Updated: Aug 3
Sunday, August 13, 2023, 3-4:30 pm, Pacific Time
Discussion questions contributed by Ellen Grant*
Maria Stepanova, In Memory of Memory, Trans. Sasha Dugdale, New York: New Directions, 2021, 400 pages.
Born in Moscow in 1972 and educated at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute, author Maria Stepanova has taken multiple top Russian prizes for her poetry and this novel while also maintaining a high profile as an independent journalist and editor. Her literary site Colta.ru is the first online media outlet in Russia to be financed entirely by crowd-sourcing.
In short-listing In Memory of Memory for the 2021 International Booker Prize, the judges wrote: "In its seamless fusion of history, memory, essay, meditation, literary criticism it creates its own indelible form, a new shape in the air. An act of truth-telling like no other." Prize-winning American novelist and Russian scholar Elif Batuman (The Idiot, 2018 Pulitzer Prize Finalist) describes In Memory of Memory as a “luminous, rigorous, and mesmerizing interrogation of the relationship between personal history, family history, and capital-H History."
On its surface a mash-up of musings about a cache of old photos found by the author in her dead aunt's apartment, In Memory of Memory carries a heavier philosophical freight than simply the history of a Jewish family in pre-revolutionary, Soviet, and post-Soviet times. Stepanova wrestles with no less a question than the ontology of the dead, those whose own memories depart at death. Their corporeal departure leaves their documents, photos, and other memorabilia bereft of their collector's consciousness. Consequently, the question arises for those who inherit or simply handle such objects: What do we owe the dead?"
Or, as a French journalist has suggested in a poll regarding the Second World War, what is the best word to describe our relationship to its legacy? Should it be: "oubli" (forgetting) or "justice" (justice)?
This confounding question is further complicated by Stepanova's awareness of the fictive elements that inevitably slip into even the best authenticated memories. Stepanova calls this melange of the real and the imagined "postmemory."
Translator Sasha Dugdale writes about In Memory of Memory, which appeared in English in 2021, that "the terrible and violent times we now live in" have made her think about Stepanova’s book in different ways since the invasion of Ukraine:
One of the major aims of "In Memory of Memory" was to re-establish the links between a Soviet family and the rest of the world, and to build back the cultural bloodlines and conjoined histories that had been so brutally severed by revolution, war and cold war. Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine follows the opposing mindset: it is justified by a vision of a pre-eminent empire, unimpeded by common human morality, and it isolates Russia from the world. In such circumstances Stepanova’s philosophy is much needed. I have found dipping into the book more recently a healing experience. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/09/25/in-memory-of-memory-a78869
Along these lines, Shmoozers who have been following our focus on Ukrainian writers and themes will want to read Maria Stepanova's own essay of outrage and despair on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, "The War of Putin's Imagination," in Financial Times. March 17, 2022 https://www.ft.com/content/c2797437-5d3f-466a-bc63-2a1725aa57a5. And, I urge you, don't miss the brilliant piece by her literary admirer and fellow novelist Elif Batuman, "Rereading Russian Classics in the Shadow of the Ukraine War," The New Yorker, January 23, 2023 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/01/30/rereading-russian-classics-in-the-shadow-of-the-ukraine-war.
Finally, if you have an hour to watch or just listen, there's this February 6, 2021 video pièce de résistance: "Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale discuss In Memory of Memory with Elif Batuman" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Osiur6G7uQY.
Shmoozers can thank Ellen Grant * for two sets of questions, one mundane but very helpful by Jacob Lassin for the Melikian Center Reading Group at Arizona State University:
1. How would you categorize this book? Is it a novel, collection of essays, literary documentary, or something different entirely?
2. Stepanova is best known as a poet, did you see anything in the book that stood out as particularly influenced by her poetic practice?
3. How did you read the book as a coherent whole?
4. Why do you think that she labels some sections as “not a chapter?” How does their inclusion break us from the main flow of the book? How do you think they should be understood and interpreted?
5. How did you find her digressions on different artists and writers? What did they add to your understanding of her family history?
A second set of questions for discussion that Ellen Grant composed after reading In Memory of Memory will delight those who love a deeper dive. I give you an outline below and am attaching a document with the details:
1. What do the following people add to Stepanova’s understanding of memory and the past, present and future? See the attached document for Ellen's notes on Stepanova's comments regarding what each of the following says.
Art Spiegelman (Maus), Goldchain, Andre Breton and Man Ray
Mandelstam, Tolstoy, Aksakov, Bagrov’s Grandson, Sebald,
2. Why are snippets of original text from various years described as “Not a Chapter” in the book?
3. Contrast Orhan Pamuk’s hüzün (FN 1) and Stepanova’s three types of memory (FN 2) with Judaic memory (FN 3). See footnotes below.
4. How important is historical context in understanding the writings and images left behind by ancestors?
5. Comment on Stepanova’s statement: "My relatives were there (a person is always there, in close proximity to the death of others and one’s own death), and it turns out I didn’t need to hear any of this from them. The knowledge lived within me."
6. Discuss the figure of the Dybbuk and the living’s relationship to the past.
7. What would you put in your sekretiki? Are there objects too precious to put into your sekretiki and you keep them with you during your lifetime?
1. Not like the European notions of melancholy, which arise from an awareness of the shortness of life. Rather, not directed at the future and the sense of life passing, but at what has already passed and yet still suffuses our daily lives the its soft glimmer.
2. Stepanova’s three types of memory: The memory of what is lost, inconsolable, melancholy, keeping tally of these losses while knowing that nothing can be done. The memory of what has been received: sated after-dinner memory, contented with one’s lot. The memory of what has never been (phantom memory)- seeding ghosts in place of the real.
3. Judaic memory - free from the need to commit everything in history to memory, free to choose the significant and essential, to cut away the inessential.
* Ellen Grant is a recent regular with the Yiddish Shmoozers (in Translation) and a longtime college friend of Yiddish Shmoozers co-hosts Haim Beliak and Gelya Frank. She was educated at Occidental College (A.B, Political Science/ Urban Studies) and Washington University Law School (J.D). Her diverse career has included TV news photographer (Seattle, Los Angeles), law practice (Seattle), and university teaching (The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA). She subsequently did a 25 year stint as an investment broker, culminating as Senior Vice President of Investments and Senior Portfolio Manager at Morgan Stanley in Seattle. She continues to pursue still photography and documentary film production and says that visual images are the thread that connects her with her past and pulls her into the future.
Ellen Grant, Discussion Questions for In Memory of Memory
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