In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova

When my dad passed away in 2019, my sister, my mother, and I spent hours going through family photographs. We scanned a lot of them to share online with relatives. Others—the best ones, the ones that really captured who my dad was—were put on a memory board for the memorial service. The year before, in 2018, when my last surviving grandparent died, my mother and I traveled to Wisconsin to do something similar with the Latsch family photos. Both times, I quizzed my mother endlessly about who all these people were, what they were doing, what else she remembered about them. Sometimes she could answer and I got great stories about how my uncle annoyed my mother by playing “Cat Scratch Fever” on a loop or about driving the family Cadillac out onto the frozen lake or how my parents managed to meet each other in Rome, of all places. I’m still saddened by the loss of all the stories that went with my dad and my grandmother that we never managed to record. Maria Stepanova has some of the same feelings and questions as she goes through her sprawling family’s archive and belongings, recounted in In Memory of Memory (solidly translated by Sasha Dugdale), but Stepanova is far more intellectual than I’ve been in my thinking about family memories and trying to recreate lost pasts.

I think I would have appreciated In Memory of Memory a lot more if I had been better able to follow Stepanova’s jumble of thoughts. Like her aunt’s apartment in Moscow, everything reminds Stepanova of something else. Thinking about a family meal sends her off to think about Proust, which sends her to thinking about her male forbears’ experiences during World War II. Thinking about faded photographs leads Stepanova to think about high photographic art, which turns into a Salvador Dalí anecdote. There are many chapters that I just skimmed because I couldn’t make myself interested in meandering streams of consciousness about how we memorialize the dead or who owns the past.

The parts of this book that I enjoyed best are the parts where Stepanova actually talks about her family and when she shares what she’s learned about the past to recreate their milieux. Although she claims that her family is very uninteresting, I would rebut that my Latsch relatives are far more boring because they weren’t at least adjacent to big events in history the way the Stepanova’s ancestors were. Her family might not have experienced the lowest lows or highest highs of twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, but at least she had a great-grandmother who was arrested for distributing socialist leaflets in the first Bolshevik rebellions and a great-great-grandfather who lost his factory to the Communists only to have his name later given to a de-Soviet-ified street in Odessa. My ancestors from Germany sat out the Civil War in Canada, then came down to Wisconsin to farm. The episodes Stepanova relates and the letters she shares in In Memory of Memory are among the most detailed, most real expressions of actual life in the Soviet Union that I’ve ever read, even if they are fragmentary.

Readers who can appreciate Stepanova’s references to and musings about literature and art are probably the mostly likely to enjoy all of this book. Readers who want a big family history should look elsewhere for a less frustrating, more focused read. I was definitely in the latter group and, although I hate to fault a book for not being what I wanted it to be, I really wish that Stepanova would have realized that her prose would have been more effective by letting her actual journey through the family archive and her family tell their story. By intellectualizing so much, any subtext that I might have worked out for myself was obliterated by all the thousands of things Stepanova wanted to think about instead.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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