In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova

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There is something hypnotically contemporary about In Memory of Memory which is hard to pin down.  And in that regard it is the most unexpected of page turners, the urgency it imposes on its readers not being fueled by plot – which you could argue, it has none— but by a sense of impending revelation.  Stepanova writes about herself, about her family history, about History, about selfies and our relationships to them, about literature and cultural artifacts, and by doing that,  she seems to be deciphering the code of what it means to be alive today; uncovering clues of our cultural landscape and the internal narrative that shapes our notion of self.

Chapter one opens with the death of Aunt Galya, a woman who “lived her life in the pursuit of beauty: this dream of rearranging her possessions into a definitive order (…)”  As we progress through the pages, the book unfolds in a succession of family photos and letters interspersed with visits to abandoned houses, god-forsaken towns, deserted cemeteries and museums, following the narrator’s search for more data to write a book reconstructing her family history.

We witness her efforts to classify and describe these materials like a 19th century anthropologist while in parallel, we get to watch her own incredibly lucid and desperate attempts to make sense of her quest.

The lines between fiction and memoir are ostentatiously blurred, a radical gesture that is almost histrionic in its resolve. This could lead us to place the book safely within the category of auto-fiction. But she pushes it further. As she picks up each of the objects she has surrounded herself with and scrutinizes them, she is also reflecting on the inner workings of narrative, the underlying principles of what makes us assign (create?) meaning and how we are shaped by this inevitable exercise.

It is in this sense that the text could be perceived as transcending the recently ubiquitous category of auto-fiction and sliding into the far more disquieting one of meta-fiction, in all its problematic extent: not just as a text that refers to itself but as a narrative that is reflecting on the very mechanisms of narrative.

What is the “hook” then, in this seemingly diffuse story without a plot and a tendency to stray into theoretical speculation? What gives it such a commanding voice and its undeniable gripping quality?

Never in the history of mankind have we produced more information about ourselves in the form of images, text and even quantitative data by the mere fact of interacting with the world today. This unstoppable and unprecedented dispersion of “biographic” information yields a broken mirror reflection of ourselves.

Perhaps it is the very impulse to collect mementos, to organize them into a coherent body of knowledge, to explain them and make them tangible, what feels so deeply contemporary.

With this profusion of self-referential materials comes the need to assemble them in a way that makes sense, a sense that we can live with, an “illusion of possession”. Could it be that this profoundly current and unavoidable experience of fragmentation and post-modern angst is what makes Stepanova’s drive obscurely relatable?

Are we all unsuspectingly being haunted by these multiplying images of ourselves that silently but furiously demand meaning? These ideas are not new. The list of cultural references that aptly inform Stepanova’s text include Walter Benjamin, Borges, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault to name a few. However, she manages to take these concepts and imbue them with a renewed sense of relevancy and gravity: Aunt Galya’s pursuit of a “definitive order” becomes a potential interpretative framework for experience in our contemporaneity.


The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, Yury Tynyanov