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In Memory of Memory
Cover of In Memory of Memory
In Memory of Memory
Borrow Borrow

An exploration of life at the margins of history from one of Russia's most exciting contemporary writers
Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize

With the death of her aunt, the narrator 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 Dipping into various forms—essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents—Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

An exploration of life at the margins of history from one of Russia's most exciting contemporary writers
Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize

With the death of her aunt, the narrator 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 Dipping into various forms—essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents—Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

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About the Author-
  • Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow in 1972, is a poet, essayist, and journalist, and editor in chief of the online newspaper Colta. In 2018, she was awarded the Bolshaya Kniga Award for In Memory of Memory.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 21, 2020
    Stepanova’s finely crafted debut follows a woman’s lifelong efforts to better understand her ancestors, Russian Jews whose stories fascinated her as a child growing up in the Soviet Union. The unnamed narrator enters archives, travels to the cities where her great-grandparents and grandparents lived, and scrutinizes their personal possessions. Family letters, postcards, and government documents are quoted throughout, and Stepanova seamlessly references the work of prominent Russian cultural figures—such as poet Osip Mandlestam—to fill in gaps in the narrative on the anti-Semitism she assumes her family faced. Impressively, the book also serves as a critical examination of the narrator’s attempt to construct a personal and cultural history, providing the reader a window into the narrator’s worries over doing justice to her family’s story: “Whether you like it or not, you are simply more visible than those who came before you,” Stepanova writes. Over the course of her research, the narrator comes to terms with the fact that her efforts won’t reveal the past to any great degree. While some of the critical digressions can feel gratuitous, such as a theoretically informed discussion of selfie photos, there are plenty of vivid anecdotes—like a great-grandmother who became a political prisoner in 1907. Stepanova’s admirable cross-genre project will intrigue fans of erudite autofiction.

  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2021
    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. She opens with Galya, an aunt whose relationship with her brother, Stepanova's father, was strained: "There was an uneasiness between the families and a history of perceived snubs." Galya nevertheless shared with her niece a constantly renovated series of collections, just this side of hoarding, as well as her favorite chocolates; on her death, a vast archive of notebooks, diaries, newspaper clippings, and other such documents that she had assembled to record "the oval shape of her life" and that remind Stepanova of "chain-link fencing" provide clues for Stepanova's investigations. Alone in Moscow after her parents immigrate to Germany, she attempts to make sense of her family and their stories, some of which emerge from her aunt's records, others from her own inquiries and travels. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a curator attempts to shut her down, but she will have none of it: "One of those books where the author travels around the world in search of his or her roots--there are plenty of those now," he says dismissively of her project. She answers, "Yes....And now there will be one more." 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, as when she writes, toward the end, "Sometimes it seems like it is only possible to love the past if you know it is definitely never going to return." A remarkable work of the imagination--and, yes, memory.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung In Memory of Memory is a multi-faceted essay rooted in doubt on the nature of remembering.
  • Kirkus (starred review) A brilliant evocation of the last years of the Soviet Union, extending deep into the past....A remarkable work of the imagination.
  • Publishers Weekly Stepanova's finely crafted debut follows a woman's lifelong efforts to better understand her ancestors, Russian Jews whose stories fascinated her as a child growing up in the Soviet Union...[an] admirable cross-genre project will intrigue fans of erudite autofiction.
  • John Williams;The New York Times 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.
  • Andrew McMillan 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.
  • Elif Batuman 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 American fan base on the order of the one she already enjoys in Russia.
  • Esther Kinsky 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.
  • Ilya Kaminsky 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.
  • Los Angeles Review of Books Stepanova has given new life to the skaz technique of telling a story through the scrambled speech of an unreliable narrator, using manic wordplay and what one critic called 'a carnival of images.'
  • Ali Hassani;BOMB Stepanova's fraught relationship with the tempting glut of the past takes this hybrid, unforgettable work far beyond the paradigm of the family memoir—just like memory itself, it exists in a state of limbo between the historical and the fantastical. In Memory of Memory is a stunning and ambitious reckoning with the fragility of memory, the Jewish imperative to remember, and the unbridgeable chasm separating us from our ancestors.
  • Jennifer Wilson;Poetry Foundation Russia's greatest living poet.... Stepanova lays bare the fallibility of memory, mocking, as she does in her poetry, the idea that anything certain can be built atop a vision of the past.
  • Linda Kinstler;LARB Oblivion is a kind of storage facility for exhausted histories. Inside its walls, Stepanova acts as collector and critic, and makes her temporary home.... As the title suggests, In Memory of Memory might be read as a eulogy for our obsession with the past, one of those rare works that narrates its own disillusionment with its subject. Stepanova embraces memory in order to eventually free herself from its suffocating...
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