Meditations on Memory

In Memory of Memory
By Maria Stepanova
510 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. £15.

It was the title that made me want to read this. “In Memory of Memory” is, after all, a title so full of beauty and longing that just reading it summons all sorts of wistful feelings. But as beautiful a title as it is, it doesn’t quite sum this book up.

“Meanderings on Memory,” perhaps? “Meditations on Memory”?

Shows and books on minimalism, tiny houses and van life are the current rage. This book is essentially the opposite of all that. An anti-minimalist novel, if it even is a novel, in both form and content.

As for form, coming in at 500 pages, “In Memory of Memory” is about two or three times longer than it ought to be. As for content, the entire “premise” rests on the author rifling through the many belongings in her deceased aunt’s home and basically riffing on them.

Coming from a family of serious hoarders, believe me when I tell you that Stepanova’s aunt is a legendary hoarder. A “better to just burn this place down than actually have to sort through all this garbage” kind of hoarder. But one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.

I often find that my head starts hurting if I’m in a particularly messy place. Intense disorganization kills me. My head hurt for a while reading this.

One thing leads to another, and the author is suddenly off on a 150-page digression over this postcard or that figurine that leads to her unearthing essentially her entire family tree — or at least, several generations of it, dating back to Czarist Russia.

I won’t lie to you and say I followed it all. There are so many family names thrown around, so many anecdotes about this or that uncle, with a few literary figures tossed in for good measure. What’s real and what’s fiction? It’s not always entirely clear, and that often seems to be exactly the point — the reliability of memory, and now, on page 103, I’m riveted, mesmerized by the beautiful language and the ruminations on the ways in which “postmemory treats the past as raw material, destined for editing” … mmm, “postmemory” … But then the thread is lost, and we’re off again talking about the stepfather of a friend or some other distant relation.

“In Memory of Memory” dipped in and out like this, my consciousness dipping in and out with it. The writing is always beautiful, flowing easily across the page so that my eyes just followed the lines at some points — not really taking in whether we were now talking about Lyonya or Lyolya or Lyodik or some other aunt or cousin, but just drifting along with the current of words, my mind occasionally reflecting back on this or that thing as I read, awash in my own memories, until a particularly poignant paragraph or phrase would make me pause in admiration.

If there were a book club built around the theme of “reading as meditation,” this would be the perfect pick. It’s a pleasant diversion, exercise for the eyes, even if the words never feel like they quite build up to a cohesive whole.

And, at 500 pages, “In Memory of Memory” feels too long without really feeling too long. By which I mean that, as for content, hundreds of pages could have been lopped off without it really feeling like anything was missing, and yet despite that I was never really tempted to stop reading and put it aside.

It’s a beautiful, incomprehensible thing, but only incomprehensible in the sense that it’s about as interesting as going down your own family tree — full of names that feel vaguely familiar but which mean nothing to you, and stories of people that are, frankly, not particularly interesting.

That’s assuming, of course, that, like me, you’re not particularly interested in people who lived before you were born simply because they lived before you were born, but because they lived somewhat fascinating lives.

Writing in as roundabout a way as I am, it may not surprise you to find that I’m still trying to grasp whether or not I even liked the book. Well yes, I liked it, but how much? It read to me like something a Russian W.G. Sebald may have written — and Sebald is obviously an inspiration — except that it’s far more meandering and unfocused.

Ironically, despite having finished it in this morning’s smaller hours, I already find my memory of “In Memory of Memory” to be dissipating … carried off on a breeze of Russian patronymics and musings on memories belonging not to the author, but to me.

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