This book overwhelmed me, totally and utterly. I could not easily get through it, but I could not stop reading it either. And mulling it over. Was this because of the emotional load of its subject: memory and remembering? Not memory of something, but rather the memory itself. Memory as something distinct from history, at least from the capital-H-History. Memory as a pliable material. Memory that is downright personal, ever-changing, like quicksilver. Memory fuelled by stories; stories that change with every retelling. Memory that digests these stories and turns them into something new, something the protagonists of those stories might struggle to recognise, or at least might raise their eyebrows at where the emphasis is placed. Memory that can trick and trip you, like it tricked Maria Stepanova herself, when, at one point she goes to visit a house, supposedly her great-grandfather’s, and feels she recognises it, only to discover later that she was misinformed and went to see the wrong building. ‘And that is just about everything I know about memory,’ she comments.
Here, memory feeds on objects from the past: books, photographs, postcards, letters, toys, clothes, knick-knacks. Maria Stepanova feels a certain responsibility towards the physical traces of her family’s past; these objects seem to be her anchor, but they also haunt her. Which is why this book had to be written. As she says, she had to ‘bring the invisible to the point of visibility’. She admits that she had wanted to write it for a long time, that in fact she started it when she was ten, and struggled with it for years.
What Maria Stepanova has done is create a very skilfully crafted family scrapbook, composed of different forms – from memoir to travelogue, to essay, to extracts from letters – which is at the same time a portrait of a century in Russia. Her ordinary Jewish family could easily have become victims of the worst moments of the 20th century, but managed to escape them. But, as she says, ‘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’.
Stepanova’s memory meanders, digresses, follows side shoots – as memories do – and the parts relating to her family are interspersed with her musings on art, photography and more. She starts conversations with Barthes and Krakauer, with Sebald, Nabokov, Sontag, Arendt and Mandelstam. I found it absolutely fascinating to follow somebody else’s mind going off on a tangent, or rather multiple tangents. It is an amazing insight into other person’s thinking processes, but there is also something reassuring about it, as if Stepanova wanted to tell each reader: it’s OK, go ahead and let your mind wander freely, we all do that.
Maria Stepanova is a poet, essayist and founder of an online media outlet Colta.ru, and is quickly becoming one of the most important contemporary writers in Russia. In Memory of Memory is her first prose book in English, in Sasha Dugdale’s translation. Her poetry collection, War of the Beasts and the Animals, also translated by Sasha Dugdale, will also see the light of day this year, as will her collection of essays, The Voice Over.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
IN MEMORY OF MEMORY
Written by Maria Stepanova
Translated by Sasha Dugdale
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (2021)
Shortlisted for the The International Booker Prize 2021.
May 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.
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