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Maria Stepanova: Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory)

This book has been marketed as a memoir or a documentary novel and, I suppose, it could be considered both. It is narrated by the author herself.

Her parents have emigrated to Germany. However, her father’s sister, Aunt Galya, has died. The family had not been on good terms with Aunt Galya. Galya lived her life in the pursuit of beauty: the dream of rearranging her possessions into a definitive order, of painting the walls and hanging the curtains. She kept lots of possessions and in particular, as far as this books concerned, lots of diaries. Stepanova takes them home and starts to wade her way through them.

There are, she comments two types of diaries. With the first kind the text is intended to be official, manifest, aimed at a readership. The second kind – Aunt Galya’s diaries – is just jotting down daily events and generally of little interest to the outsider. Galya, for example, says when she got up, when she went to bed, what she had eaten and so on. No details were given. She would say that she had been reading but did not say what she had been reading.

Stepanova heads off to Pochinky, a small, remote town, where the family came from originally. No-one in the family had been for a long while, though one or two did think of going. However, Stepanova does visit. It was not an unpleasant town but there was not much there. The village had the shrunken feel of a vanished town.

She then suddenly admits that she started writing this book when when she was ten and then abandoned it. She came back when she was sixteen in the afterglow of a love affair that felt as if it had defined everything in my life. She realised that this book was very important to her. I always knew I would someday write a book about my family, and there were even periods when this seemed to be my life’s purpose (summarising lives, collecting them into one narrative). This was despite the fact that there was no-one famous in her family. They were, like most of us, ordinary people.

But memories are not just diaries. She touches on other aspects. The first is photos – the family seem to hoard them and we even get detailed descriptions of some of them. She comments on photos, such as how they tend to be mundane – people posing for them. She also mentions what she calls euphoric amnesia, with the viewer no longer remembering what they were taken for. She also comments on how we stop looking like the photos of the past but how some people – Gertrude Stein is specifically mentioned – become like paintings done of them. She herself prefers those photos where the subject is not trying to engage with the viewer, such as children playing or a baker’s assistant laying out cakes. Postcards sent by family members from their various travels are also mentioned as are various objects people leave behind.

The people I wrote this book for died long before I started writing it, and objects were the only permissible replacements. However, any story about myself became a story about my ancestors. There they were behind me like an opera chorus encouraging my aria — only the music was written seventy years ago.

However, memory can play tricks. She visits her great-grandfather’s house in Saratov. A colleague who had done considerable research on the town, told her where the house was. She goes to it and immediately recognises it. The following week, the colleague tells her he made a mistake. That was not her great-grandfather’s house.

Postmemory is another concept she discusses. This refers to those who only draw memories from a specific cataclysmic event. In this case, she is referring, of course, to the Holocaust. This idea comes from Marianne Hirsch‘s The Generation of Postmemory.

She makes a distinction between memory and history. Memory is handed down, history is written down; memory is concerned with justice, history with preciseness; memory moralises, history tallies and corrects; memory is personal, history dreams of objectivity; memory is based not on knowledge, but on experience: compassion with, sympathy for a desperate pain demanding immediate involvement.

The book is not all about the concept of memory. She discusses anti-Semitism in some detail, particularly as it relates to Germany and Russia. She tells various stories from her family, often quoting letters in full. She talks of her own life, particularly the change she faces when she moves from Moscow to Berlin.

However, there are a host of interesting asides. For example, she talks about the dead in cemeteries. But supposing those who lie there have an interest in whether they are remembered? All they can hope for is a chance passer- by to stop and read; a stranger, filled with an age-old curiosity about life before he appeared in the world. She compares selfies to Rembrandt’s self-portraits – apparently he painted around eighty which is rather a lot for a man some of his contemporaries described as being particularly ugly.

She is critical of family histories. Anna Akhmatova once said that there is nothing more tedious than someone else’s dreams or someone else’s fornication — but other people’s family histories also leave unwanted traces of dust and whitewash on your hands.

Not everyone likes memory and memories. Mandelstam said My memory is inimical to everything personal. If it were up to me I would only scowl when I recalled the past. I could never understand those writers, Tolstoy, Aksakov, Bagrov’s Grandson, in love with their family archives with their epics of household reminiscences. I say again that my memory is not loved by me, it is inimical to me, and it works not to reproduce the past, but to make it strange.

One of the many interesting points she makes is that, in the Internet age, we are not obliterated so quickly. The dead have learned to speak with the living: their letters, their voicemails, their posts on social media. This has further consequences. We do not have a past but pasts. This affects how the younger generation looks at the past: students are brilliant at finding subtexts and hidden meanings, but can’t, or don’t want to, talk about the text as a whole entity.

War is not surprisingly key to this book. She makes the relevant point that, when you watch a war film and take away the captions, and see a dead man on the ground, it could be Donetsk, Phnom Penh, or Aleppo. We are simply presented with the face of misfortune, which is always the same. However, she does describe a specific war and that is, of course, World War II and, more specifically, the Siege of Leningrad which involved her relatives, one in particular.

The last section of the book is more about her own family. One of her relatives leaves a bit of paper with a quotation on it : There are people who exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects. This is a slight misquote from Gogol. This, I feel, is how I see my family: their fragile, barely noticeable existence is like a speckled bird’s egg. She goes on to say No one died in the Stalinist purges. No one perished in the Holocaust. No one was murdered. No one was a murderer. As a historian at the US Holocaust Museum says to her, she is writing one of those books where the author travels around the world in search of his or her roots — there are plenty of those now.

For me, the obvious memory writers are Proust, Sebald and Nabokov, particularly his Speak, Memory and all three get a look in. Though Proust certainly features, we first meet him in relation to anti-Semitism and not memory.

This is the second book I have read in the past week or so published in English translation by Fitzcarraldo and featuring and, indeed, influenced by Sebald. The previous one was Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Trilogía de la guerra (The Things We’ve Seen). As well as sharing Sebald and Fitzcarraldo, they have one other thing in common. Both are very thoughtful, highly intelligent books, full of fascinating ideas and interesting ways of looking at the world which, I suspect, most of us might not have done on our own. All credit to Fitzcarraldo for publishing two such superb books and within a short space of time of one another. I can only highly recommend both as first class examples of writing fiction/documentary fiction in the twenty-first century.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 by Новое издательство
First English publication in 2021 by New Directions/Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Sasha Dugdale