Tuesday, July 13, 2021

In Memory of Memory

  In Memory of Memory
Author:  Maria Stepanova (author). Sasha Dugdale (translator).
Publication Information:  New Directions. 2021. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0811228835 / 978-0811228831

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Aunt Galya, my father's sister, died."

Favorite Quote:  "Memory is handed down, history is written down; memory is concerned with justice, history with preciseness; memory moralizes, history tallies up and corrects; memory is personal, history dreams of objectivity; memory is based not on knowledge, but on experience:  compassion with, sympathy for a desperate pain demanding immediate involvement. At the same time the landscape of memory is strewn with projections, fantasies and misrepresentations - the ghosts of today, with their faces turned to the past."

This fictional story sounds more like a memoir. More than a narrative anchored to time and place, it is a philosophical exploration of memory and what it means. The first person narration certainly lends to that image. "I always knew I would someday write a book about my family, and there were even periods when this seemed to be my life purpose (summarizing lives, collecting them into one narrative) because it was simply the case that I was the first and only person in the family who had a reason to speak facing outwards, person out from intimate family conversation as if from under a fur cap, and addressing the railway station concourse of collective experience."

The premise of the book is that upon the death of her aunt, the narrator becomes custodian of all the minutiae and memorabilia of Aunt Galya's life. Considering Galya was a hoarder, this amounts to a lot of stuff - some garbage, some precious treasures, and everything in between. The narrative proceeds not in a chronological order, but rather an exploration of memories triggered by a letter, a photograph, or another such object. For the narrator, however, many of the memories triggered are not her own memories of the events but rather stories told others about the events. In other words, it is a memory of a memory. "In place of a memory I did not have, of an event I did not witness, my memory worked over someone else's story, it rehydrated the driest little note and made of it a pop-up cherry orchard."

Many times during the book, I find myself lost as to time, place, and even people. The connecting theme of the book is not a linear plot or perhaps really even a plot at all. The history of the Russian Jewish ancestry of the narrator is reflected in the memories depicted, but the focal point is not that history but the memory itself. The connecting theme is the concept of how an individual's thoughts and memories go from topic to topic and idea to idea. To the individual, the flow and connection is there. To anyone else, that connection may not exist at all. After a while, I stop trying to make the connections and just go with the flow of the writing and reflect on the conceptual treatise about memory.

At the end of it all, this books feels like watching a kaleidoscope of images, which sometimes come together to form a larger image and sometimes remain scattered. The colors and patterns are lovely but ever-changing. In many ways, I suppose that is the intent. As a reader, the individual images are beautiful, but I am left wanting a context and an understanding to put those images into context.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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