writing In Memory of Memory:  “This book about my family is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”  

She follows this admission by relating a story that is fair illustration.  Approached by a journalist from Saratov to come and give a talk on Colta.ru, the internet journal where she worked, Stepanova seizes the moment:  Saratov was her great grandfather’s birthplace.  She asks the journalist if he can help her locate the address where he lived a hundred years ago.  In no time at all, the journalist finds the family name on a local history site and the address – Moscow Street, Saratov.  Stepanova hot tails it to Saratov: “The house was unrecognisable, but then I’d never seen it before to recognise it.”  She runs her fingers over the rough Saratov brickwork: 

Everything was as I’d hoped, perhaps even more so than I’d hoped. (…) all of it was mine, all of it instantly part of my family.  It seemed to speak to me, saying: here, you needed to come here. (…) there was absolutely nothing I could pick up to take with me.  But I didn’t need souvenirs.  I remembered everything beneath the high windows with such a sense of heightened native precision that I seemed to know how it had all been, in this, our, place, how we had lived and why we had left.  

About a week later, the journalist rang.  He’d got the right street but the wrong house.  He was so sorry.  “And that is just about everything I know about memory,” Stepanova concludes. 

I was struck by one of the quotations that precedes Part One: 

’And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”   

Indeed.  There are no pictures in Stepanova’s book but there are pages and pages of descriptions of pictures – paintings and photographs.  The book is made up of three parts and each chapter is followed by “Not-a-Chapter”.  These are from the family archive, the postcards, letters and photographs spanning the century.  One “Not-a-Chapter” consists of the description and transcription of all the postcards sent to and by her great grandmother, Sarra Ginzburg, while she was a student in France between 1905-1915.  Another chapter describes 20 family photographs, all in painstaking detail, over thirteen pages; several more pages are devoted to describing and discussing numerous self-portraits by Rembrandt, a whole chapter is given over to describing and analyzing the paintings and texts of Charlotte Salomon’s work Life? Or Theatre?, another section deals with the biography and photographs and poetry of Francesca Woodman, there are Rafael Goldchain’s photographic self-portraits, in which he dressed up to look like his own antecedents, all those who had perished in the Holocaust, Helga Landauer’s film Diversions gets four pages of descriptions of scenes from the film.  It is not until you get to the last of 500 pages that you find a single picture.  

Alice would have found it beyond trying.  That single picture is of a group of perhaps 20 young men and women in suits and long dresses, hats and picnic baskets, sheltering under umbrellas in a field.  No caption and no explanation. (The photograph is the last among those described by the author earlier in the book.  She writes of those long ago men and women: “the longer you stare at them, the clearer it becomes that this might resemble the landscape of the afterlife, the shoreline, where each of us is quite alone.”) 

It’s no easy task to read page after page of descriptions of pictures you can’t see.  But that is arguably the point.  What we see and how we describe what we see is a subjective process. In her quest, Stepanova delves deep into the works of all sorts of writers, thinkers and artists to cast new light on her own obsessions.  It is a breathtaking endeavor.

From the heights of portraiture in the 16th century, she considers the advent of memorialising technology, from sound recording through cinema and photography.  She charts the way in which it starts as a tradition of collecting the best and most representative, but finishes by democratising it to a point of banality without substance: the selfie stick; the home movie; the ever-increasing digital archive of the minutiae of our everyday lives:  

No one feels unloved in this new world. There is space for everyone in the boundless world of the hoarder.  On the other hand, the old world of hierarchies and bardic stories worked on the principle of selection: not quite saying everything; sometimes holding back. In some senses, when the necessity of choice is removed (between good and bad, for example), then the very notion of good and evil disappears. All that is left is a mosaic of facts – and points of view, which are mistaken for facts.

There are meticulous observations of the social and cultural currents that swept through Western civilization to the Russian Empire, and with revolution, civil war and the tumultuous early years of the Soviet Union, she brings the experience of those who lived it to the heart of the story of her family, with cross-references to the diaries and letters of witnesses such as Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva.  

In my own family history, I am interested more than anything in the period of ten to fifteen years after the revolution, when a way of life suddenly slowed, convulsed and belly-flopped onto a new set of rails. These were the purblind years, the years when my great-grandparents died, or left the country or moved – that period of their lives is barely documented. They preferred not to keep diaries, and all the photographs that had been preserved are only partial, the tiny corners of a much larger picture, and something is going on in this unseen bigger picture that I don’t understand.

Like a ribbon running through it all is an attitude to Jews and an everyday anti-semitism that defines the choices made by her family.  Almost as a gut-memory, Stepanova knows that her great great grandfather Isaak Gurevich’s disappearance in Kherson 1919 was part of the bigger historical story.  But what was that story?  He turned out to be the one family member who had really left his mark:

When I began my blind groping for family history over the last hundred years, what had seemed initially to be well-documented and interesting momentarily evaporated as I reached for it, crumbling like ancient fabric. My guesses were confounded, my witnesses slow to step forward, but there was one exception to this. When I entered ‘Gurevich, Kherson ‘ into the search engine, the answers came tumbling out as if I’d won on a slot machine.

But even then, he remained elusive and unknowable.  Her search yields nothing so much as a Russian version of “Who Do You Think You Are?”: 

I was vaguely bothered that I hadn’t found anything ‘living’ in all the documentation I had unearthed, anything that wasn’t simply an illustration of the history of capitalism in Russia.  The internet was happy to tell me about Isaak Gurevich’s income and expenditure, but there wasn’t one photograph of him online.

Confronted by a lack of ‘living’ documentation, Stepanova uses the outlines of her family members’ lives to fill in wonderful social historical detail: drawing on her great grandmother’s early years, she explains the prevalence of female Jewish medical students in France before the war (who knew?) and in the case of her grandfather’s cousin, Lyodik, who died in the Sinyavinsky Operation on the Leningrad frontline in August 1942, she draws on a range of contemporary memoirs about the siege of Leningrad.  Frontline soldier, Ivan Zykov, for example:

The snow fell and fell, and fell. The square, the banks of the Neva, the peeling facade of the Winter Palace, the broken windows of the Hermitage – it all seems somehow distant and fantastical, a fairy-tale of a dying city, where Chinese shadow puppets still move, hurrying about until they breathe their last.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and Stepanova was able to travel, she did so in a frenzy of appetite, but always carrying what she calls the “wheelie-bag” of her family history with her.  She likened herself to a truffle pig in the way she had learned to put off her own pursuits and enjoyments of the world for later.  The wheelie bin had been her load since the age of ten, when she had assumed the mantle of preserver of the family memory.

Many years later, her travels took her to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.  In answer to the museum adviser’s question about what she was writing, Stepanova began to explain.  “’Ah,’ he said, ‘one of those books where the author travels round the world in search of his or her roots – there are plenty of those now.’  ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘And now there will be one more.’”

In Memory of Memory is far from being another of ‘those books’.  Its reach, encompassing so much of what is pertinent to any discourse of history and memory, post-truth and post-memory, what the very notion of immortality might mean in a secular world in a digital age, and even why it should matter or, perhaps, it doesn’t matter at all.  Stepanova has fascinating insights into the lacunae of archives and documents, pointedly in the case of Soviet documents, which for much of her family were an exercise in denial – of class, ethnicity, party loyalty, employment history, sickness:  “Immortality, as we understand it, is a kind of trick: the complete and total disappearance of any one of us can be hidden, like a grave, under a scattering of little deceptions that give the illusion of presence.”

The writing of this book reads like a catharsis, an ode to life.  Perhaps with its completion, Maria Stepanova has finally let go:

Those places where the people of my family walked, sat, kissed, went down to the river’s edge or jumped onto trams, the towns where they were known by face and name – none of them revealed themselves to me. The green and indifferent battlefield was overgrown with grass. Like a computer game I hadn’t mastered, all the prompts lead to the wrong gates, the secret doors were just blank walls, and nobody remembered anything. And this is for the best: the poet Alexander Blok tells us that no one comes back. The poet Mikhail Gronas replies that ‘living comes of oblivion’.”

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