In Memory of Memory
(New Directions, 2021)
The 20th century was filled with world-historical events of such magnitude that they seemed to promise an end to history itself. World War I was the “war to end all wars,” until WWII came along; the October Revolution, with its promise of peace in the cessation of class struggle, never achieved its potential. The Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation in the Cold War following it—all of these events unfurled with the promise of transcending or collapsing history itself as a series of discrete, contiguous, progressive events. And, in a sense, all these premonitions came true, for although time itself did not stop, these overlapping ruptures brought so much death and displacement, the redrawing of borders and destruction of land, that a sense of continuity with one’s ancestors across time and space now seems practically impossible today. At the same time, new technologies of recording and preserving information became ubiquitous—the camera foremost among them—as if the past itself had atomized its way into the present, the unfulfilled promise of eternal return. Our ancestors are all around us, their census records and likenesses just a few keystrokes away. But our sense of connection to them has been hacked off by the myriad traumas of the 20th century, as though the new millennium really did begin tabula rasa, its umbilical cord cut from the last.
This sense of bewilderment, of a past that is both accessible and impossible to decipher, is the real subject of Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale. Its ostensible subject is her own genealogy, going back through four generations of Russian Jews, which is presented to the reader like a cadaver on a table—all parts intricately connected and covered in film, both sticky and slippery to the touch. Stepanova is less interested in holding these parts up to the light than she is in recording her horror at the death of her history, its inability to speak for itself, and the plethora of morbidities which could inform its cause of death.
A poet by trade, as well as the founder of Colta, one of Russia’s most important literary reviews, Stepanova is a major intellectual figure in Moscow. In Memory of Memory is her first work of published prose. It was lauded with its release in Russia in 2018, winning a major literary award there. The English translation is classified as a work of fiction, a label which feels like a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Stepanova’s anxieties about the past, commiseration with the unknowability of the self and one’s history. In truth, the book reads more like cultural criticism, eager to place itself in conversation with the major media theorists of the 20th century, from Roland Barthes to Susan Sontag, whose overarching missions were to analyze the effects of new technologies and traumas upon the human psyche.
It’s possible to read In Memory of Memory, or at least the first three-quarters of it, and learn next to nothing about Stepanova’s family. Limned throughout personal recollections of a childhood home or a grandmother’s gait are whole chapters dedicated to the techniques and practices of visual artists, including Rembrandt, Charlotte Salomon, Francesca Woodman, and Joseph Cornell. Russian writers from Boris Pasternak and Maxim Gorky to Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva resurface throughout, both in fragments of their prose and notations of their whereabouts through the century. Stepanova seems at least as interested in these histories as she is in that of her own ancestors, and perhaps these literary figures are imagined as something of an alternative family to hers, with W.G. Sebald its paterfamilias.
Sebald, whose writings on memory and generational trauma are world-renowned, is the clear antecedent for Stepanova’s work; his insistence on maintaining ambiguity around personal narrative and recollection, classifying these as novels, allows her to do the same. But Sebald’s narration enjoys an untroubled anonymity, as well as a placelessness which Stepanova can never find. Sebald’s narrators are always kept at some remove from the author, making the force of his documents, the photographs that famously crop up throughout his several novels, register with the force of a dubious fact. They were clearly taken by someone, but whom? In The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn they merely appear to gently prop up a wandering tale, and the reader may make of them what they will. Stepanova, on the other hand, can never get away from herself, and openly wonders throughout her book about the purpose and point of her mission to document. She seems intent on exhausting the magnitude of objects which continually elude her. In telling contrast, there are several long passages describing personal photographs in In Memory of Memory, but the reader never gets the chance to see them for herself. Stepanova insists on being in charge of the narrative she untangles, while constantly questioning her own authority to do so.
In fairness, this task is epic. Her timeline begins with the birth of her maternal great-grandmother, Sarra Ginzburg, in the 1880s and ends with the recent death of her aunt Galya, around 2015. In the time between these dates the Jews of Russia endured pogroms, massacres, exile, forced migration, conspiracy, conscription, revolution, and starvation. Generations of Stepanova’s family intermittently faced all of these. They made it through the Siege of Leningrad and the Russian Civil War. They were bourgeois and proletarian, militant and pacifist, married and widowed for decades on end. Simply the breadth of time and the scope of variation in their lives through that period makes for some fascinating, unforgettable anecdotes of life during revolution and the Soviet era. These stories are relayed to us as they were relayed to her, vividly and mysteriously, with a few contradictions and the inevitable loose ends of someone who cannot afford dalliance in the past. If life is, as Stepanova quotes Nabokov, “but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” then the concentration of this light is blinding, the force at which everything happens overwhelming—and the beginning and end of these flashes never discrete, as the interlocking generations prove so well. How did these ordinary people, dead but not forgotten, feel about bearing witness to so much suffering? Stepanova, who stayed in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union, and is clearly still thirsty for experience three decades on, can only sympathize with her parents when they choose to move away. “They had lived through enough history,” she writes, “They wanted to get out.”