In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)



Although In Memory of Memory is listed in Google under the genre of Biography, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions with a white cover (which means nonfiction, typically an essay), it has been longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. And that does not disappoint me nearly as much as Annie Ernaux’s book, The Years, which had been shortlisted for the prize in 2019. In fact, I was hooked on In Memory of Memory from the very beginning, in which the author describes her aunt’s diaries.

Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature…Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life has continuity and history, and (this is most important) that any point in your past is still within your reach.

“Exactly!,” I thought. Maria is getting exactly at what I have felt about all the journals I’ve kept since I was five years old and couldn’t spell Winnipeg when I went there with my grandmother. It didn’t stop me from recording our trip though, and I will never forget studying the Golden Boy so that I could write of him in my little leather book.

Written in the margins of my Midori, as weekly tasks, I will often find the words: Sort! Minimize! Purge! You would think I had learned my lesson when I threw away all the photo albums and letters my first husband wrote me, as if by throwing them away I could erase the subsequent pain at his death. Instead, all I did was erase those years of my life.

…far too often my working notes seem to me to be heaped deadweight: ballast I would dearly love to be rid of, but what would be left of me then?

Stepanova knows, what it has taken me many decades to learn, that what we have written down, what we have saved, what we collect is who we are; these things document our history.

She even hints at what Marie Kondo emphasizes, perhaps too heartily, that things ought to be gotten rid of if they no longer are useful or “spark joy.”

Paradise for the disappearing objects and everyday diversions of the past might simply exist in being remembered and mentioned.

Maria Stepanova says that she began writing this book when she was ten; the second time she started to write it, she was sixteen. She is the sort of person to whom I can so personally relate, the one who needs to record ‘ “selected impressions”: details, assemblage points, the turns (our) conversations took, the phrases (we) used.”

In Memory of Memory takes us through journals and photograph albums, visits to family homes, objects, and memories. In looking at Maria Stepanova’s memories, I am forced to look at mine, and perhaps the very inaccuracy of what we recall turns this book from nonfiction into literature. It certainly tells a story, at any rate, about “the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (It’s just magnificent!)

Here is an indication of the glory within these pages, just in Énard’s ability to write about a notebook alone:

”Michelangelo owns a notebook, a simple notebook he made himself: some leaves of paper folded in half, held together with a string, with a cover made of thick cardboard. It’s not a sketchbook, he doesn’t draw in it; nor does he note down the verses that come to him sometimes, or the drafts of his letters, even less his impressions of the days or the weather outside.

In this stained notebook, he records treasures. Endless accumulations of various objects, accounts, expenses, supplies: clothes, menus, words, simply words.

His notebook is his sea chest.” (p. 14)

Mathias Enard has written exactly how I feel about notebooks, what I have known to be true about them, but unable to articulate, since I was a child.

And then there’s this:

”You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvelous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them, and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety. Tell them about all of that, and they will love you; they will make you the equal of a god.” (p. 54)

I could keep writing quotes until the novel ends…