Friday 23 April 2021


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In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The past gets bigger every day, he realised, every day the past gets a day bigger, but the present never gets any bigger, if it has a size at all it stays the same size, every day the present is more overwhelmed by the past, every moment in fact the present more overwhelmed by the past. Perhaps that should be longer rather than bigger, he thought, same difference, he thought, not making sense but you know what I mean, he thought, the present has no duration but the duration of the past swells with every moment, pushing at us, pushing us forward. Anything that exists is opposed by the fact of its existing to anything that might take its existence away, he wrote, the past is determined to go on existing but it can only do this by hijacking the present, he wrote, by casting itself forward and co-opting the present, or trying to, by clutching at us with objects or images or associations or impressions or with what we could call stories, wordstuff, whatever, harpooning us who live only in the present with what we might call memory, the desperation, so to call it, of that which no longer exists except to whatever degree it attaches itself to us now, the desperation to be remembered, to persist, even long after it has gone. Memory is not something we achieve, he wrote, memory is something that is achieved upon us by the past, by something desperate to exist and go on existing, by something carrying us onwards, if there is such a thing as onwards, something long gone, dead moments, ghosts preserving their agency through objects, images, words, impressions, associations, all that, he wrote, coming to the end of his thought. This book, he thought, Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, is not really about memory at all in the way we usually understand it, it is not about the way an author might go around recalling experiences she had at some previous point in her life, this book is about the way the past forces itself upon us, the way the past forces itself upon us particularly along the channels of family, of ancestry, of blood, so to call it, pushing us before it in such as way that we cannot say if our participation in this process is in accordance with our will or against it, the distinction in any case makes no sense, he thought, there is only the imperative of all particulars not so much to go on existing, despite what I said earlier, though this is certainly the effect, as to oppose, by the very fact of their particularity, any circumstance that would take that existence away. Everything opposes its own extinction, he thought, even me. That again. But the past is vulnerable, too, which is why memory is desperate, a clutching, the past depends upon us to bear its particularity, and we have become adept at fending it off, at replacing it with the stories we tell ourselves about it. The stories we tell about the past are the way we keep the past at bay, the way we keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by this swelling urgent unrelenting past. “There is too much past, and everyone knows it,” writes Stepanova, “The excess oppresses, the force of the surge crashes against the bulwark of any amount of consciousness, it is beyond control and beyond description. So it is driven between banks, simplified, straightened out, chased still-living into the channels of narrative.” When Stepanova’s aunt dies she inherits an apartment full of objects, photographs, letters, journals, documents, and she sets about defusing the awkwardness of this archive’s demands upon her through the application of the tool with which she has proficiency, her writing. Although she writes the stories of her various ancestors and of her various ancestors’ various descendants, she is aware that “this book about my family is not about my family at all, but about something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.” Stepanova’s family is unremarkable from a historical point of view, Russian Jews to whom nothing particularly traumatic happened, notwithstanding the possibilities during the twentieth century for all manner of traumatic things to happen to those such as them, and they were not marked out for fame or glory, either, whatever that means, in any case they had no wish to be noticed. History is composed mainly of ordinariness, the non-dramatic predominates, he thought, although there may be notable crises pressing on these particular people, Stepanova’s family for example but the same is true for most people, these notable crises do not actually happen to these particular people. Do not equals did not. The past, as the present, he wrote, was undoubtedly mundane for most people most of the time, and yet they still went on existing, at least resisting their extinction in the most banal of fashions. Is this conveyed in history, though, family or otherwise, he wondered, how does the repetitive uneventfulness of everyday life in the past press upon the present, if at all? Can we appreciate any particularity in the mundanity of the past, he wondered, are we not like the tiny porcelain dolls, the ‘Frozen Charlottes’ that Stepanova collects, produced in vast numbers, flushed out into the world, identical and unremarkable except where the damage caused by their individual histories imbues them with particularity, with character? “Trauma makes us individuals—singly and unambiguously—from the mass product,” Stepanova writes. Who would we be without hardship, if indeed we could be said to be? No idea, not that this was anyway a question for which he had anticipated an answer, he thought. “Memory works on behalf of separation,” Stepanova writes. “It prepares for the break without which the self cannot emerge.” Memory is an exercise of edges, he thought, and all we have are edges, the centre has no shape, there is only empty space. He thought of Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, and thought how it too piled detail upon detail to reduce the transmission—or to prevent the formation—of ideas about the past, the past piles more and more information upon us in the present, occluding itself in detail, veiling itself, reducing both our understanding and our ability to understand. Stepanova’s words pile up, her metaphors pile up, her sentences pile up, her words ostensibly offer meaning but actually withhold it, or ration it. Although In Memory of Memory is in most ways nothing like Russian Ark, he thought, why did he start this comparison, as with Russian ArkIn Memory of Memory is—entirely appropriately—both fascinating and boring, both too long and never quite reaching a point of satisfaction, the characters both recognisable and uncertain but in any case torn away, at least from us, the actions both deliberate and without any clear rationale or consequence—just like history itself. No residue. No thoughts. No realisations. No salient facts. No wisdom. The past drives us onward, pushes us outward as it inflates. 

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