Intentionally the memoir is meandering, digressive, cumulative, compendious – a mind moving around its wide world. Dugdale’s translation appears heroic, to this reader with no Russian, in its sustained careful attentiveness. One section, for instance, is composed of descriptions of a succession of photographs, where only some of the subjects are identified; in another section Stepanova discusses at length the self-portraits of Rembrandt, in another Alexei Tolstoy’s interest in the language of 17th-century confessions extracted under torture. I was becalmed sometimes in the sheer surplus of rumination and piling up of detail, and among so many different family members who remain foggily just out of imaginative reach.
Stepanova harbours no illusions about the feasibility of preserving the past. She likens it to a porcelain figurine she finds at a flea market – maimed like its brethren in the bin – who “seemed to embody the way no story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away”. After treasuring it like a talisman, one day the figurine falls out of her pocket and breaks into pieces.
“What had struggled to symbolize wholeness in my own and my family’s history had, in one fell swoop, become an allegory: the impossibility of telling these histories, the impossibility of saving anything at all, and my inability to gather myself up from the splinters of someone else’s past, or even to take it on as my own convincingly,” she writes.
There is an absence of the anecdotes that help to transubstantiate history into a living, breathing thing. Most of us have them — as Stepanova says, the 20th century “spread its cataclysms liberally around the globe”, and therefore “most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent”. But for her this comparative lack is the point. She resists the disinterment of past pain for our consumption. In Memory of Memory is instead a chronicle of quiet survivals of the “common fate”, and this too is a stand against the horrors of the age.