Maria Stepanova’s memoir, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale, weaves together storytelling, culture, art, and philosophy to form a mosaic image of her family’s history.
Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, translated from Russian to English by the poet Sasha Dugdale, begins with a familiar tale of family disputes and rejections as she tells the reader about the death of her aunt on International Women’s Day.
The author explains the feeling she had, at times, that her purpose in life was to write a book about her family, remarking of them, “Life gave them no opportunity to be remembered or to remain in view, to stand briefly in the spotlight; their ordinariness put them beyond the usual human interest and this seemed unfair.” Her compulsion to shed light on people who would otherwise have been forgotten is what connects the author with the reader: we share the universal impulse to impart stories of people we know to others who don’t know them. Stories of our parents, children, friends, colleagues, stories of strangers who we encountered only once but left a lasting impression. Stepanova herself talks about a love affair she wanted to record in writing after it was over, how she struggled to contain the story and eventually wrote forty words on paper, which were subsequently lost and forgotten. Perhaps that experience of losing and forgetting what she wanted to remember about one short relationship led to this story of her family spread over the space of a century.
Her aunt Galya, her father’s sister, is the first family member we are introduced to and we form a picture of her through her belongings. “Galya lived her life in the pursuit of beauty” and her small apartment was full of objects which Stepanova’s aunt sorted out and rearranged, but struggled to throw anything away when everything was meaningful to her. Galya’s diaries were filled with daily lists of times she got up and slept, what she had eaten or watched on television. It made me think of people now who keep bullet journals, which seem to me a lot of work and a habit that could easily turn into an obsession. Gayla’s niece recognises the diaries are designed to record facts but not feelings: “It was as if the main task of each and every note, each completed year’s diary, was a faithful witnessing of the exterior, and a concealment of the authentic and interior. Show everything. Hide everything. Preserve it for ever. There appears to be a mirroring of this in the writing of this book, a feeling that Stepanova has tried to show everything in a work that sometimes feels like a stream of consciousness. The family storytelling of the beginning makes way for vignettes, bringing in anthropologists, films, artists, photographers, philosophers, poets and fiction writers.
Stepanova says she wrote this book for people who died before she began writing, and perhaps without the time constraints of writing someone’s story before they die, she has been able to expand and digress in the manner of never-ending, non-linear grief. The book is both light and heavy, non-fiction with moments of fiction, tales of her family mixed with anecdotes about culture and philosophy, which made me feel unanchored as I read the book over several months, never quite sure whether I was reading the truth or a creative take on it. Her family’s backstory, despite being the narrative she felt compelled to tell, is so mixed up with history and philosophy that I felt like I was reading more essays than biography, all piled into a grey hat like Stepanova’s father’s, to be pulled out one by one and tied together by the reader. Stepanova describes memories of looking at photo albums with her mother, descriptions of photographs – short episodes set in a hospital, portrait photos, musings on “watching” photographs, photos which don’t turn out as hoped and the cost and the waste of developing them. She ruminates on memory and postmemory, explaining that postmemory “doesn’t just show us the past, but changes the present, because the past is the key to everything that occurs daily in the present.” The stories that aren’t directly about her family are often moving – the image of teacups and violins in Berlin Jewish Museum, which were left behind in homes in the city, is particularly arresting – but there is little time to sit with each one, and letters, such as those her grandparents wrote to each other, offer the greatest interiority; the warmth, familiarity and tenderness translates beautifully. I would have liked to see more of these. We’re given fascinating snippets, such as young Stepanova tearing her father’s photo out of his passport so she could keep it with her when she attended nursery, and these are threads I would have liked to have stayed with.
I expected to connect to In Memory of Memory. I’ve worked in the bereavement sector for seven years and experienced multiple losses myself over the last four; death and the continuing bonds with the person who died are my bread and butter. I was surprised, therefore, to find myself feeling overwhelmed by Stepanova’s book. It reminded me of a client who brought bags of ephemera belonging to several family members who had died, and spread everything on the floor at the start of one session. We sat on the carpet, looking at all of the photos and letters, not knowing where to start or finish. By sitting there amongst all the physical stuff, I got a sense of how overwhelmed this client was, how suffocated and burdened they were by grief and family history. Perhaps the problem I had when reading this book was my own expectations.
There’s also, perhaps, another factor. I have not read any Russian literature, except Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopia We many years ago, so I’m not familiar with translations of Russian. Therefore, I don’t know if it’s the book or the language, translated from Russian into English, which I couldn’t quite get a handle on. There’s certainly a poetry to the prose, but it’s frequently the kind that invites me to admire it rather than sit alongside it. I think this can be an issue with translating anything into another language – when I studied French literature many years ago, the French prose, although sometimes difficult to understand, flowed and sang in a way the translations into English didn’t. It’s like when my father exclaims an idiom in Tamil and when I ask what it means in English, he’ll shake his head and say it’s difficult to explain.
I admire the audaciousness of In Memory of Memory – distilling a century of sprawling family history into 500 pages is a tough feat. It’s plain to see the magnitude of the task Stepanova set herself, as well as Dugdale’s ardour in translating it for English-speaking readers. I know others have greatly enjoyed and connected to this work, and if you go into this knowing it is a book that wants to challenge you and doesn’t want to be compartmentalised, I hope you will enjoy it too.