In Mem­o­ry of Memory

Maria Stepano­va, Sasha Dug­dale (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – September 20, 2021

Ear­ly in this com­pen­dious, care­ful­ly craft­ed book about her well-heeled” pre­de­ces­sors, cel­e­brat­ed Russ­ian poet Maria Stepano­va admits she is writ­ing not about my fam­i­ly at all, but some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: the way mem­o­ry works and what mem­o­ry wants from me.” Pick­ing through approach­es to the past” — includ­ing those of Osip Man­del­stam, W. G. Sebald, Rafael Gold­chain, and Char­lotte Salomon — she seeks one that might work.”

What works for Stepano­va is high­ly indi­vid­ual yet birthed from the col­lec­tive cat­a­stro­phe of the last cen­tu­ry.” Because the past is the key to every­thing that occurs dai­ly in the present,” In Mem­o­ry of Mem­o­ry—short­list­ed for the 2021 Book­er Prize — serves as a mod­el for us all as we reck­on with both per­son­al and col­lec­tive history.

Stepano­va, who grew up in a Moscow apart­ment crammed with objects, words, and images — a muse­um” of ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry cul­tured life” — always knew she would write about her invis­i­ble,” ordi­nary fam­i­ly, feel­ing duty-bound to speak on their behalf. She begins at age ten, resumes at six­teen, and con­cludes the project when she is forty-five. To recon­struct her ances­tors’ sto­ry, she tran­scribes let­ters, stud­ies pho­tographs, con­sults archives and his­to­ries, and trav­els to remote vil­lages and ceme­ter­ies. In the end, she con­fess­es her obses­sion” was all about her and not about them.”

Silences and rents in the fab­ric” are key. Although Stepano­va imag­ines her fam­i­ly his­to­ry to be well-doc­u­ment­ed” — how many of us pos­sess so many old let­ters or inher­it so many memen­tos? — she dis­cov­ers the black hole of the unspo­ken” at the cen­ter. Emblem­at­ic to the sto­ry is Leonid (“Lyo­dik”) Gim­mel­farb, her mater­nal grandfather’s cousin, con­script­ed at nine­teen to fight Hitler. Sta­tioned in Leningrad dur­ing the ter­ri­ble 1941 win­ter siege, Lyo­dik wrote let­ter after let­ter to his moth­er, assur­ing her he is fine, ask­ing after the fam­i­ly, not once men­tion­ing the hor­rors he wit­nessed and endured. Lyo­dik was killed in action on August 271942.

Per­haps the gravest silence con­cerns Jew­ish­ness. Although at sev­en, Stepano­va is point­ed­ly told, We are Jews,” nowhere in the family’s volu­mi­nous cor­re­spon­dence does she find any ref­er­ence to Jew­ish­ness, or any use of Yid­dish. Yet these peo­ple were marked as Jews, begin­ning with the pogroms ear­ly in the cen­tu­ry in south­ern Ukraine, con­tin­u­ing after the rev­o­lu­tion, and peak­ing dur­ing the Jew­ish Doc­tors’ Plot in 1953, when Stepano­va visu­al­izes her great-grand­moth­er and grand­moth­er, both doc­tors, wait­ing to be tak­en away.”

Still, Stepano­va con­cludes she didn’t need to hear” any of this from them, for the knowl­edge had lived with­in [her].” Like her moth­er, Stepano­va fears the vio­lence that can destroy a per­son,” her fear pol­ished to a gleam by the many pre­ced­ing generations”:

When I awake I real­ize that the Ger­mans have entered Paris and I need to hide the chil­dren; that the fear­some woman who sweeps the snow in the yard will inter­ro­gate me about my right to live there; that Man­del­stam has been arrest­ed and is enter­ing a sta­di­um through iron doors that resem­ble the doors to an oven…

Her family’s silence speaks vol­umes more than all their words and images. It is as if the words and images were pro­duced and pre­served pre­cise­ly to con­ceal the hor­rors Stepano­va remember[s] too well,” with her gut memory.”

As we read and re-read In Mem­o­ry of Mem­o­ry, telling­ly sub­ti­tled A Romance, we glean tan­ta­liz­ing tid­bits about Stepanova’s ances­tors — a great-grand­moth­er who stud­ied med­i­cine in Paris; a grand­fa­ther who served in the Red Army; a dis­tant rel­a­tive who was a gift­ed opera singer — but, most impor­tant­ly, we join Stepano­va in her dis­cov­ery of the blurred line between her­self and these end­less­ly vul­ner­a­ble, des­per­ate­ly inter­est­ing, utter­ly defense­less” peo­ple. Bril­liant­ly trans­lat­ed by Sasha Dug­dale, her­self a poet, this beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, thought-pro­vok­ing, genre-defy­ing vol­ume belongs on the shelves of any­one who has ever won­dered about their ances­tors, ever dealt with the trau­ma of post­mem­o­ry,” ever sought the truth of their own life.

Joyce Zonana is an award-win­ning writer and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor, born in Cairo, Egypt, and liv­ing in New York. Her mem­oir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Kat­ri­na, An Exile’s Jour­ney, recounts her own expe­ri­ence grow­ing up as an immi­grant in New York City. A Land Like You is her third translation.

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