Freedom Read #113

(translated by Sasha Dugdale)

An extraordinary feat. It is not a novel, rather it is 500 pages somewhere between memoire, investigation and imagining. (as well as being another gorgeous Fitzcarraldo thing)

Stepanova starts with her (extended) family, working outwards and backwards and forwards through history, following them and their journeys abroad, correspondences from war, listening to oral histories / stories told and re-told across the kitchen table, photographs and momentos, and weaves it all in and out of the huge, melancholic history of Russia. It is breath-taking. Always engaging. Always wandering off into tangents. The closest analogy really is to think of it as someone whose elderly relative has recently died, and they are left to go through all their belongings, all those unmarked boxes in the attic…some of which contain objects of impenetrable provenance and importance, others containing teapots or children’s toys.

And then weaving these bits of bric-a-brac, family heirlooms, into national history.

There is a recurrent theme of small porcelain dolls, thousands upon thousands of them. They were apparently the ‘bubblewrap’ of days gone by: packing crates filled with all of these tiny mass produced dolls, designed to crack and take the bumps and crashes of cargo handling and delivery, hence few remain in pristine condition. Maria has one.

Throughout her telling she conveys a sense of obligation, of familial expectation or duty. Stepanova tells us she has spent ages trying to write this book, whether that means all the years of listening, of being around parents and grandparents and absorbing their stories, or whether that means just living in Russia throughout the last years of Communist rule, Perestroika, the current cutthroat capitalist experience, or whether it means getting the words down, who can say. A combination of the three, probably.

One distant relative served in the war at the siege in Leningrad. His letters home to his mother survive and they seem mostly to be a series of worried questions, that mostly go unanswered. He describes dead bodies frozen in the street.

The question of her family’s Jewish-ness, Jewish history, the shockingly (to us, nowadays) common place anti-semitism that was apparently part of the ebb and flow of everyday conversation, at that time, is laid out in plain view.

There is a long discussion on Rembrandt’s self-portraiture, various poets appear, disappear, sometimes to resurface 100 pages later (Pushkin, Blok, Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva). Tolstoy also hoves into view, blocking out everything else behind him including Proust and Thomas Mann, who at least provokes a fascinating tangent on the artist Charlotte Salomon, who created an apparently un-categoriseable and extraordinary art work, which she named Life? Or Theatre? – comprising hundreds of watercolour paintings alongside text spread over 750 pages – which Stepanova notes, dissolves most of the accepted borders between artist, creation and audience. Salomon escaped to Southern France, but was eventually betrayed to the Nazis who transported her to Auschwitz, where 26 and visibly pregnant she was put to death on arrival.

In some ways, there is just too much in here, it is a compendium, in other ways it is perfect because of its rambling, discursive imperfections. You can pick it up and put it down as you wish, and not really loose ‘the thread’ – which is a fairly subjective notion in this book anyway. For some reason this feels like a very Russian thing: all this telling, and family, and sadness, the enormity of the world versus our meagre place in it. I loved it.

In discussing Rembrandt, Stepanova says the following, which could well describe her undertaking here:

“A commentator has likened the relationship between Rembrandt and his own images to a trial of the self. Wouldn’t it be more exact to call them ‘a refutation of the self’…the alienation from, and the shearing off of a whole phase of life, together with the one who has just lived it… For this to happen the artist has to very literally come out of himself… All the phases of this process are simultaneously discrete and unending. We see before us not enquiry, but fixation.”

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