The hybrid book that Ms. Stepanova has finally produced presents gleanings from her family archives alongside the labyrinthine narrative of her 'search for the past,' which she concedes is incomplete and in many ways unsuccessful. And amidst the personal artifacts are essay-like meditations on the tensions that inhere within any act of remembrance. The result is a rich, digressive, deeply introspective work ... 'There is too much past, and everyone knows it,' she writes at a moment of sharpened despair. The surplus means that memories are necessarily invidious and sorted into two sets, 'the interesting and the less interesting,' those 'fit for retelling and those . . . only fit for oblivion.' A fanatical, itemizing approach to history can help overcome prejudice, but even the most straightforward documentary material becomes distorted across time ... You can sense the decades of contemplation Ms. Stepanova has dedicated to these questions in the sparkle and density of her prose, which Sasha Dugdale has carried into English so naturally that it’s possible to forget you are reading a translation. This is an erudite, challenging book, but also fundamentally a humble one, as it recognizes that a force works on even the most cherished family possessions that no amount of devotion can gainsay.
Stepanova’s own occasional descriptions of her project in this book give an accurate sense of both her methods and her style, so she might be the best guide as to whether this daring combination of family history and roving cultural analysis is your kind of thing ... Stepanova reprints correspondence between relatives from throughout the century, which provides some of the most charming and poignant moments. If you appreciate sifting through boxes of anonymous photos at an antiques store — that spur to emotional imagination — then at least some of In Memory of Memory will scratch an itch ... Stepanova is a wonderful describer of photographs, which makes it even more frustrating that only one is included in the book ... Some of these chapters are quite good and feel on point...Others read as if lifted from germane exhibition catalogs. Still others — most notably a chapter about Rembrandt’s self-portraits and modern selfies — feel unnecessary ... Stepanova is a highly acclaimed poet in her home country. Books of prose by poets can sometimes be notably pared down and crystalline. Not this one. There are certainly efficient, lovely phrases throughout, elegantly translated by Sasha Dugdale ... But in all there is a kind of manic inclusion at play. Stepanova declines to leave any possible follow-up thought unfollowed ... One’s tolerance for discursion will be tested here. Over the course of a few pages, Stepanova alludes to Odysseus, Orpheus, Medusa, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and Nabokov ... There is a lot to admire in this book; and there is a lot of this padded quest-reflection as well ... This book’s stubborn capaciousness ensures that it is not a ride for everyone. Yet any readers with a deep yearning to know more about the family who came before them will appreciate its fundamental curiosity and empathy. At its core, there is a powerful note, struck time and again, about the fleeting, mysterious nature of all lives.
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 ... 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 ... 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.