IN MEMORY OF MEMORY, a novel by Maria Stepanova, reviewed by Sylwia Jurkowski

Organized chaos … or chaos that becomes slightly organized while the rest of it remains unbound. Surrealism’s allowance of the mind to wander into the illogical, to bathe in it, only to find the clear, unmistakable logic within. Let’s take the most basic definition of the word “memory” from Merriam-Webster, “the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms” and completely annihilate it. For memory is not simply retaining information as one may believe; it diverges into multiple ideas presented by Maria Stepanova in Sasha Dugdale’s translation of her book In Memory of Memory.

Have we ever wondered about the memories of our ancestors? Or more simply, our great-grandparents’ or grandparents’ memories? Did we ever ask them to divest their emotions, experiences, stories of their youth? There is a fairly good chance that most of us will answer “no.” What happens then when we do not have these oral memories of a time before us? We replace them with our own; we rework our knowledge of that person, that time and place, and erode their story, placing memories we do not have onto them. But what if we go the noble route and say/believe/think we are trying to retain them, make them known to the younger generation, essentially, making sure they survive. Stepanova’s central character is the great-granddaughter and granddaughter of Russian Jews who survived the World Wars. In those times the tale of the unfairness of life sung for over thirty years and carries on towards the Soviet era. Deaths were at times inconceivable; could we ever have imagined little boys and girls, at the cusp of their lives, be cut short merely for being (or not! as even the Jewish atheists were rounded up) a part of a thousand-year-old religion?

In turn, Stepanova’s novel (or could we even call it that?) is an unusual piece of fiction that seamlessly dives into the realm of nonfiction. Stepanova presents this as a “novel,” but honestly it feels like reading an essay, we never know what is imaginary, we keep guessing, but with every single page we turn, we could only feel the “novel’s” words breathe and read as if it is nonfiction: “It is hard to say what actually happened, but rather: was it passed down from mother to daughter, or simply a product of my imagination, invented without me realizing?”

A memory could also be a “document” and a “monument,” one simply desires to tell the facts, while the other, for instance, a quilt that once belonged to someone else, preserves the memory, from object to being. The descriptions of the photographs early on in the novel resonate with emotions of regret, loneliness, sorrow, and a fleeting glimpse of happiness—the old black and white world, lost, its shoreline forever uncrossable. For instance, in eighth photographic description: “… the eyes are the first thing you notice in an old picture: they seem lost because their gaze is searching for a person who is no longer there, a person who once recognized them …”

These photographs, as well as others from those times that have survived, could then be thought of as memory “monuments,” for the people within have chosen to become immortal, preserved through time. And what of photography nowadays? In modern times, social media has become a pillar in our daily lives, so much so that some humans cannot and will not live without it; to them it is unimaginable. Stepanova brings forth the idea that in the past, prior to photography, in the days of portraiture, “… immortality was a matter of choice …” a single portrait is enough to encompass our being.

Photography could therefore be thought of as a forced immortality, and it has now become a luxury to disappear, to vanish within the endless sea of humanity.

Displacement and the silencing of memories weave themselves into our thoughts in the Francesca Woodman chapters/non-chapters of the “novel.” Woodman’s photographs of the female body under the male gaze could best be described in one word, haunting. A chronicle of disappearance where our bodies and the objects that surround them become a collective—“bodies of the past.” In other words, the objects within the photos are us, and we, in turn, are the objects. We are all composed of matter—disappearing and reappearing oblivion. By this reasoning, humans, as well as objects, have memories, and what if we make a poem about those memories, does the poem become a memory? We turn to the ekphrastic, specifically Candice Wuehle’s poetry of Woodman’s photos found in Death Industrial Complex, where it becomes a maze to identify which ekphrastic description fits which photo.

What is time if not a burden, what is one’s family’s past if not a slow but sure disintegration. In the realm known as post-memory, otherwise known as generational trauma, placed on the second, third, possibly fourth generation of the survivors from the two World Wars. Those Wars present a great, big, black hole that trounces all memories, past, present, and future. Reality becomes this sole event; its great blackness tears away all other instances in life towards insignificance. Post-memory then is neither a “document” nor a “monument”; it is the deliberate trans-generational passing of traumatic experiences and knowledge, and there are those who are not worthy to speak it (the elders cut out these people). This black hole of the past becomes the key to the present, and the survivors ensure it is never forgotten.

Traumatic experiences include torture, a subject which Stepanova references with Alexei Tolstoy’s writing influences of seventeenth century confessional tortures. The future reader is able to immaculately feel and see the language of pain. These words did not want to live; they never wanted to be spoken, as they were brought forth when speech was on the brink of collapsing. Memory lies with language, the latter exists, its voice sung from our mouths until the chambers come to view, the people pile in, the gas releases and in seconds all that could be heard are scratching screams, words crumbling to guttural sounds … to haunting silence.

Postscript—Quite frankly it feels as though the “novel” is one great big rabbit hole, except that the hole has tunnels that are interconnected and could go on for miles: “I” becomes the collective “us”; the dead cannot defend themselves; the “old” world and the “new” world; preservation; wanting to be found or wanting to be lost; the never-ending search for lost time: “… Nothing ever comes to an end …”

In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. New York, New York: New Directions, February 2021. 400 pages. $19.95, paper.

Sylwia Jurkowski is an American-Polish graduate student of English Literature at Northeastern Illinois University. For her undergraduate career she studied in her ancestral homeland, Poland, where she received her BBA from the University of Wrocław, a city of beauty near an ancient river. At present her work dives into the abstract realm of memory and lyricism. When she’s not getting lost in European cities or lazing the day away at coffee shops, she lives in Chicago, Illinois, and quite honestly could be found walking her dog along the lakeshore, imagining her dreams.

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