In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (trans. Sasha Dugdale) — Joshua Calladine-Jones

In 2018, Russian poet, Maria Stepanova, was awarded the Bolshaya Kniga award for her 2017 work Памяти памяти, on personal history and historical memory. The book shifts between essayistic forms, family genealogy, direct memoir, and continental travelogue, into a five-hundred page sequence, a form distinct unto itself. In February 2021, In Memory of Memory saw publication in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions, in a delicate and well-paced rendering by celebrated British translator, Sasha Dugdale. Its steady pace is easily inviting, the paths Stepanova takes the reader on deceptively light-to-tread, given their denseness as they unwind. Though the book contains only a single image on its final page, much of the insight Stepanova gleans (sometimes by way of Roland Barthes La Chambre Claire, of 1980) is derived from the photograph as relic, as window into a dead time.

The problem with memory (its unrecognisable, rainy darkness, lit with sharp flashes of guesswork) is removed at once: the entire tribe, three or thirty generations back, is me, all me, me-with-a-moustache, me-in-a-bonnet, me-in-a-cradle, me-in-the-grave, indivisible, irrevocable. Once again, the past gives way to the present.

The photograph, Stepanova suggests, becomes a peephole back into the impressions of the dead, a mirror to the expressions of the living. In seeking the past, the present is transformed, the seeker sees further into themselves, sees themself in all manner of postures. What other reason is there for searching for ancestors, if not searching for the self? In 2021, the Russian Federation will be thirty years old. The fall of the USSR, that happiness and tragedy, remains a fresh wound in the mind of the living, as the major fluctuations in historical fetishes and explorations attest, increasing to engulf visions of the future with reflections on the past. From the sprawling Soviet alternative-history cinematics of the DAU project, to Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time.

In comparison with a future we don’t want to inhabit, what has already happened feels domesticated—practically bearable.

Crushed between the unbearable weight of the future and the immovable happenings of the past, Stepanova recognises this immense burden of being-in-the-present. Her key protagonists in the book (and they are characters in themselves, even when the roles are only minor) are figures who, in their own lives, stood at this intolerable crossroads, moving through time as in some Möbius strip. Her choice of heroes from the world of art and literature is careful, selecting those figures whose work, in the shadow of their contemporaries, has been (until now) more or less overlooked by a mainstream audience. The reclusive twentieth-century American artist, Joseph Cornell, makes an appearance, bringing with him his memory boxes, the meticulously arranged works of found objects and pioneering assemblage. As does Charlotte Salomon, whose vast gesamtkunstwerk produced in 1942, Leben? Oder Theatre? is a near-cinematic work of expressionism, documenting her family life, her love life, her persecution by the Nazis, in plate after plate of dynamic symbolism.

In Memory of Memory works in a dialogue with authors it reflects – the lives of poets Marina Tsveteava and Anna Akhmatova are filtered through the lens of Stepanova’s own poetic insights – the life and works of Osip Mandelstam diffracts on Stepanova’s tracing of her lineage, her investigations into the life of a family variously Jewish, bourgeois and educated, in an era and a land in which being any one of the three was enough to pose a serious threat to a person’s existence. Her efforts to recover the actuality of these lives and remembrances from the accrued family albums, photographs, mementos, letters, postcards and relics passed onto her after the death of her aunt, reveal the improbability of ordinary lives, as much as the impossibility of relocating the dead. She writes of three categories of memory.

The memory of what is lost, inconsolable, melancholy, keeping tally of these losses, while knowing that nothing can be returned.

The memory of what has been received: sated after-dinner memory, content with one’s lot.

The memory of what has never been – seeding ghosts in place of the real. Like the magic comb of Russian fairy-tale: a deep dark wood springs up where the comb is thrown down and helps the hero to escape pursuit. The phantom memory does much the same for whole communities, protecting them from naked reality and its draughts.

The object of remembrance can be the same in all cases. In fact, it is always the same.

In remembering, the past is reanimated, realised, imagined, existing with all of its possible feelings, impressions and reactions, as embodied in those relics that have survived, and the absence of those that are irretrievably lost. The teleology of recollection is exactly this.

Always the same. But what is this object, the telos of remembering? When Stepanova interacts with the letters of her relatives, it is an interaction in the fullest sense, rearranging these envois into segments, referred to throughout the book as Not-a-Chapters, where the words of her grandparents and great-grandparents are set out in a continuous sequence, taking place imminently, with the ominous and omnipresent feeling that what has passed is about to happen, that what has happened could be changed. In remembering, the past is reanimated, realised, imagined, existing with all of its possible feelings, impressions and reactions, as embodied in those relics that have survived, and the absence of those that are irretrievably lost. The teleology of recollection is exactly this. That the dead are momentarily and fleetingly brought back to life.

I have a few hand-sewn notebooks, in which my grandfather, in his calligraphic script, embellished by illuminated initial letters, wrote out one of the volumes of Klyuchevsky’s nineteenth-century Histories, chapter by chapter. Why this book? It wasn’t easy to get hold of,
especially given grandfather’s refusal to buy on the black market. But then there were many books like that at that time, and the choice of this one is enigmatic.

All the monastic scribemanship of the Medieval world is distilled in Stepanova’s grandfather, who needlessly but dedicatedly hand-copies the contents of volumes upon volumes of classics, for a reason that can only be described in terms of blind faith, an unquestioning belief in the usefulness of one’s goal. Every act of remembering is one more gesture of this scribemanship, penning ornate representations of the past in the meticulously archived halls of memory. Sometimes the ink is spilled, blotting out pages. Other times the handwriting is as neat and calligraphic as that of Stepanova’s grandfather. Her efforts to uncover the long-gone lives of her family also generate the same feelings of futility, as she sees herself succumbing to the fantasies of an imagined time.

In place of research, I have occupied all this time with the Freudian family romance, the sentimentalised past.

But she cannot escape this past, the memories it suggests, any more than she can entirely abandon the fantasies that set the investigations into motion. Like ghosts, the unfulfilled possibilities of times-gone-by haunt the memories she projects back into them, the spectres and shades of people who once existed, inescapable, themselves once haunted by memories of their own, handed on through their existences, so that each generation inherits the half-vanished impressions of the one that came before, chased down by these spirit-like tales and thoughts. In one perspicacious twist of word-play, Stepanova locates the tonal similarity between the burden of memory and the guilt-seeking ancient Furies.

The German word ‘Erinnerung’ (memory) has a distant echo in the Russian ear: the flight of the Erinyes (or Furies), those vengeful divinities who remembered and pursued the guilty to the corners of the earth, however they tried to remain hidden.

Dugdale’s voice is almost audible through the translation, though this hardly detracts from the work, itself a self-confessed movement into a new poetic language. The subtleties of the translator’s work, while perhaps altering the tone almost imperceptibly in places, no less render a piece that is contemporary and grants access to something near to the original form: the translation, as form in itself, holds together. It has a lightness that counterbalances the weight of the subjects, even at their heaviest. This is the fruit of Dugdale’s work with Stepanova’s text: that the texture of the original – light and dark – is preserved in the translation. Maria Stepanova, with all the delicateness of an artisan, has accomplished a builder’s task of Soviet proportions: hauling the past out of its desolation and mystery, to erect what she herself admits to as a monument, a book that salvages the leftovers of the lost lives of an era, at the same time ordinary, inexplicable, and strange.

Maria Stepanova is a poet, essayist, journalist and the author of ten poetry collections and three books of essays. She has received several Russian and international literary awards (including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship). In Memory of Memory won Russia’s Bolshaya Kniga Award in 2018. Her collection of poems, War and the Beasts and the Animals, is published by Bloodaxe in Sasha Dugdale’s translation in 2021, and is a Poetry Book Society Translation Choice. Stepanova is the founder and editor-in-chief of the online independent crowd-sourced journal, which covers the cultural, social and political reality of contemporary Russia.

Sasha Dugdale is a poet, writer and translator. She has published five collections of poems with Carcanet Press, most recently Deformations in 2020. She won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2016 and in 2017 she was awarded a Cholmondeley Prize for Poetry. She is former editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and is poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge (2018-2021).

Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer and literary-critic-in-residence at Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including 3:AM, The Stinging Fly, Entropy, Marble, FILLER, Literární, and Snitch. It has also been translated to Czech. He is currently working on a first collection.