Review: “In Memory of Memory” by Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale

Reviewed by Marek Makowski

I like to read newly translated authors because they allow you to see a reality different from your own through gentle, patient eyes. If the author is good you start to realize that your reality and theirs are not so different. And you fill with the excitement of understanding despite difference—the miracle of art—and feeling like you have discovered something valuable, a secret you want to save for yourself but also share in with the uninitiated, who do not yet know what awaits them.

I felt this reading Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, published in Russia in 2017 and translated by Sasha Dugdale into English this February. Though Stepanova isn’t my discovery: the poet has won Russia’s greatest literary awards, oversees an independent news organization, and, according Cynthia Haven, “is among the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture.” Yet her book of varied essays, documents, and pieces of the past is her first published in English and will introduce her to masses of admiring readers, even if she should no longer need to be introduced.

If the past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley wrote, then Stepanova takes us into two foreign countries: the Russia where she lives and writes about memory, and the Past, the place-times where the small dramas of her ancestors’ lives played out. At the beginning her aunt dies and Stepanova searches through her belongings, looking at writings and photographs. These allow her to construct In Memory of Memory, a book she says she started writing when she was 10 and that grew from “an unrelenting desire to say something, anything, about these barely seen people who withdrew to the shadowy side of history and settled there.” She had decided she “would become a stranger, a teller of tales, a selector and a sifter, the one who decides what part of the huge volume of the unsaid must fit in the spotlight’s circle, and what part will remain outside it in the darkness.”

But the objects and dead ancestors murmur; they do not proclaim their importance. As Stepanova writes, “Whatever stood behind this, swaying and rustling, was in no hurry to show itself, and perhaps didn’t intend to show itself at all.” Her desire to respect the reticent clashes with her desire to pull her family members out from anonymity. She senses the swaying and the rustling; she tries to handle it with two hands, to bring it out into art, a second life.

Stepanova succeeds, and each of her sentences sways and rustles with poetry and life. She describes one face “as closed as a fist, it expresses nothing but strength.” She calls the cemetery “a zone of one-way conversation,” and she writes how “the past rewilds itself, oblivion springs up out of it like a forest.” She describes her family’s “fragile, barely noticeable existence” as “a speckled bird’s egg, so delicate it is crushed by the least pressure.” She finds her grandparents’ “childish correspondence, freckled with exclamation marks, beaded with ellipses.” She relates how on Victory Day “Spring was everywhere, its green streaming with tears.” In one photo she sees that “it’s raining and people are wandering through the meadow like lost souls.” She muses that “sometimes you have to die to find out who lived on the same street as you.” She calls the past “this chartered land of tenderness.”

In Stepanova’s voyage there is life and death, silence and narrative, memory and oblivion. Early she tells of how she “felt bound to notice that my ancestors had hardly made any attempt to make our family history interesting.” Later she writes that “as I child I was always very disappointed by the professions and activities of my family . . . my relatives represented the full range of the ordinary and humdrum.” This tension drives the book: Stepanova’s Jewish ancestors were shaped by History, the threat of persecution, while they tried to lead their histories, their quiet lives. They did not emerge as heroes during the wars, and they were not executed. 

Who are the dead? Who are these people who came before us, who revered rituals, who closed their expressions from cameras, who wore excessive dresses and opera hats? Stepanova concludes that they are closer to us than we expect yet also forever inaccessible to us. Toward the end of the book she recounts how, as a child, she asked her mother, “What are you most scared of?” Her mother responded, “I’m afraid of the violence that can destroy a person.” In the next paragraph Stepanova soars into a description of her own fear, the same as her mother’s, the horror that tormented her ancestors, the possibility of exile or execution, all introduced to her in youth but fated for her generations ago, and she writes that “I was eight when I was told about Mandelstam and seven when I was told: we are Jews. But the black hole of the unspoken that lay at the center of the tale . . . was more ancient than any explanation or example.”

Stepanova explores these complexities in three sections. The first and third are mostly personal essays about her family, spurred by letters, objects, and photographs. The middle explores memory, representation, and self through essays on Mandelstam and Rembrandt, W.G. Sebald, and Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? The ideas on these pages—cast in a dense, meticulous prose, like putting on a helmet and entering heavy machinery to burrow into the past—slow the reader, and they leave one yearning for the more immediate and personal narratives that open and close the book. Critics have noted this, too, and criticized the author for what might seem excessive, or unnecessary, or overly scholarly essays on Artists and Art. But I find value in these chapters. They allow Stepanova to mix genres, look at lives large and small, speak in intimate and professional voices. It is as if as if the author needed to resort to every possible method as she grasped for conclusions about memory and her family’s past. The pages reverberate with her ancestral story and they work out an intricate investigation of portraiture and photography, life and art, memory and history, the selfie and death.

Stepanova also intersperses the middle chapters with brief texts (each titled “Not-A-Chapter”) that quote her ancestors’ letters. Here her interjections remain explanatory and brief, like the placards hanging beside paintings in museums. They allow the dead to speak for themselves, to hold our attention with details from their everyday lives, with moments of their almost forgotten poetry. In the selection that moved me most, Galina, an ancestor, writes in a letter to her uncle after hearing of her aunt’s death: “I had my first close encounter with the word ‘death’ in 1948. I knew that it was possible to die in the abstract, that people died of old age and in wars. But my own sister, eighteen years old, so close to me, so warmly alive, and suddenly not there—I couldn’t begin to come to terms with it, I ran out of the village to the scrubland and I wept and cried and scratched the earth and prayed to God that He would bring Lusya back to life.” The letters relate to the other chapters in a meaningful way, as the author juxtaposes her family’s lives with the lives of the famous. They give us a clear entry to their lived experiences, which Stepanova at times doubt we can ever access (she labels her novel “A Romance,” presumably another entry in what she describes as “the Freudian family romance, the sentimentalized past”).

In the book’s final section, Stepanova asks her father for permission to excerpt the letters in the book. He refuses: people couldn’t “think that’s what I am.” But Stepanova had worked assuming ownership of the letters: they were hers because she “had become used to considering them a part of a collective history of which I was the author.” She rescued them from dust-covered boxes; she typed them out. “Who else,” she asks, “if not me, should decide how to deal with them?”

Stepanova’s conflict of who can tell the stories of the dead resounds in our ongoing conversations about representation. Her family members, she concedes at the start of her book, did not want to be remembered. They did not exert their narratives on the future, and they lived in a time without big data or the Instagram feed. “In the past immortality was a matter of choice,” Stepanova explains. “Now . . . we have accepted the impossibility of simply disappearing.” But Stepanova does not allow her ancestors to simply disappear: she writes their stories, anyway, and they lead her to an original and moving contemplation of the rights of the dead.

The dead leave things behind: clothes and watches, teacups, linen, letters, verbal histories, photographs, and toys. But because they have no voice for refusal, can we do what we want with their things and lives? Stepanova writes: “I look at the words and the possession of the dead, laid out for us in the cabinets of literary museums, or ready for printing, or lovingly conserved, and I feel more and more as if I were looking into an enclosure containing the silent and enclosed ranks of the ‘exhibited.’” Her book grapples with how we use the dead, and it attempts to preserve their dignity. Somebody needs to stand up in their defense because “the dead have no rights: their property and the circumstances of their fate can be used by anyone and in any way. . . . The fate of the dead is the latest gold rush; the history of people we don’t really know much about has become a major subject of novels and films, of sentimental speculation and sensational exposure. No one will defend them, no one asks us.” She claims that “the dead became the new minority; endlessly vulnerable, humiliated, their rights abused. I believe this must change.” Often, when she looks at old photographs, the dead stare back at her like the living. Their gazes burn through the film of the photographs, “fiercely unbending,” “steady and relentless.”

There is so much more to say about this book and not enough space, words, or time to say it. I traced so many underlines in my copy that rendered them useless: almost everything was important or well-written, every page marked with pencil, and I would need to read back through the entire text. Stepanova writes that “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.” But that was the beginning. Now we have In Memory of Memory, a four-hundred-page monument to how we struggle to understand and preserve the past. And it feels not like a crumbling fabric but like a solid cinderblock on which we can build the future of understanding and prose.


Marek Makowski is a writer living in Chicago. His work recently appeared in the Yale Review, World Literature Today, and the Smart Set. He teaches composition (remotely) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can find more of his writing through Instagram, @RealMarekM.