cover image In Memory of Memory

In Memory of Memory

Maria Stepanova, trans. from the Russian by Sasha Dugsdale. New Directions, $19.95 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2883-1

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. (Feb.)