PRINT December 2021



Photo: Brian J. Green.

In Memory of Memory (New Directions) begins with a disappearance. Aunt Galya is dead and has left a sea of bric-a-brac behind in her cave-like apartment. The objects are priceless or worthless, probably both: newspaper clippings, horoscopes, tchotchkes, postcards, photographs, diary entries. “Got home around 12. Wanted to watch Columbo. Took my hypertension pill.” That kind of thing. This heaping pile of life detritus, what it reveals and, maybe more crucially, what it obscures, is the point of departure for Maria Stepanova’s breathtaking zigzag meditation on memory. Though the story of her family of Russian Jews over the past century forms the spine of this baggy book, most of its pages are filled with meandering detours into topics such as Rembrandt’s self-portraits and the curious craze for painted porcelain dolls in nineteenth-century Germany. Janet Malcolm, W. G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag make cameos, too. (Marcel Proust, with twenty mentions, is a regular part of the cast.) This book is indulgent—how many times did I think, How did she get away with that?—but Stepanova, a beloved poet and essayist in her native Russia, is a generous narrator, making it a pleasure to accompany her on her extravagant divagations. A sort of lay historiography, In Memory of Memory is among other things a sprawling investigation into the ways meaning and narrative are generated, and by whom. History’s lacunae, its gaps and omissions, are of special interest. “The past lies before us, like a huge planet waiting to be colonized,” reads one of dozens of lines I’ve underlined and returned to again and again. I read the book episodically over the past pandemic year, a time when it seemed only natural to look backward because the future looked so . . . unpromising. Like Emmanuel Carrère with his hard-to-categorize books, Stepanova makes her art look easy. It most definitely is not. Only as I sat down to write this little ode did I notice the book has a subtitle: “A Romance.” It’s true, it does chronicle a sort of love affair with memory. Of course it ends with a broken heart!

Negar Azimi is a writer and the editor in chief of Bidoun.