Translated by Sasha Dugdale
“And you see only those who stand in the light.
While those in the darkness nobody can see.”
This extraordinary book, like its subject matter, is difficult to pin down. A blend of philosophy, travelogue, memoir, cultural criticism and group biography, it is book 3 of my 20 books of summer – I’m at various stages with several others – and has been short-listed for various prizes, including the International Man Booker (though it is not really fiction, or only in the very faintest of senses) and the James Tait Black prize for biography. Published by the always interesting indie Fitzcarraldo, and beautifully produced as ever, it opens with the death of an aunt, and a discussion of the detritus accumulated over a lifetime: photos, books, old clothes.
Stepanova (a renowned Russian poet and journalist, and editor of the temporarily silenced online journal Colta.ru) wheels off through the history of her Jewish Russian family, and the troubled history of the 20th century, as well as the nature of memory itself. Often the personal history that she seeks to investigate remains shadowy and occluded – sometimes due to deliberate obfuscation by her family, desperate to survive in Soviet Russian – but her writing is so beautiful that i was happy to go along for the ride.
“With every new selfie we take, every group shot or passport photo, our lives become arranged into a chain of images, a history which is quite different from the one we tell ourselves and want others to believe. The line of was-and-will-be, a compendium of single moments, poses, mouths open to speak, blurry chins, none of which we choose ourselves.”
The book is a chunky 500 pages, encompassing subjects as diverse as the art work of Francesca Woodman and the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell, the origin of the dolls known as Frozen Charlottes, the writing of W. G. Sebald and the photography of Rimbaud.
It includes a series of letters, sometimes heart-breaking, from now-dead relatives: those of a gentle doomed boy-soldier are poignant, saying very little of his experiences, and ending always, almost like an incantation: “I am in good health and doing well. How is everyone? Write to me about everything. Only please don’t worry about me, it’s quite unnecessary. Be happy and healthy. All my love to Mother, Auntie Beti, Lyonya, Lyolya, their baby and Sarra Abramova.” Stepanova acknowledges the moral difficulties that come in reproducing elements of someone’s history in this way: is she memorialising her family or appropriating them?
Having finally finished the book, I wanted immediately to read it again, as it is swarming with so many ideas, but it is dense and long, so that will have to wait for a while.