In Memory of Memory

Author(s): Maria Stepanova (translated by Sasha Dugdale)

Literature | 2021 International Booker Prize long list | Read our reviews!

‘A luminous, rigorous, and mesmerizing interrogation of the relationship between personal history, family history, and capital-H History. I couldn’t put it down; it felt sort of like watching a hypnotic YouTube unboxing-video of the gift-and-burden that is the twentieth century. In Memory of Memory has that trick of feeling both completely original and already classic, and I confidently expect this translation to bring Maria Stepanova a rabid fan base on the order of the one she already enjoys in Russia.’
— Elif Batuman, author of The Idiot

With the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

‘There is simply no book in contemporary Russian literature like In Memory of Memory. A microcosm all its own, it is an inimitable journey through a family history which, as the reader quickly realizes, becomes a much larger quest than yet another captivating family narrative. Why? Because it asks us if history can be examined at all, yes, but does so with incredible lyricism and fearlessness. Because Stepanova teaches us to find beauty where no one else sees it. Because Stepanova teaches us to show tenderness towards the tiny, awkward, missed details of our beautiful private lives. Because she shows us that in the end our hidden strangeness is what makes us human. This, I think, is what makes her a truly major European writer. I am especially grateful to Sasha Dugdale for her precise and flawless translation which makes this book such a joy to read in English. This is a voice to live with.’
— Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic

‘Dazzling erudition and deep empathy come together in Maria Stepanova’s profound engagement with the power and potential of memory, the mother of all muses. An exploration of the vast field between reminiscence and remembrance, In Memory of Memory is a poetic appraisal of the ways the stories of others are the fabric of our history.’
— Esther Kinsky, author of Grove

‘Extraordinary – a work of haunting power, grace and originality’
— Philippe Sands, author of East West Street

‘The poet Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, beautifully translated by Sasha Dugdale, is a deeply intelligent quest for the significance of minutiae that survive while grand narratives of history sweep over them. It makes for powerful and magical reading, reminiscent of Nabokov’s Speak Memory. Time and again the sheer richness of the task sustains us and drives us on. This is a wholly marvellous book that extends our knowledge of all that is valued and lost.’
— George Szirtes, author of The Photographer at Sixteen

‘A book to plunge into. “Everyone else’s ancestors had taken part in history,” writes Stepanova; building itself via accumulation, these chapters become an important testimony to the cultural and political lives of the people held beneath the surface of the tides of history’
— Andrew McMillan, author of Playtime

Maria Stepanova is a poet, essayist, journalist and the author of ten poetry collections and three books of essays. She has received several Russian and international literary awards (including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship). In Memory of Memory won Russia’s Bolshaya Kniga Award in 2018. Her collection of poems, War and the Beasts and the Animals, is published by Bloodaxe in Sasha Dugdale’s translation in 2021, and is a Poetry Book Society Translation Choice. Stepanova is the founder and editor-in-chief of the online independent crowd-sourced journal, which covers the cultural, social and political reality of contemporary Russia.

Sasha Dugdale is a poet, writer and translator. She has published five collections of poems with Carcanet Press, most recently Deformations in 2020. She won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2016 and in 2017 she was awarded a Cholmondeley Prize for Poetry. She is former editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and is poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge (2018-2021).

The past gets bigger every day, he realised, every day the past gets a day bigger, but the present never gets any bigger, if it has a size at all it stays the same size, every day the present is more overwhelmed by the past, every moment in fact the present more overwhelmed by the past. Perhaps that should be longer rather than bigger, he thought, same difference, he thought, not making sense but you know what I mean, he thought, the present has no duration but the duration of the past swells with every moment, pushing at us, pushing us forward. Anything that exists is opposed by the fact of its existing to anything that might take its existence away, he wrote, the past is determined to go on existing but it can only do this by hijacking the present, he wrote, by casting itself forward and co-opting the present, or trying to, by clutching at us with objects or images or associations or impressions or with what we could call stories, wordstuff, whatever, harpooning us who live only in the present with what we might call memory, the desperation, so to call it, of that which no longer exists except to whatever degree it attaches itself to us now, the desperation to be remembered, to persist, even long after it has gone. Memory is not something we achieve, he wrote, memory is something that is achieved upon us by the past, by something desperate to exist and go on existing, by something carrying us onwards, if there is such a thing as onwards, something long gone, dead moments, ghosts preserving their agency through objects, images, words, impressions, associations, all that, he wrote, coming to the end of his thought. This book, he thought, Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, is not really about memory at all in the way we usually understand it, it is not about the way an author might go around recalling experiences she had at some previous point in her life, this book is about the way the past forces itself upon us, the way the past forces itself upon us particularly along the channels of family, of ancestry, of blood, so to call it, pushing us before it in such as way that we cannot say if our participation in this process is in accordance with our will or against it, the distinction in any case makes no sense, he thought, there is only the imperative of all particulars not so much to go on existing, despite what I said earlier, though this is certainly the effect, as to oppose, by the very fact of their particularity, any circumstance that would take that existence away. Everything opposes its own extinction, he thought, even me. That again. But the past is vulnerable, too, which is why memory is desperate, a clutching, the past depends upon us to bear its particularity, and we have become adept at fending it off, at replacing it with the stories we tell ourselves about it. The stories we tell about the past are the way we keep the past at bay, the way we keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by this swelling urgent unrelenting past. “There is too much past, and everyone knows it,” writes Stepanova, “The excess oppresses, the force of the surge crashes against the bulwark of any amount of consciousness, it is beyond control and beyond description. So it is driven between banks, simplified, straightened out, chased still-living into the channels of narrative.” When Stepanova’s aunt dies she inherits an apartment full of objects, photographs, letters, journals, documents, and she sets about defusing the awkwardness of this archive’s demands upon her through the application of the tool with which she has proficiency, her writing. Although she writes the stories of her various ancestors and of her various ancestors’ various descendants, she is aware that “this book about my family is not about my family at all, but about something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.” Stepanova’s family is unremarkable from a historical point of view, Russian Jews to whom nothing particularly traumatic happened, notwithstanding the possibilities during the twentieth century for all manner of traumatic things to happen to those such as them, and they were not marked out for fame or glory, either, whatever that means, in any case they had no wish to be noticed. History is composed mainly of ordinariness, the non-dramatic predominates, he thought, although there may be notable crises pressing on these particular people, Stepanova’s family for example but the same is true for most people, these notable crises do not actually happen to these particular people. Do not equals did not. The past, as the present, he wrote, was undoubtedly mundane for most people most of the time, and yet they still went on existing, at least resisting their extinction in the most banal of fashions. Is this conveyed in history, though, family or otherwise, he wondered, how does the repetitive uneventfulness of everyday life in the past press upon the present, if at all? Can we appreciate any particularity in the mundanity of the past, he wondered, are we not like the tiny porcelain dolls, the ‘Frozen Charlottes’ that Stepanova collects, produced in vast numbers, flushed out into the world, identical and unremarkable except where the damage caused by their individual histories imbues them with particularity, with character? “Trauma makes us individuals—singly and unambiguously—from the mass product,” Stepanova writes. Who would we be without hardship, if indeed we could be said to be? No idea, not that this was anyway a question for which he had anticipated an answer, he thought. “Memory works on behalf of separation,” Stepanova writes. “It prepares for the break without which the self cannot emerge.” Memory is an exercise of edges, he thought, and all we have are edges, the centre has no shape, there is only empty space. He thought of Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, and thought how it too piled detail upon detail to reduce the transmission—or to prevent the formation—of ideas about the past, the past piles more and more information upon us in the present, occluding itself in detail, veiling itself, reducing both our understanding and our ability to understand. Stepanova’s words pile up, her metaphors pile up, her sentences pile up, her words ostensibly offer meaning but actually withhold it, or ration it. Although In Memory of Memory is in most ways nothing like Russian Ark, he thought, why did he start this comparison, as with Russian Ark, In Memory of Memory is—entirely appropriately—both fascinating and boring, both too long and never quite reaching a point of satisfaction, the characters both recognisable and uncertain but in any case torn away, at least from us, the actions both deliberate and without any clear rationale or consequence—just like history itself. No residue. No thoughts. No realisations. No salient facts. No wisdom. The past drives us onward, pushes us outward as it inflates. 


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General Fields

  • : 9781913097530
  • : Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • : Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • : January 2021
  • : 19.60 cmmm X 12.70 cmmm X 2.70 cmmm
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Maria Stepanova (translated by Sasha Dugdale)
  • : en
  • : 448