Maria Stepanova’s sweeping meta-memoir, superbly translated by Sasha Dugdale, starts with her sifting through the “layered strata of possessions” in her aunt’s apartment after her death. As Stepanova considers photographs and knick-knacks, letters and postcards, documents and diaries, she pieces together a picture of life in Soviet Russia.
A poet, essayist and founder of an online media outlet, Stepanova supplements her scraps of memory and family artefacts with trips to archives and places where her relatives had lived. At one point, she visits an address she had been told was her great-grandfather’s, certain she recognises it despite it never having been described to her, only to discover later that her source had got the house number wrong. “And that is just about everything I know about memory,” she quips.
Stepanova feels it her duty to document her family because “their ordinariness put them beyond the usual human interest and this seemed unfair”, while at the same time pondering the ethics of making them visible posthumously.
Some of the drive to remain inconspicuous was, she suspects, in the interest of safety: whether consciously or not, as Jews they were “keeping themselves apart from the wide current of history, with its extra-grand narratives and its margins of error: the deaths of millions”. As the family letters that have survived skirt around anti-Semitism, she fills in the gaps with its effects on the lives of public figures including Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam.
During her childhood, Stepanova recalls asking her mother what she was most afraid of, expecting her to answer “war”, as the nuclear threat loomed large in the 1980s. But what her mother feared was more specific: “the violence that can destroy a person”. What Stepanova unearths in her research “only confirms what I remember too well, with my gut-memory”, she writes.
Does the generational trauma hark back to 1919, she wonders, when her great-great-grandfather, a business owner, disappeared? Or did “this ancient horror” begin in 1938, when her grandfather sat waiting to be arrested? Perhaps it was later, in the early 1950s when the “Jewish Doctors’ Plot” – a conspiracy theory under Stalin – made her great-grandmother and grandmother fear not only for their livelihoods as medics but their lives.
As recent events show all too clearly, repression in Russia is hardly confined to the past. “Now I am the one who fears this same violence that can destroy a person,” Stepanova admits.
More than just a family and cultural history, Stepanova’s meditations on the nature of memory place themselves on a continuum of Proust, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1951) and the work of WG Sebald. “This book about my family is not about my family at all,” she writes, “but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me”.
Her exploration is in conversation with a wide range of writers including Hannah Arendt, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, as well as visual artists such as Rembrandt and Joseph Cornell.
In Memory of Memory is also – inevitably – a reflection on mortality. By the time Stepanova embarks on the project, which she had been orbiting since the age of 10, anyone who could debunk apocryphal familial tales has gone. Although only in her 40s,there are “ever fewer people with whom I can still discuss how things were”, she notes.
If historians of the 20th century suffer from a lack of archives due to displacement and fear (Stepanova’s family burned papers, photographs and art during the Great Terror), future generations will have to contend with a glut of digital traces left behind.
Immortality used to be a choice; today “whether you want it or not, you are facing the strange extension of your existence, your outward form preserved for all time”, Stepanova reflects in a section on selfies. “All that disappears is what made you yourself.”
Stepanova harbours no illusions about the feasibility of preserving the past. She likens it to a porcelain figurine she finds at a flea market – maimed like its brethren in the bin – who “seemed to embody the way no story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away”. After treasuring it like a talisman, one day the figurine falls out of her pocket and breaks into pieces.
“What had struggled to symbolize wholeness in my own and my family’s history had, in one fell swoop, become an allegory: the impossibility of telling these histories, the impossibility of saving anything at all, and my inability to gather myself up from the splinters of someone else’s past, or even to take it on as my own convincingly,” she writes.
Trying to fit the pieces back together, she realises that it is beyond repair.