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2 June 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:55am

Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory: a cabinet of curiosities

This is a collection of family objects and stories, a repository of cultural artefacts. 

By Natasha Randall

Some books are like museums. They offer an architecture but let you wander. Chapters, like gallery rooms, are adjacent and suggestive of order, but they read like a series of collections. In Memory of Memory is such a book, a repository of cultural artefacts, curated so that you will ask: how does memory inhabit these objects? In its pages, we find the contents of a lost wallet; love letters from a hospital bed; prenuptial agreements in Hebrew; stories about mistaken identity; and a generous sampling of the literature on memory.

The poet, essayist and journalist Maria Stepanova tells us that she has long been writing this book, perhaps her whole life. She wanted to explore her Jewish family’s efforts to be invisible in order to survive in 20th-century Soviet Russia, drawing upon “trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge and experience”. For as long as she can remember, she has collected family objects, and now she is holding them up to her reader, asking: do you see what I see?

The book opens with the death of her aunt and the contents of her aunt’s Moscow apartment, which seem to chronicle the Soviet era like an archive. But Stepanova doesn’t linger there, instead taking us to Vienna, Berlin, Oxford and a Russian town called Pochinky where she seeks small landmarks of her family history. She summons writers and artists – the Mandelstams, Sebald, Nabokov, Rembrandt, Charlotte Salomon – and dips into the lives of her grandparents and their cousins through the Second World War and the Siege of Leningrad.

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We are shown a series of gentle letters from a great-uncle who was serving in the war asking for news of the baby and “absolutely intent on saying nothing about himself” or the horrific deprivations of the trenches. His reticence is possibly to avoid the censor, but also accords with what Stepanova sees as her family’s project of keeping quiet and inconspicuous. “Show everything. Hide everything. Preserve it forever,” Stepanova writes.

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Born in Moscow in 1972, Stepanova describes a childhood game called sekretiki, “little secrets”, played only with your best friend. You lay on the ground, furtively dug a small hole and placed a special object into it (a feather, a bead, a trinket), covering it with a clear piece of glass, and then soil. Only your trusted friend knew where it was. Invariably, she says, your sekretiki disappeared or couldn’t be located. Stepanova likens it to the artist Joseph Cornell’s found objects, bric-a-brac lovingly gathered and displayed in glass-fronted boxes. To Stepanova, this game was the child’s version of an “underground” activity, a form of resistance against Soviet disapproval of “unacceptable exclusivity”.

Likewise, at the cemetery in the German city of Würzburg where her mother is buried, Stepanova sees a multitude of stones marking death, that great equaliser, hiding the individual histories below: “A tombstone might seem almost pointless, functioning merely as a road sign (Here Lies a Person!). After all, the important stuff is under the tombstone and not on it, and people know their own dead, don’t they?”

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Don’t they? Stepanova pivots on this little reservation again and again, seized with anxiety about the practices of historical research. Do we know the people of the past, or do we merely seek to appropriate them? When she visits the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, an adviser she has consulted asks about her book. He immediately recognises the genre: “Ah, one of those books where the author travels around the world in search of his or her roots – there are plenty of those now.” She concedes the point, but he is wrong: this book doesn’t describe a neat lineage. The objects it offers are evidence not just of what was, but of what might have been – a mass of lost meanings. She will never know who copied a rough quotation from Gogol’s Dead Souls on to a scrap she found in a box of family papers: “There are people who exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects.”

About three-quarters of the way in, a rare confessional chapter lifts the fog of the dead relatives and literary figures she has been considering. Stepanova tells us the story of asking her father if she can reproduce some of his letters. Awaiting his reply, she realises she has already presumed the letters to be her own. But her father declines as “nothing happened quite in that way”. He says: “I can’t bear to think that someone will read those letters and think that’s what I am.”

Stepanova confronts herself, chastened: “I was prepared to betray my own living father for the dead text.” And then she considers her guilt before the many deceased relatives strewn through her pages: “The dead have no rights: their property and the circumstances of their fate can be used by anyone and in any way.” Suddenly we see into the heart of this textual cabinet of curiosities. Stepanova has written a book about her family that is not about her family, but about the urge to remember, to memorialise, and the dangers that lie that way. 

Natasha Randall is a novelist and translator of Russian literature

In Memory of Memory
Maria Stepanova, trs by Sasha Dugdale
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 448pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West