Explore the past of a Russian family and the meaning of history

In memory of memory. By Maria Stepanova. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. New directions; 400 pages; $ 19.95. Fitzcarraldo Publishing; £ 14.99

AHIS CHILD, Maria Stepanova loved a game called sekretiki, or “little secrets”. She would dig holes in the ground, line them with aluminum foil, fill them with special objects, cover them with glass, and bury them in the earth, which friends knew. Growing up to be one of Russia’s most famous contemporary poets, writing played a similar role in his life. “I’m starting to like someone or something, the information accumulates on its own, and I want to write about it, put this material in a warehouse, find its unexpected rhythms,” she explains. from Moscow. “I want to make a sekretik. “

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Ms. Stepanova’s deepest love is for the past, especially that of her own family, and her illuminating book “In Memory of Memory” is a sekretik dedicated to them. After inheriting the archives of photographs, letters and ephemera from her ancestors, she set out to make sense of the family’s history, traveling from Paris to Saratov on the Volga and browsing art, literature and philosophy. Fleeing the traditional quest story, she mixes memory, criticism, essay, documentary and travelogue. The book has won several literary awards in Russia; as you read it, thinks Yury Saprykin, the founder of Polka, a Russian literary site: “You immediately feel that you are encountering a great work of art.” In Sasha Dugdale’s flexible English translation, he is a candidate for this year’s International Booker Prize, which will be awarded on June 2.

The story of the author’s Russian Jewish family does not make the headlines. “Everyone else’s ancestors had participated in the story, but mine seemed to have been mere tenants in the house of the story,” writes Ms. Stepanova, admitting to “the embarrassment” of the banality of their life. His relatives played a role in the great tales of the twentieth century, bypassing its catastrophes. And the archive raises as many questions as it answers; her attempts to fill in the gaps leave her with only “the linguistic shift of the names of my aunts Sanya, Sonya, Soka, lots of photographs of the nameless and the nameless, ethereal and unattached anecdotes and the familiar faces of unknown people” .

In other hands, such material might fall flat. Ms. Stepanova’s learning and lyricism bring it to life. She hears stories about her great-grandmother Sarra that “taste like legendary bay leaf”. She sees hills “dark copper colored, rising and falling as even as the breath”, and blackened villages where new churches shine “white like new crowns on old teeth.”

Little escapes his meditative gaze. “I wanted to create a book with a lot of inputs and outputs,” Ms. Stepanova explains. She’s thinking about everything from vintage clothes to selfies, from French philosopher Jacques Rancière to American artist Joseph Cornell to Russian poet Grigory Dashevsky. In a particularly stimulating chapter, she brings Russian writers Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva into conversation with German author WG Sebald. She tests metaphors of memory and methods of animating archival material, weaving excerpts from letters from parents throughout the book. Some readers may choke on this allusive style, as if they were drinking from a dusty old glass. Many will find it intoxicating.

Speak, memory

The myriad of references to other thinkers serves one purpose: to place Russia back into the larger Western cultural fabric. According to Ms. Stepanova, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian culture was part of a shared dialogue and exchange of ideas. Her search for the traces of her great-grandmother leads her to Paris, where Sarra studied medicine in the 1910s, while Franz Kafka and Amedeo Modigliani roam the streets of the same city.

But from the end of the 1930s, an “invisible curtain” separated Russian culture from the West, says Stepanova, and the country became an “exporter of some kind of frontier experience.” His literature, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Varlam Shalamov, has come to be seen primarily as “confessional or reporting material”. By connecting writers on the other side of this curtain, she aims to refute the idea that the Russian experience is distinct and unique. A passage in which she visits a museum in New York evokes this feeling of connection. Upon stumbling upon an image of autumn woods, “I start to cry, very softly, in my breath, because it is the same Moscow wood where I walked with my parents once, thousands of kilometers ago, and we are now looking at it again. As Mr Saprykin says, the book “brings us back to the feeling that Russia is part of world culture.”

Struggles for memory, notes Stepanova, are not exclusive to Russia. In essays elsewhere, she reflected on past appeals to greatness that in 2014 fueled Russia’s war with Ukraine; his observations could equally well apply to the rhetoric of Trump-era America and Brexit Britain. “The virus has spread around the world,” she laments. (Her output is terrific. She is editor-in-chief of Colta.ru, an online cultural journal; a collection of her essays and verses was published this year under the title “The Voice Over”; another collection of poetry has appeared in English as “War of beasts and animals”.)

When the past is thus pursued, suggests Ms. Stepanova, it becomes an opportunity “to settle scores, for a kind of conversation about the present which for some reason cannot take place in real time.” This infiltration through time is the underlying theme of ‘In memory of memory’, says Stanislav Lvovsky, a Russian poet and critic: ‘This is not a story about history, but about how the past is perpetuated in the present. ”

These disparate battles over memory may be part of the same war, but in Russia they tend to rage at a higher rate. Her country, says Stepanova, has long had competing channels for memory: official state-approved narrative and family stories, which “like lace have more holes than threads.” Vladimir Putin has made a glorious version of the past, especially victory in World War II, a pillar of his statist ideology. Last week, in a meeting with senior officials, Mr. Putin said that “all kinds of Russophobic individuals and unscrupulous politicians are trying to attack Russian history.” He promised “to ensure the continuity of historical memory in Russian society, so that decades and centuries from now, future generations will cherish the truth about war.”

Ms Stepanova highlights the dissonance between these ways of thinking in a poignant chapter on the siege of Leningrad. One of his distant relatives perished in battle there, writing quaint letters until his death. She quotes Lydia Ginzburg, a critic who noted behind the Nazi blockade how the Soviet system “dehumanized the individual to such an extent that he had learned to sacrifice himself without even realizing it”.

In contrast, Ms. Stepanova gives individual life a sense independent of collective destiny. For her, writing “is always a rescue operation”. The relics of his family are safely kept in their sekretik.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “Secrets and lies”

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