“Because twentieth-century history spread its cataclysms liberally around the globe, most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent,” writes the Russian poet and essayist Maria Stepanova in In Memory of Memory, originally published in 2017 and presented by New Directions in a caring and delicate translation by the poet Sasha Dugdale. Survivors, all of us included, Stepanova thinks, tend toward a habit to define our present by the traumas of the story that’s arrived with us, passed down and obscured through retelling and haphazardly preserved documentary evidence. These survivors, she writes, are bound to a lifelong quest for “something to remember and to call back to life at the expense of their own today.”
In Memory of Memory remembers and calls back to life a “quite ordinary” bourgeois Jewish family passing through a century of horrors, as reflected through the objects—the photographs, the letters, the bracelets, the faded receipts—that for whatever reason resisted oblivion. Beginning as Stepanova sorts through the possessions left behind in a tiny apartment following the death of her octogenarian Aunt Galya, the book is driven by the author’s “unrelenting desire to say something, anything, about these barely seen people who withdrew to the shadowy side of history and settled there.” Galya spent her life seeking a definitive order to everything she could not let go of, as though by continually rearranging the flotsam of the lives around her, eventually the archive of her life could be laid out for all to see. She never found it: her apartment was the familiar “raging sea” that is the home of the hoarder who can’t let go: a chaotic archipelago of books and documents, boxes of old jewelry, piles of yellowing newspaper clippings running up the walls, ready for future sorting and re-evaluation. Stepanova notes of her aunt’s accumulation of things, “There was no longer any deciding whether a particular thing was important or not, because everything had significance in some way.”
The raging sea that is this book is forcefully unsentimental, yet overflowing with compassion. Throughout the decades-long process of gathering materials for it, Stepanova remained “smitten with the idea of blindly retrieving and reliving scraps from my life, or from a collective life, rescued from the shadows of the known and accepted histories.” Her parents left the new Russia at the first opportunity, while she as a twenty-something could see no reason to flee Moscow’s fresh and boundless possibilities, and throughout the 1990s she continued to rummage, to sort, and to order. Her mission, to create a permanent paradise for disappearing objects: “To take them and blow life into them, tell them anew, stuff them with details I have prepared myself.”
In fact, what she has gathered here, from what begins as “a museum of cultured life at the beginning of the twentieth century, complete with battered bentwood furniture, a pair of oak armchairs, and a black leather-bound Complete Works of Tolstoy” is something altogether more interesting. It’s not at all a family history, though it takes the surface form of one. As a jaded staff member at a Holocaust museum points out to her, there are plenty enough of those in the world. “Yes, and now there will be one more,” she replies. Stepanova knows she’s producing this book at a time when there’s already a flood on the bookstore shelves of these inventories of possessions, object histories via which “the old world had breached its banks and flooded the current world.” But the story she’s looking to tell isn’t in the shoeboxes she’s sifting through—those have false bottoms. Nor is it in the recipes that can no longer be made because those Soviet ingredients no longer exist. “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.”
Consider the face in a corner of a 1907 photograph of her grandmother as a child, a man wearing a pince-nez and a gloomy expression. Stepanova recognizes him as Yakov Sverdlov, he who probably ordered the death of the Romanovs, who would ten years later sign the decree that would begin the Red Terror, and two years after that die of the Spanish flu. At the edges of what vast narratives does a mundane family history sit? What horrors did they pass through or alongside? And how do they still sit with those who inherit them?
This is a story of trauma and how memory rewilds it. It’s about what Stepanova calls “the heat transfer between past and present,” how trauma passes down intractable, even when unrecorded. At its epicenter, alongside the Soviet century, is the twentieth-century experience of Europe’s Jews, “the trauma wound, which makes a tear in time’s matter at the point of no return, the border between then and now.”
Memory, importantly, is not history. “Memory is handed down, history is written down; memory is concerned with justice, history with preciseness; memory moralizes, history tallies up and corrects; memory is personal, history dreams of objectivity; memory is based not on knowledge, but on experience: compassion with, sympathy for a desperate pain demanding immediate involvement.” To build a framework around all of this, Stepanova turns to Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (2012), a foundational text on the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust and the burden on the shoulders of the second and third generations of those who survived to look back, and to learn to hold it in ways that make sense of their present. Stepanova’s familiar realization as she reads Hirsch like “a travel guide to my own head” is that “Any story about myself became a story about my ancestors.” As she develops this thought further, a deeper sense of this forms: “the structures that emerged from the black waters of history fought shy of linearity, their natural state was co-presence, the simultaneous sounding of voices from the past.” Stepanova considers postmemory as Sontag considers photography, not a function but a medium in which things are made: “It doesn’t just show us the past, but changes the present.”
In Memory of Memory is openly and carefully working in a specific tradition of many greats who have previously bushwhacked through these dense groves. She knows she is writing in a place that “began with Proust,” then “continued with Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and ended with Sebald’s prose.” In Memory of Memory is a book whose light is not consumed by those great shadows. There were others, of course, alongside that monumental trio—she spends much time too with the great poet Marina Tsvetaeva and with Osip Mandelstam, who saw memory as a tool, not something to be loved: “memory is not sentimental, it is functional, it works as an accelerator.”
It is noteworthy that to Stepanova, W. G. Sebald’s writing represented some kind of an endpoint, as though in his particular line of inquiry about this same trauma wound, he achieved something resembling an answer. But it is not consolation that she sees and identifies with in him, nor is it necessarily biography in his deeply biographic-seeming fictions. Rather, it is what he saw that went beyond the fact of the Holocaust itself to the deeper veins beneath, his “solidarity with all of the annihilated, even the trees and buildings.” She acknowledges too, and repeats in seeming tribute at the book’s end, one of his signature moves, presenting a single family photograph knowing that the low fidelity of the basic book printing process will obscure the details, blurred just beyond clarity and never completely graspable.
For Sebald, and for Stepanova, all of this is not simply about memory; it is the active resistance of oblivion, an instinct she has carried since childhood. She recalls a popular game she played as a child in 1970s Russia, sekretiki, a ritual burial of tiny, secret, special things—bird feathers, smooth stones, newspaper clippings. The point was never to remember where these treasures were buried, or to ever dig them up again—the act of keeping was the act of agency. Memories of her sekretiki games draw her to an appreciation of the artist Joseph Cornell’s boxes of offcasts, a gathering process little understood by those around him at the time. It also brings to my mind the quietly seditious acts of the nonconformists in Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 The Memory Police (published in English in 2019), who secret away objects for which the words too, the very concept of what they are, will soon disappear. Or the beauty of the object stories told in Orhan Pamuk’s physical Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. A gathering instinct that is also a survival instinct, with little expectation of any use for what is gathered.
The pulsing heart of the first two thirds of the book are in what the author playfully terms her “Not-a-chapters,” where she steps out of the way to let her ancestors speak directly through their correspondence with each other. The thing about letters is that most of their meaning is contained in what’s not written. Stepanova can set context, make her best guess which year it was, which military hospital her grandfather might have been writing from, and describe precisely how violet ink seeps through coarse paper, but what she cannot do is fill in the gaps of the argument the sender and recipient had in the months preceding, and why forgiveness is being begged. She cannot, either, see past the projections of everything being fine that were demanded either by censors or by pride. The women come through most strongly, as Stepanova acknowledges: “the men in this family are barely illuminated, as if history consisted only of heroines and couldn’t quite stretch to heroic men.” The men exist at distance, in letters home from front lines, no room for feelings that might slip through and reveal truths unfavorable to the state, life in the frontlines of the Leningrad siege reflected only through banal questions about family. (Of the besieged city, Stepanova writes in one precisely devastating sentence, “In the Leningrad Public Library, the cold corpses of librarians lay on the floor, but you could still borrow a book.”) But over these chapters, as we get to know the Gurevichs and the Stepanovs, the Fridmans and the Ginzburgs, through Odessa and Berlin, Paris and Yalutorovsk, sliding in on the tail end of remembrances and previous questions not responded to, or in the midst of deep longing that may or may not have been reciprocated, romances blossoming and fading as we move through a forever asking-after-others, the sort of vivacious narrative Stepanova claims to be resisting slowly comes together. And it’s exciting. We grow to love who these people were, and we long to know more of their lives between the lines on those pages.
But of course nothing comes that easily in this book. The not-a-chapters are a trap, for author and reader alike. The past is not a jigsaw puzzle. Stepanova has dedicated four hundred pages to telling us this. They grind to a halt when she arrives in 1965 and considers a collection of energetic, vivid letters sent home by her father from the construction of a secret space project on the Kazakh steppe. She describes them as fun, full of great anecdotes of an otherworldly experience. Offhandedly, not expecting any resistance, she asks him for permission to include them. To her surprise, he declines, and with some distress. “Nothing happened quite in that way,” he explains. These letters, like all letters, were performance. He created a character for the reader. “I can’t bear to think that someone will read those letters and think that’s what I am.”
She wants to tell him that the point of the letters is not to capture “how it actually was,” but something more detached, a kind of study, even, a tracking of how they are “written in that concentrated form which gives us a feeling for the age.” But something else sinks in. He can refuse, she realizes, but the dead, the real stars of her story, do not get to do so. In this and all other memoir, the dead are “endlessly vulnerable, humiliated, their rights abused.”
The not-a-chapters do not return. Stepanova has been assuming, as we all do, a sense of ownership over the material of one’s ancestors, without considering what they would have made of it, or more importantly what it makes of them. What are the rights of the “dead in the age of mechanical reproduction,” she wonders. Consider this in the light of our most active modes of self-documentation today: “With every new selfie we take, every group shot or passport photo, our lives become arranged into a chain of images, a history which is quite different from the one we tell ourselves and want others to believe.” Anybody who has spent any time in Instagram’s Explore tab knows this too well, and the insight’s not new, but Stepanova knows that, as she addresses in a chapter titled “Selfies and their Consequences.” She points to Balzac, who believed pictures removed layers of the self. And to the strange unease many of Rembrandt’s scholars have about making sense of his eighty-odd self-portraits, many of them painted over failed canvases, the paintings his patrons rejected. But the selfie stick offers immortality, too, the negating of one’s complete disappearance. A fixing in place of the face of today, not the same face as tomorrow. The future dead disintegrate by different rules.
Knocked off balance by her newfound responsibility to the dead, Stepanova ceases trying to claim any sort of victory. All she can do is lay out what she has, point you to the sekretiki and offer: Here is all of it, here is all of what made me. Is this anything? “Make of it what you will,” as her mother said to her when questioned about the import of some object of her grandmother’s.
In realizing this, she allows herself to pull her gaze out of the past and into the future, to note as she retraces her grandmother’s steps in France the rising tides of antisemitism that are causing Jewish people now to worry about what might happen five years in the future. There’s not much hope to be found in what lies ahead, and the past, even the trauma of postmemory, is retreat: “In comparison with a future we don’t want to inhabit, what has already happened feels domesticated—practically bearable.”
Many years ago, I visited the Natural Sciences Museum in Buenos Aires. Beyond the many halls of carcasses taxidermied long ago—their stuffing deflated and threads hanging loose, now children’s parodies of bears or tigers rather than fearsome beasts—there was a room dedicated to small creatures embalmed in jars, their preservation fluids long since half-evaporated. Below the waterline, a perfect bird, a perfect frog, snapped still as though resting on a branch. Above, only horror—decayed flesh hanging from rotting bone. Which is the true animal? I have often wondered. Which is the part we should be looking at?
Stepanova would probably argue that the choice is false. Either way, your reflection in the glass is most of what you’re seeing. In an overgrown Jewish cemetery she visits toward the end of this masterful book, with the headstones for past Gurevichs lost to weeds, things settle. Every ancient battlefield stands quiet and empty now, under green grass, ivy, and ruin. The point is not the souvenirs, nor the stories as they are told. The dead belong to the storyteller, and the story that you hear is also the storyteller’s, not that of the dead. She is driven, as we all are, to follow trails. To dig up small secrets. To piece them together not to tell a story of what was, but what is. Make of it what you will.
In Memory of Memory. By Maria Stepanova. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. Cambridge, MA: New Directions, 2021. 400 pp. $19.95.