‘There is too much past’ [book review]

A review of In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale

‘There is nothing more distancing than the documents of a dead person,’ writes Maria Stepanova late in her astonishing book In Memory of Memory. It is a sentence which by this time she has proved to be false, in creating an ingeniously constructed and intellectually mesmerising work of literature that shows just how close to the wider world such documents can bring us. Though the point here is more about how reducing a life to mere pieces of paper automatically belies how it was really lived, Stepanova has used exactly such scraps of the past to craft something whole, beautiful and entirely new.

Cover image In Memory of Memory

While a five-hundred-page essay on memory might sound daunting, this is a book which, for all its formidable intellect, is both approachable and engaging to read. Maria Stepanova is a poet and essayist who clearly knows how to shape a sentence and coax words into doing her bidding – In Memory of Memory is written in a half-dreamy, half-lucid tone that borders on the poetic and contains regular flashes of irreverent wit as well as a journalistic nose for the finer details. All the more impressive, then, that her work is brought to us in translation by the enormously talented Sasha Dugdale, who is herself a poet. As she explains in her translator’s note, the book is a ‘living text’ that has been altered from the Russian in collaboration with the author; the result of this creative, generous approach is an English-language work bursting with life and lyricism. Again and again while reading I was struck by how clear and individual Stepanova’s voice seemed, and the rendering into English of complex ideas and imagery is nothing short of flawless. As a work of literature it is remarkable; as a translation, it is masterful.

In Memory of Memory begins with the author clearing out an old apartment following the death of her aunt and goes on to become a very loose form of family history that also encompasses personal memoir, Russian – and indeed European – history, and lively critical engagement with the works of great writers and artists. This ‘balance between the textual and the visual’ is what makes the book so unique and so compelling: from vivid descriptions of family photographs (only one of which is ever provided as an image) to dissections of the bodies of work left by artists such as Charlotte Salomon and Francesca Woodman, Stepanova succeeds in bringing fine art and photographs to life on the page and thus illustrates the visual nature of memory. This interplay continues right to the end of the book and helps keep her rather eclectic subject matter together; it also demonstrates her vast intellectual curiosity and encourages readers to think about culture and history in broader terms. Few writers, I think, could convincingly give camera-phone selfies and Rembrandt’s self-portraits almost equal weighting in a chapter, yet Stepanova can.

This focus on – not to say obsession with – the visual traces left behind by the past is echoed in Stepanova’s own portrayal of her surroundings as she travels through Russia and to Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Oxford to trawl dusty archives and spend time writing. Her descriptive prose is often striking, even when it contains unusually mixed images – ‘the Volga river basin was as bare as an empty soup dish and the narrow streets descended towards it like tourniquets’ – and her tendency to focus on small details like chimneypots or doorways adds a moving sense of scale to the whole project: we are all, she seems to be constantly reminding us, very small in the grand scheme of the world. Despite knowing this, she delves deep into the past of her ‘ordinary’ Jewish family, whose lives, it turns out, just happen to be a microcosm of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian history. Beginning with Aunt Galya’s death and the flat ‘filled with suddenly devalued objects’, Stepanova launches into a winged exploration of memory and its meaning, before returning for the final section to her family story: a moving act of coming full circle that reminds us how the world (and all its vast history) is ultimately composed only of ordinary, beloved people.

Stepanova’s family is founded on ‘a tribe of strong, individual women standing like milestones spanning the century’, a tribe of doctors, revolutionaries and poets, but also of quieter figures like young Leonid (Lyodik), whose brief army career and tragically young death during the Battle of Leningrad is conveyed through his own extraordinarily reserved letters. Personal correspondence features heavily in the book, set apart from quoted lines by writers such as Nabokov, Mandelstam, Sebald and Barthes: while these flow on unattributed as part of Stepanova’s text, the letters written by her ancestors are generally displayed in her ‘Not-a-Chapters’, short inserted sections that give the dead their own voices back. This layering of texts is extremely effective, continually grounding the book in its original starting point of the family, no matter how high-flown some of its other observations may become.

For much of its five hundred pages, In Memory of Memory is a book about just that: how memories are formed and re-shaped down the years, how they give us a sense of our place in the world, how they unwittingly close or open doors to us, or lead us to become lost on ‘the railway station concourse of collective experience’. It is also a powerful search for personal identity, a critical study of Soviet history, and an attempt to do something new with literature, to create a hybrid form of documentary text and written art. Stepanova says of her aunt that ‘Galya lived her life in the pursuit of beauty’, and this seems to be something that is true of the author herself. As complex as this book can be at times – though the words are flowing, the substance is dense, and closely focused reading is unavoidable – it is ultimately a hymn to beauty, both in the form of words and lived human experience.

One quote in particular struck me from this book: ‘There is too much past, and everyone knows it’. There is something despondent about these words, and at times Stepanova does appear crushed by the weight of history, unsure of her place in the passing of the years. It is a feeling to which we can probably all relate in some way, and a feeling to which the author seems to want to provide an answer. Her suggestion, perhaps, is that all memory is unique, that the past – whether personal or national – can only ever be composed of fragments. In Memory of Memory is a sifting of the many layers of history, a picking out of what matters from the rubble of time. Most often these objects, people or remembered moments aren’t particularly beautiful or glamorous – and yet, as Stepanova skilfully shows us, they have personal significance, and that is enough.

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

5 thoughts on “‘There is too much past’ [book review]

  1. Incredible review. I got such a sense of this from your description and quotes, and as much as I’d read about it already I couldn’t get any clear sense of that, of what it actually is. I was confused even about whether it was mostly fiction or nonfiction! It sounds absolutely beautiful, and I love to hear that the translation is so smooth and allows her voice to come through so individually. I was hesitating a bit because it seemed so long and because I don’t always enjoy literary analysis, but it seems like this encompasses so much more. Just the idea of her travels and around one’s place in history, it sounds so beautiful and meaningful. Thanks for such a deep and thorough look at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much – I’m so glad to hear that. I also had no real idea what to expect when I came to it, but in many ways it’s a book that defies description. Definitely non-fiction, but it strays into fiction territory in her imaginings of the past and poetic descriptions. It is long and not exactly light reading, but so beautifully written that I found it very easy to get swept up in. I hope you get to read and enjoy it too!


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