Everything Rhymes: In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

When Maria Stepanova was fifteen, her mother showed her a small lace purse which had belonged to her grandmother Lyolya and which contained an old, small piece of paper “beginning to tear at the folds”; on the paper was written a single name: Victor Pavlovish Nelidov. The name was a mystery to her mother, and it remained one to Maria despite her searching; and a mystery it remains – as far as the reader of In Memory of Memory knows – to this day. The purse, the folded piece of paper, and the ‘invisible Nelidov’ are a potent symbol of the hopeless yet meaning-rich search which has clearly obsessed Stepanova for years and to which this book is an outstanding testament.  

I have had no success, only the feeling of walking into yet another empty green field and realizing once again that the absence of an answer was the answer, and that upset me, I just had to get over it. As soon as I appeared, the past immediately declined to make anything useful of itself, or to weave itself into a narrative of seeking and finding, of breakthroughs and revelations. 

This lack of success is localised though. On the wider scale Stepanova’s investigations in this work, which has been described (not completely satisfactorily) as a ‘documentary novel’, do bear fruit and the author’s family becomes, to use the hackneyed phrase, a lens through which we view the past; in this case, early to mid- twentieth century, Russian-European, Jewish history. But it is the sense of reaching out into an eternity of darkness, and the compulsion towards narrative (Graham Swift once offered a definition of the human as ‘a story-telling animal’) which pervade the book. It is not actually about the past at all, in fact, but about how far the past is to be found in the present; in family stories, diaries, photographs, letters, postcards, places (e.g. Pochinky, Odessa, Paris), objects (e.g. the tiny white figurine which Stepanova calls her aleph, and which I shall come back to), and in an ongoing engagement with writers and artists such as Marina Tsvetaeva, W.G. Sebald, Charlotte Salomon and Francesca Woodman, among many others.  

There is much to be learned, therefore, in the sense of ‘objects to be found’, but what sense is to be made of the past? Narrative is the search for order, but this proves elusive; instead, Stepanova reaches out for a different kind of sense, one which begins to explain why her prose cannot be completely separated from her poetry (her first full English language collection War of the Beasts and the Animals is forthcoming from Bloodaxe). At one point, Stepanova quotes Karl Krauss, “‘Immer passt alles zu allem’ (‘Everything fits with everything else’)” which she then refines in Tsvetaeva’s words to: “Everything rhymes”. So, we do not find stories in the past, but rhymes in memory. 

There is no escaping the Proustian comparisons with aspects of Stepanova’s project, the title itself nods towards them, at least in Sasha Dugdale’s translation of it (Memory as both a ‘search’ and as ‘lost time’), but the ‘invisible Nelidov’ is evidence of how we are denied the satisfaction of a ‘madeleine moment’, and the writer/narrator is denied that easy, sense-triggered slide into clarity and focus. For Stepanova, making sense of memory (perhaps we could call it the search for lost rhyme) is deliberate, difficult, and frustrating. Towards the end of the book, Stepanova visits an overgrown Jewish cemetery in Kherson, one of her family’s ancestral towns, to look for the graves of relatives, and she finds herself fighting through the brambles between the tombstones with increasing fury before giving up. 

The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery. 

There is a layering here: the past is a dangerous place to wander, somewhere the unwary, careless traveller might get lost or worse; but it is also a dangerous animal guarding and protecting those who are dead from those who are living. There is certainly a sense, here and elsewhere, that the dead are in need of such protection because of the need the living feel to take possession of the past for their own purposes. Stepanova notes at one point “This was all about her (Stepanova) and not about them (her ancestors)”, and at another she confesses to being “horrified and offended” at her father for not allowing her to quote from his letters in her book. Her ruminations on her father’s refusal are a good example, not only of Stepanova’s remarkable self-awareness and clarity of thought, but also of her ‘poet’s sense’ for metaphor which runs through and enhances the book. Considering her evolving relationship with her father’s letters, she says 

Without being aware of it, I had internalized the logic of ownership. Not in the sense of a tyrant, lording it over his hundreds of enslaved peasants, but perhaps like the tyrant’s enlightened neighbour, with a landscaped park and a theatre in which his serfs acted and sang.

And with this understanding of the power the present has over the past, we also come to realise our ancestors’ inherent vulnerability (“The dead have no rights”), because whether the tyrant is enlightened or not is entirely a question for the living. What comes through Stepanova’s problematising of history and cultural memory most clearly is that they are both open to abuse. So the writer/narrator’s difficult (and ultimately incomplete) attempts to find a path through her own family’s past are a symbol of the enormous job of work which needs to be done at the individual level if the ‘official’ version of history (i.e. at a national, state level) is to be prevented from picking and choosing what is included and excluded from cultural memory for its own political ends. And with the Holocaust at the centre of twentieth century Jewish history, and global politics veering to the right, the stakes could not be higher. 

That Stepanova at times finds her search for sense exhausting is clear. On the train to Paris from London to look for clues to her great-grandmother Sarra’s time in 1912 as a student at the Sorbonne, she reflects: 

Looking out of the window, I thought how terribly tired I was of family. I couldn’t look away from it, I saw nothing else. Like the wrought iron fence of the Summer Gardens, I couldn’t see beyond the captivating design and into the space within. Every past and present phenomenon had been tied to my indistinct relatives, I had rhymed it all, emphasised the simultaneity between them and me, or the lack of it. I’d had to learn to put off my own relations with the world for later, just as truffle pigs are trained to ensure they don’t eat their precious findings.

It’s worth taking a moment to step back and notice how carefully chosen, and astounding, that word ‘simultaneity’is. It is easy to bunny-hop over individual words in novels – even documentary novels – but Stepanova is a poet, as is her translator Sasha Dugdale, and I feel both have brought their powers of poetic focus to bear throughout In Memory of Memory

What is so exhausting for Stepanova is the Tsvetaevan ‘rhyming’ of ‘it all’, the emphasising of simultaneity, or its absence, between her ancestors and herself, which at this point has become less clarifying than obscuring of her view on the past. Her almost desperate search is not only for ‘likeness’ or some vague sense of ‘connection’, but for the actual ‘simultaneity’ of bringing together temporally separate lives, through the study of places and objects and language, into concurrent existence – and it is a relativistic impossibility. But her struggle is important, and as an individual person locating meaning in individual objects she ascribes a value to them which is both outside any commodity value and which works in resistance to hegemonic ‘big’ history.  

One of the ways that Stepanova find symbolic simultaneity is through her focus on the small china figurines, apparently used for packaging in Germany in the late 1800s, one of which she carries with her and calls “the aleph of (her) story”. By attaching this word, which represents both the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets among others, and the Hebrew number one, and by attaching it to these tiny, broken (seemingly worthless) figurines, Stepanova is utilising its mystic associations with primoridial oneness – the number which contains all other numbers – and by extension its symbolic bringing together of all things in one point in space and time (as Borges used it in his short story of the same name). It is interesting to note that the the aleph also represents a glottal stop or hiatus in modern Israeli Hebrew speech, thus perhaps also representing a pause, or silence – a rest – for Stepanova in her ongoing search for meaning in her family’s past. 

The china alephs are transfigured later in the book as ‘frozen Charlottes’, the small porcelain dolls also originating in Germany but named gruesomely in the US after a supposedly true story of an unfortunate girl who froze to death on the way to a ball. The frozen Charlottes themselves become an echo of Stepanova’s fascinating rumination on the life and work of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who left her entire oeuvre of autobiographical and quite unique art in the hands of her friend, a local doctor in Nice, before being arrested by the Gestapo and murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The vocal hiatus of the aleph perhaps also returns here as a catch in the throat, an inability to speak and a silence that cannot be filled. Everything rhymes. 

There is another reason that the little broken dolls are important as objects, and that is in the extent to which, imperfect and injured as they are, they are survivors. Stepanova expands Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory beyond the families of those who lived through the Holocaust, saying  

Because twentieth century history spread its cataclysms liberally around the globe, most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent, the result of some traumatic shift, its victims and the bearers of its legacy, people with something to remember and to call back to life at the expense of their own today. 

And she goes further  

Each of us is in fact a witness to and participant of a lasting catastrophe..

As she thinks her way down her chosen route, as so often in this book teasing meaning from her metaphor, we all become not only survivors but refugees, and the past becomes the suitcase we carry with us “in which the dearest items of a life have been lovingly packed away”. The past, then, is not something we are travelling away from, but something we are forever carrying with us, until we ourselves become the past and our descendants carry us. 

This idea of carrying a small selection of “the dearest items” is at the centre of Stepanova’s project because it represents the need to make choices. Some objects, some people, are selected, others are not – or as she puts it “those who are fit for retelling, and those who are only fit for oblivion”. Here we see why cemeteries are so important on her journeys; it is not because they bring her closer to the dead, but because they are democratic, and inclusive:  

A cemetery doesn’t make that choice: it attempts to remember everyone.  

It is mildly frustrating that no family trees and only one photograph accompany this deep dive into a family filled with so many intriguing and striking characters. But it is clear why Stepanova has chosen not to include such visual aids. It comes back to inclusion. Portraits should, she says 

…draw together and condense everything that makes you what you are now and will become, your past and future, and to sort all this into a fixed shape that is no longer subject to the laws of time. 

There is, again, an echo of the aleph here. But there is always something left out of a portrait, whether endlessly repeated like a selfie, or brilliantly executed with “a disrespect for borders” like a Rembrandt – Stepanova turns to Foucault on this, who, she reports, observes that “a person is imprisoned and limited by the parameters that describe her borders and leave the centre untouched”. The problem is what the portrait cannot reach. 

So, can language reach the untouched centre and represent the full lives lived by Galya, Sarra, Lyodik, Lyolya, Misha and all the others? This is what history so often tries to persuade us is possible, that we can know, that we can see and make sense of the past. But Stepanova’s journey into cultural memory tells a different, more complicated story: “Nothing ever comes to an end” she remarks, before finishing (if not ending) on a note of almost Wittgensteinian acceptance, as she ponders once again the flawed, dented frozen Charlottes:  

… representatives of the population of survivors; they seem like family to me – and the less I can say about them, the closer they come.  

Stepanova has rightly been compared to W.G. Sebald in her quietly serious and unsentimental dealings with memory and history, but the writer who came most often to my mind while reading In Memory of Memory was Olga Tokarczuk, whose Flights is further to the ‘novel’ end of what Stepanova has called the “documentary novel spectrum”, but whose narrator is similarly blurred with the main protagonist, I think, and whose search (which also draws inspiration from objects, or curiosities, though with a more fleshly, corporeal theme) also takes her on a journey around the spatial and temporal worlds. The two writers share another similarity in that there are sections of their narratives which feel almost like they occupy some indefinable ground between the prose paragraph and the prose poem. Many of the effects of their prose in English may be down to skillful translations from the Russian and Polish; but in Stepanova there are lists which almost seem like poems, there is a chapter of numbered descriptions of photographs, and there is a chapter in which each short section is labelled ‘obverse’ or ‘reverse’, as though a coin is spinning though the air in slow motion; and Tokarczuk focuses her writing intensely at some moments to similar effect. But above these resemblances, I mention Tokarczuk by way of finishing this review only really to make the point that as a Nobel Prize winner, she and Maria Stepanova are in the same literary class. 

You can buy In Memory of Memory here (from 17th February 2021)

You can buy Flights here.

You can buy War of the Beasts and the Animals here (from 25th March 2021)

Interview with Maria Stepanova, Punctured Lines, Feb 2021.

Interview with Maria Stepanova, LARB, June 2017

Article by Sasha Dugdale on translating In Memory of Memory, KLN, Sept 2020

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