In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (New Directions, $19.95, translated by Sasha Dugdale) is a riff on the beloved and much-imitated literary genre created by Marcel Proust. It opens with the author at the tiny Moscow apartment of her recently deceased aunt, which is stuffed with a lifetime’s worth of tchotchkes. Immediately, Stepanova invites us inside the apartment, and into her own head, too, to examine her obsession: the search for her family’s stories.
The obsession started, she tells us, when she was a child and loved to pore over the mementos passed down through her Russian-Jewish family—photo albums, postcard collections, letters, boxes of humble objects: “prewar pebbles collected from Crimean beaches, an antediluvian baby’s rattle, grandfather’s drawing instruments.” But the bits and pieces from dead relatives did not add up to a coherent narrative. Stepanova, a poet and essayist, seeks the metaphysical: that is, memory. She tells us this directly, early on in her book, which she worked on for some 30 years: “This book about my family is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”
This book feels like a memoir, even though it is labeled “fiction,” roman in Russian, a term that to Europeans encompasses both fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps it’s easiest to put In Memory of Memory in the Proustian genre, and leave it at that.
Whatever genre she’s using, Stepanova takes the reader on a wild journey—“in search of lost time,” she quips—as her book proceeds back and forth through time, its narrative tied together by her mind’s free associating. In a room facing an old Jewish cemetery in Vienna, she ruminates on what memory means in the digital age,when a Google search instantly brings up images. A stay in Berlin conjures up the German artist Charlotte Salomon, murdered at 26 in Auschwitz. Stepanova returns to Salomon 100-plus pages later— but this time as literary critic, discussing at length Salomon’s well-known work Life? Or Theatre?, an amalgam of drawings, written text and music. This leads to a discussion of Jewishness, and suddenly we are reading about the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Soviet gulag. “It is Jewish identity… that defines how Mandelstam is seen from the very onset in the literary circles of the early twentieth century.”
In between chapters filled with these musings, Stepanova has sometimes placed verbatim letters handed down to her from her various family members. They function like hand-holds through her dreamy wanderings. Her family was— is—Jewish and educated; both her greatgrandmother and grandmother were doctors, and others were accountants and engineers. But they lived unremarkable lives, she keeps insisting.
Then she finds documents about her great-great-grandfather, Isaak Gurevitch. He was, she learns, an important man. He owned factories in Kherson, a town near Odessa. She travels there, filled with anticipation, and finds her family’s oncegrand house, along with a treasure-trove of documents in the town archives. She is able to establish that Isaak lost all his factories after the Revolution, but not what subsequently happened to him. Where did he go? When did he die? “There was nothing left to find here,” she writes mournfully. But I’m grateful that Stepanova invited me along on her journey. No memories, after all, are complete.
Alice Sparberg Alexiou, the author of three books, is a contributing editor at Lilith.