Ideas of Memory From a Family in Russia

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

The subjectivity and selectiveness of the memory means we can fix on a historical “excerpt“ that has nothing in common with history itself – there will be people out there for whom the 1930s were a lost paradise of innocence and permanence. Especially during times dominated by the dull fear of the unknown. In comparison with a future we don’t want to inhabit, what has already happened feels domesticated – practically bearable.

Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory is a hard-to-categorize memoir/literary theory and criticism/family history. The basic premise is Stepanova’s sorting of her aunt’s possessions after her death. Stepanova begins sifting through the memorabilia in her aunt’s apartment – letters, photos, diaries spanning her Jewish family’s existence: “a withered repository of an entire century of life in Russia.”

Beyond that, well, I hardly know what to tell you.

Whatever this strange and captivating book is, it’s not fiction or autofiction and I’m bugged that it was marketed as such. It’s a genre-bender but it’s also clearly memoir, so I would love to hear the reasoning behind automatically classifying it as fiction. I almost didn’t pick up my library hold of this and I’m so glad I did. I read some wildly mixed reviews and because I struggle with reading fiction nowadays I was hesitating because of how fiction-y it might be.

It’s a dreamy blend of memoir from an unnamed narrator, aside from that she’s a Stepanov (like my husband’s family!), and literary analysis, close looks at specific bits of Russian history, biography of several of her family members and biographical moments from the lives of some famous Russian poets, among looks at the life and work of other figures like artists, filmmakers, photographers, and researchers, and meditations on what memory is and how it fails us and fails history.

It meanders but still feels tightly organized and focused somehow. It is really an accomplishment. It’s like a photo album turned into words crossed with diaries, letters, laid alongside false memories and stories told through the ages, pulled back into the present with references to how Facebook and Instagram change the collection and cataloguing of memories. There’s a lot going on and I loved most of it. I noted so many beautiful lines and I want to buy a copy so I can highlight whole paragraphs.

It’s weird and even sometimes confusing but it’s worthwhile. If you like filmy family histories, Russian poets (some of my favorites, Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, are big ones here), playing with form and ideas around memory and its preservation, disappointments, and wonders in equal measure, this is well worth a concentrated reading. (It’s not one that can be read mindlessly, it’s really a thinker.)

Some favorite lines:

On Berlin: “a city where history is an open wound, no longer able to mend itself with the scar tissue of oblivion.”

Unlike nature, past lives are endlessly submissive, allowing us to do whatever we may decide to do with them. They reject no interpretation, endure any amount of humiliation, exist outside the rule of law or any notion of fair play.

Facebook photos, like the fairy-tale mirror on the wall, seek to persuade us of our invulnerability. As they dispassionately record each new wrinkle they insist that the face in the mirror is still ours, still the fairest of them all, hardly changed from the day before yesterday.

Sometimes it seems like it is only possible to love the past if you know it is definitely never going to return. If I had expected a small box of secrets to be hidden at my journey’s end, something like one of Joseph Cornell‘s boxes, then I would have been disappointed. Those places where the people of my family walked, sat, kissed, went down to the river’s edge, or jumped onto street cars, the towns where they were known by face and name — none of them revealed themselves to me. The green and indifferent battlefield was overgrown with grass. Like a computer game I hadn’t mastered, all the prompts lead to the wrong gates, the secret doors were just blank walls, and nobody remembered anything. And this is for the best: the poet Alexander Blok tells us that no one comes back. The poet Mikhail Gronas replies that “living comes of oblivion. “

originally published 2017, English translation published February 9, 2021 by New Directions

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16 thoughts on “Ideas of Memory From a Family in Russia

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    1. In the US it was under this autofiction label and I really don’t get that. It was just so clearly a nontraditional memoir, and I hate this idea of memoir only being a linear, neatly packaged narrative and otherwise it’s fiction or something unclassifiable. It’s like saying a painting is only a painting if it’s of a sunset.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it too, I can’t believe I almost passed on it after reading some critical reviews, or people who were just confused by it. It’s such a strange and smart and beautiful work of literature!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. This one was very different from what’s mostly considered a traditional memoir, but the difference in form was kind of exciting, I thought! It would be a good one to get from the library and make sure the style is for you 🙂


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