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The Autonomy of the Past

Sarah O’Brien

In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova, transl Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 448 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1913097530

Ireland is at present in the midst of a national programme of commemoration. A core element is Machnamh100, a television broadcast led by President Higgins to encourage reflection on events of the nation’s past one hundred years. A sensitive and generous series, it embraces multiple perspectives on the past and is guided by the insight of some of our finest scholars. And yet, viewing it raises troubling questions. Who decides on the experiences of the past that should be remembered? How can the commemoration of high politics be balanced against commemoration of ordinary, everyday life? And who is ultimately served by such acts of commemoration?

In February 2021, around the same time that the second episode of Machnamh100 was televised, a landmark publication slipped quietly on to the catalogue of Fitzcarraldo Editions publishing house ‑ the English translation of Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. “I am so scared of hurting these people,” its author writes, close to the book’s beginning. Her fear stems from an agonising choice: to commemorate the lives of her Jewish family by writing the book of their lives or to maintain the carefully orchestrated inconspicuousness that their survival across the twentieth century required. The text that emerges in response to this dilemma is a masterpiece in ethical remembrance, and required reading for any programme of family, regional or national commemoration.

Personal and collective memory is well-travelled literary terrain, and Fitzcarraldo Editions has curated many of its finest texts for an English-speaking readership. From Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time to Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre and on to Annie Ernaux’s The Years, the publisher’s back catalogue creates a spectrum of memory-meditation that moves from the harrowing to the sublime. Like these previous texts, Stepanova’s writing is a playful mix of the conversational and the poetic, its loveliness brought out to its full extent through the sensitive translation of poet Sasha Dugdale. Yet what ultimately distinguishes this text as an intellectual milestone is its eerily precise identification of the sense of imperialism that the present has come to assume over the past. Through gently persuasive language, Stepanova steers us steadily toward the climactic understanding that the dead in our age have become common property, their memories pillaged for personal profit, entertainment and release. “There is something horrible,” she writes “about the new fashion of purses and notepads decorated with faces staring out from old photographs, whose names and faces are long lost.” She looks askance, too, at new vogues in literature, in which “authentic lives” are plucked from their graves, made undead, “sent to stroll the pleasure grounds of historical romances, as if the text would be lifeless without a drop of real blood in the mix”. The book’s exquisite tension proceeds from this dilemma: the power of the living to remember versus the powerlessness of the dead to be forgotten. 

The strength of these opposing forces is established at an early stage of the book, building our expectations for an elliptical narrative, bound to dissolve into poetic ambiguity. However, In Memory of Memory transcends this realm of irresolution, summoning energy from an internal logic that offers an alternative matrix for remembrance. Using a spatial narrative structure, Stepanova “locate”’ the stories of each of her family members in room-like chapters, surrounding them with the ephemera of their times. In one such chapter, she retraces the last days of a gentle young soldier named Leonid, her grandfather’s cousin, who died on a battlefield outside Leningrad in 1942. Within this narrative space, Stepanova subtly absents herself to the background, recreating the sights and smells of the battlefield through meticulous archival research of military papers, newspapers and contemporaneous writing. By tenderly embedding Leonid’s memory within the context of his own time, Stepanova makes a subtle but persuasive point about the ethics of remembrance. Each era of the past, she writes later, “has its own particular dust that settles on every surface and in every corner”. Those that conflate the past with the present, that appropriate the memories of the dead for their own benefit move us further from the plains of memory and closer to the precipice of myth.

Between these touching family-based chapters, Stepanova adds connecting corridors of thought, rich with treatises on art, philosophy and history. From Osip Mandelstam’s poetry to Joseph Cornell’s opaque documentaries, Stepanova guides us through the times, nudging us gently toward a deeper understanding of the nature of preservation, the limitations of the written text and the impossibility of a unifying cultural memory. These expositions are erudite and controlled, and yet they retain the soft reverential tones of the fireside storyteller. Like at an Irish wake, where the living circulate softly around their dead, Stepanova orbits her family’s memories, surrounding them with carefully curated images, stories and sounds. In so doing, she does not simply offer her family a dignified passage into death: she offers us, her readers, a new architecture for remembrance.

One of the myths of memory that Stepanova critiques most persuasively through her text is the notion of place as its own mnemonic. This conceit has gained traction over the twentieth century, with “memories” believed to “reside” in places repackaged as consumable forms of cultural heritage. Tellingly, this quasi-mystical belief in place as a detached conduit of memory has generally emerged in contexts of land disputes and power struggles. Understanding the danger of blurring the line between place and memory, between the remembering and the reminding, Stepanova provides a series of short autobiographical allegories. In one, she describes her journey through the Volga basin to Saratov, in search of the birthplace of her grandfather. With the help of a friend she is guided to a house that she recognises with metaphysical intensity as her ancestral home:

It seemed to speak to me, saying: here, you needed to come here … I remembered everything beneath the high windows with such a sense of heightened native precision that I seemed to know it had all been, in this, our place, how we had lived and why we had left. 

A few days later, still buoyed by her sense of having psychically coincided with her ancestor through the vector of place, she received a call from her friend. Sheepishly, he admitted that his coordinates had been off. The house before which she had stood and through which she had “remembered” her past was in fact the home of some other stranger. “And that,” Stepanova concludes, “is just about everything I know about memory.”

The magic of this book is encapsulated in this last scene. Through generous, thought-provoking and often humorous reflection, Stepanova forces a reckoning with the fact that memory, in the end, allows few shortcuts. It cannot reside in the inanimate solitude of places, objects, letters, notebooks or computer databases. Rather, imperfectly and elusively, it lurks in the maze of the remembering mind, amidst its elisions and fantasies, its morals and its perversions, propelled in the most perfect circumstances by the mind’s impulse to love. This is to say, In Memory of Memory is a profoundly human and humanising book, which relocates the intimacies of ordinary life from the margins of historical remembrance to the centre. A text of feeling and wisdom, it extends with one hand an experience of aching beauty and with the other the promise of a repaired relationship with the past.

1/3/2021

Sarah O’Brien is a cultural historian and lecturer at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick

 

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