In Memory of Memory

Maria Stepanova


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Fitzcarraldo Editions
8 November 2023
ISBN: 9781804270585
510 pages

From the publisher

Translated by Sasha Dugdale

Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize | Longlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize | Shortlisted for the 2021 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation | Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Awards for Translated Literature | Longlisted for the 2022 Dublin Literary Award | Shortlisted for the 2022 James Tait Black Memorial Prize | Longlisted for the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize

With the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

‘Stepanova’s tour de force blends memoir, literary criticism, essay and fiction. Although this is a personal and intimate work using photographs, postcards and diaries, it succeeds in mining a universal theme in contemporary Russian cultural life: how does a family – or a country – process the events of the past 100 years?’ 
— Viv Groskop, Guardian

‘A brilliant evocation of the last years of the Soviet Union, extending deep into the past. In a work that crosses the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, Russian poet and journalist Stepanova recounts the lives of her ancestors, rural Russian Jews who, on moving to Moscow, could never quite go home again…. Apart from delivering a mine of family and national history, Stepanova exercises a well-honed sense of the apposite literary allusion (“The chimneys in the view from the window resembled flowerpots, Kafka said something similar about them”). Stretching from the days before Lenin took power to the “Doctor’s Plot” and the collapse of the USSR and beyond, Stepanova’s book is lyrical and philosophical throughout…. A remarkable work of the imagination – and, yes, memory.’
— Kirkus, starred review

‘This remarkable account of the author’s Russian-Jewish family expands into a reflection on the role of art and ethics in informing memory.… Stepanova is both sensitive and rigorous.’
— New Yorker

‘A daring combination of family history and roving cultural analysis … a kaleidoscopic, time-shuffling look at one family of Russian Jews throughout a fiercely eventful century.’ 
— John Williams, New York Times

‘Intentionally the memoir is meandering, digressive, cumulative, compendious – a mind moving around its wide world. Dugdale’s translation appears heroic, to this reader with no Russian, in its sustained careful attentiveness ... [S]o much of what Stepanova has saved for us is remarkable and rich with meaning.’
— Tessa Hadley, Guardian

‘Stepanova scrutinises the memorialising drive of writers and artists: Proust, Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell, WG Sebald, Charlotte Salomon – the book is, in part, a Jewish history. Yet she has a simultaneous regard for oblivion, for not recording, for the right to vanish definitively. Holocaust photographs, she argues, need protecting from their audiences. Her writing exists on an edge between an avid pursuit of the past and an acknowledgment of the eventual meaninglessness of memorialising. There is a sense that she might, at any point, be tempted into silence. She writes eloquently about modern technology’s influence on memory, about the wantonly comprehensive record digital photography makes possible – its images persisting into an unwanted immortality. By contrast, she salvages piercingly personal material, including letters from “Lyodik”, her grandfather’s cousin, killed in 1942 in the siege of Leningrad.... Stepanova is a powerhouse.’
— Kate Kellaway, Observer

‘[Stepanova] resists the disinterment of past pain for our consumption. In Memory of Memory is instead a chronicle of quiet survivals of the “common fate”, and this too is a stand against the horrors of the age.’ 
— Stephanie Sy-Quia, Financial Times

‘You can sense the decades of contemplation Ms. Stepanova has dedicated to these questions int he sparkle and density of her prose, which Sasha Dugdale has carried into English so naturally that it’s possible to forget you are reading a translation. This is an erudite, challenging book, but also fundamentally a humble one, as it recognises that a force works on even the most cherished family possessions that no amount of devotion can gainsay.’
— Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

‘An astounding collision of personal and cultural history.’
— Matt Janney, Guardian

‘Part fiction, part memoir, part travelogue, Stepanova’s book prompted by her sorting of documents and photographs left behind after the death of an elderly aunt is a passionate, thoughtful and deeply rewarding read with much to say on the story of Europe’s 20th century.’
— Charlie Connelly, The New European

‘Stepanova’s companionable prose balances high seriousness with self-ironizing deadpan humour. Without pretension, she erects her house of memory in the neighbourhood of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov and Sebald.’
— Rachel Polonksy, TLS

‘Some books are like museums. They offer an architecture but let you wander. Chapters, like gallery rooms, are adjacent and suggestive of order, but they read like a series of collections. in Memory of Memory is such a book, a repository of cultural artefacts, curated so that you will ask: how does memory inhabit these objects? ... Stepanova has written a book about her family that is not about her family, but about the urge to remember, to memorialise, and the dangers that lie that way.’
— Natasha Randall, New Statesman

‘A luminous, rigorous, and mesmerizing interrogation of the relationship between personal history, family history, and capital-H History. I couldn’t put it down; it felt sort of like watching a hypnotic YouTube unboxing-video of the gift-and-burden that is the twentieth century. In Memory of Memory has that trick of feeling both completely original and already classic, and I confidently expect this translation to bring Maria Stepanova a rabid fan base on the order of the one she already enjoys in Russia.’
— Elif Batuman, author of The Idiot

‘There is simply no book in contemporary Russian literature like In Memory of Memory. A microcosm all its own, it is an inimitable journey through a family history which, as the reader quickly realizes, becomes a much larger quest than yet another captivating family narrative. Why? Because it asks us if history can be examined at all, yes, but does so with incredible lyricism and fearlessness. Because Stepanova teaches us to find beauty where no one else sees it. Because Stepanova teaches us to show tenderness towards the tiny, awkward, missed details of our beautiful private lives. Because she shows us that in the end our hidden strangeness is what makes us human. This, I think, is what makes her a truly major European writer. I am especially grateful to Sasha Dugdale for her precise and flawless translation which makes this book such a joy to read in English. This is a voice to live with.’
— Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic

‘Dazzling erudition and deep empathy come together in Maria Stepanova’s profound engagement with the power and potential of memory, the mother of all muses. An exploration of the vast field between reminiscence and remembrance, In Memory of Memory is a poetic appraisal of the ways the stories of others are the fabric of our history.’
— Esther Kinsky, author of Grove

‘Extraordinary – a work of haunting power, grace and originality.’
— Philippe Sands, author of East West Street

‘The poet Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, beautifully translated by Sasha Dugdale, is a deeply intelligent quest for the significance of minutiae that survive while grand narratives of history sweep over them. It makes for powerful and magical reading, reminiscent of Nabokov’s Speak Memory. Time and again the sheer richness of the task sustains us and drives us on. This is a wholly marvellous book that extends our knowledge of all that is valued and lost.’
— George Szirtes, author of The Photographer at Sixteen

‘A book to plunge into. “Everyone else’s ancestors had taken part in history,” writes Stepanova; building itself via accumulation, these chapters become an important testimony to the cultural and political lives of the people held beneath the surface of the tides of history.’
— Andrew McMillan, author of Playtime

‘It is a triumph: an intimate, lyrical, gently learned, blend of research, reminiscence and reflection, flecked with recreations of people and events that dance on the brink of fiction. Translated with tenderness and eloquence by Sasha Dugdale, this is a wise, beautiful but warmly companionable memoir-cum-history. It honours both the ghosts who inhabit it, and the literary art of memory itself.’
— Boyd Tonkin, Arts Desk