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Illustration: Elisabeth Boehm. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Aunt Galya, my father’s sister, died. She was just over eighty. We hadn’t been close—there was an uneasiness between the families and a history of perceived snubs. My parents had what you might call troubled dealings with Aunt Galya, and we almost never saw her. As a result I had little chance to form my own relationship with her. We met infrequently, we had the odd phone call, but toward the end she unplugged her phone, saying “I don’t want to talk to anyone.” Then she disappeared entirely into the world she had built for herself: layered strata of possessions, objects, and trinkets in the cave of her tiny apartment.

Galya lived her life in the pursuit of beauty: the dream of rearranging her possessions into a definitive order, of painting the walls and hanging the curtains. At some point, years ago, she began the process of decluttering her apartment, and this gradually consumed her. She was permanently shaking things out, checking anew what objects were essential. The contents of the apartment constantly needed sorting and systematizing, each and every cup required careful consideration, books and papers stopped existing for themselves and became mere usurpers of space, forming barricades that crossed the apartment in little heaps. The apartment consisted of two rooms, and as one room was overcome by more objects, Galya would move to the other, taking only the absolute essentials with her—but then the tidying and reevaluating would begin again. The home wore its own viscera on the outside, unable to draw it all back into itself again. There was no longer any deciding whether a particular thing was important or not, because everything had significance in some way, especially the yellowing newspapers collected over decades, tottering piles of clippings that propped up the walls and the bed. At a later point the only spare living space was a divan, worn concave, and I remember we were sitting there on one occasion, the two of us, in the middle of a raging sea of postcards and TV guides. She was attempting to feed me the chocolates she kept reserved for special occasions, and I was attempting to turn down these precious offerings with anxious politeness. A newspaper clipping at the top of a pile bore the headline: “Which saint rules your sign of the Zodiac?” and the name of the paper and the publication date were written carefully at the top in her beautifully neat handwriting, blue ink across the dead paper.

*

We got there about an hour after her caretaker rang. The stairwell was in half darkness and there was a hum in the air. People we didn’t know stood around on the landing and sat on the stairs, they had heard about her death somehow and had rushed round to offer their undertaker services, to help with registering the death, dealing with the paperwork. How on earth did they know? Had the doctor told them? The police? One of them came into the apartment with us, and stood there without taking off his coat.

Aunt Galya died in the early evening on March 8, Women’s Day, that Soviet festival of mimosa and greeting cards festooned with сhicks. Women’s Day had been one of those celebration days in our family, when everyone gathered around a single enormous table and the minerals splashed liberally into ruby-colored wine glasses. On Women’s Day there were always at least four different types of salad on the table: carrot and walnut; cheese; beetroot and garlic; and, of course, the common denominator of all Russian salads, olivye. But all that had ceased thirty years ago, long before my parents had emigrated to Germany. Galya was left behind, fuming, and in the new post-Soviet world her newspapers began publishing unprecedented and titillating things: horoscopes, recipes, homemade herbal remedies.

She desperately didn’t want to end her life in a hospital, and she had her reasons. She’d seen her own parents, my grandparents, die in one, and she’d already had some sobering experiences of state medical care. But still the moment came for summoning an ambulance, and we might well have done so if it hadn’t been a holiday weekend. It was decided to wait for Monday and the working week, and in this way Galya was given her chance to turn onto her side and die in her sleep.

In the other room, where her caretaker slept, photographs and sketches by my father Misha hung like squares on a chessboard, covering the whole wall. By the door was a black-and-white photograph taken in the sixties, one from my favorite series of “pictures taken at the vets,” a beautiful picture: a boy and his dog waiting their turn, sitting against a wall, the boy a sullen fourteen-year-old, and the dog, a boxer, leaning into him with its shoulder.

*

Her apartment now stood silent, stunned and cowering, filled with suddenly devalued objects. In the bigger room television stands squatted grimly in each corner. A huge new fridge was stuffed to the gills with icy cauliflower and frozen loaves of bread (“Misha loves his bread, get me a couple of loaves in case he comes over”). The same books stood in lines, the ones I used to greet like family members whenever I went around. To Kill a Mockingbird, the black Salinger with the boy on the cover, the blue binding of the Library of Poets series, a gray-bound Chekhov set, the green Complete Works of Dickens. My old acquaintances on the shelves: a wooden dog, a yellow plastic dog, and a carved bear with a flag on a thread. All of them crouched, as if preparing themselves for a journey, their own stolid usefulness in sudden doubt.

A few days later when I sat down to sort through papers, I noticed that in the piles of photographs and postcards there was hardly anything written. There were hoards of thermal vests and leggings; new and beautiful jackets and skirts, set aside for some great sallying forth and so never worn and still smelling of Soviet emporia; an embroidered men’s shirt from before the war; and tiny ivory brooches, delicate and girlish: a rose, another rose, a crane with wings outstretched. These had belonged to Galya’s mother, my grandmother, and no one had worn them for at least forty years. All these objects were inextricably bound together, everything had its meaning only in the whole, in the accumulation, within the frame of a continuing life, and now it was all turning to dust before me.

In a book about the working of the mind, I once read that the important factor in discerning the human face was not the combination of features, but the oval shape. Life itself, while it continues, can be that same oval, or after death, the thread of life running through the tale of what has been. The meek contents of her apartment, feeling themselves to be redundant, immediately began to lose their human qualities and, in doing so, ceased to remember or to mean anything.

I stood before the remnants of her home, doing the necessary tasks. Bemused at how little had been written down in this house of readers, I began to tease out a melody from the few words and scrappy phrases I could remember her saying: a story she had told me; endless questions about how the boy, my growing son, was doing; and anecdotes from the far-off past—country rambles in the thirties. The woven fabric of language decomposes instantly, never again to be felt between the fingers: “I would never say ‘lovely,’ it sounds so terribly common,” Galya admonished me once. And there were other prohibited words I can’t recall, her talk of one’s people, gossip about old friends, the neighbors, little reports from a lonely and self-consuming life.

I soon found that there was in fact much evidence of the written word in the apartment. Among the possessions she kept till her dying day, the possessions she often asked for, sometimes just to touch with her hand, were countless used notebooks and diaries. She’d kept a diary for years, not a day passed without her scribbling a note, as much a part of her routine as getting out of bed or washing. These diaries were stored in a wooden box by her headboard and there were a lot of them, two full bag loads, which I carried home to Banny Pereulok. There I sat down at once to read them, in search of stories, explanations: the oval shape of her life.

*

For the interested reader, diaries and notebooks can be placed in two categories: in the first the text is intended to be official, manifest, aimed at a readership. The notebook becomes a training ground for the outward self, and, as in the case of the nineteenth-century artist and diarist Marie Bashkirtseff, an open declaration, an unending monologue, addressed to an invisible but sympathetic ear.

Still I’m fascinated by the other sort of diary, the working tool, the sort the writer-as-craftsperson keeps close at hand, of little apparent use to the outsider. Susan Sontag, who practiced this art form for decades, said of her diary that it was “an instrument, a tool”—I’m not sure this is entirely apt. Sontag’s notebooks (and the notebooks of other writers) are not just for the storage of ideas, like nuts in squirrels’ cheeks, to be consumed later. Nor are they filled with quick outlines of events, to be recollected when needed. Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature. Such texts have only one reader in mind, but this reader is utterly implicated. Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life has continuity and history, and (this is most important) that any point in your own past is still within your reach.

Sontag’s notebooks are filled with such proofs: lists of films she has seen, books she has read, words that have charmed her, the dried husks of completed endeavors—and these are largely limited to the notebooks; they almost never feed into her books or films or articles, they are neither the starting point, nor the underpinning for her public work. They are not intended as explanations for another reader (perhaps for the self, although they are scribbled down at such a pace that sometimes it’s hard to make out what is meant). Like a fridge, or as it was once called, an icehouse, a place where the fast-corrupting memory-product can be stored, a space for witness accounts and affirmations, or the material and outward signs of immaterial and elusive relations, to paraphrase Goncharov.

There is something faintly displeasing, if only in the excess of material, and I say this precisely because I am of the same disposition, and far too often my working notes seem to me to be heaped deadweight: ballast I would dearly love to be rid of, but what would be left of me then? In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm describes an interior that is, in some ways, the image of my own notebook (and this was a horrible realization). It is littered with newspapers, books, overflowing ashtrays, dusty Peruvian tat, unwashed dishes, empty pizza boxes, cans, flyers, books along the lines of Who’s Who, attempting to pass as real knowledge, and other objects passing as nothing at all, because they lost all resemblance to anything years ago. For Malcolm this living space is Borges’s Aleph, a “monstrous allegory of truth,” a gristly mass of crude fact and versions that never attained the clean order of history.

*

My Aunt Galya’s diaries were completely peculiar, and their strangely woven texture, which reminded me above all of chain-link fencing, intrigued me more and more as I read them.

At any of the big art exhibitions I visited as a child, there were always a few viewers who stood out to me, and they were usually, and inexplicably, women. These women went from one picture to another, bending over the captions and making notes on pieces of paper or in exercise books. It dawned on me at some point that they were simply copying down the names of all the pictures, making for themselves a sort of homemade catalog—a shadow copy of what they’d seen. And I wondered why they were doing it, and hadn’t yet realized that a list creates the illusion of possession: the exhibition would pass and dissolve in the air, but the piece of paper held the order of sculptures and pictures, as freshly as when they first saw them, long after the actual images had faded.

Galya’s diaries were just such lists, but of daily occurrences, recorded with astonishing exactness, and with astonishing opacity. The diaries documented the time she got up and when she went to sleep, the television programs she’d watched, the number of phone conversations she’d had, who they’d been with, what she’d eaten, whatever else she’d done. There was a minute and virtuosic avoidance of content—how she’d actually filled her hours. It might say “read,” for example, but with no mention of what the reading material had been or what it had meant to her—in fact everything in her long and exhaustively documented life was the same. Nothing indicated what this life had been for, there was nothing about herself, nothing about other people, only the fastidious details, the fixing of the passing of time with the exactitude of a medieval chronicler.

I kept thinking that surely life would rear its head, if only once, and reveal itself in all its color. Hadn’t she spent her life reading—wouldn’t that alone have provoked intense reflection? There were also the constant slights and grievances that my aunt clung to, and only reluctantly relinquished. Surely something of this would be preserved and laid out in a final furious paragraph, in which Galya would tell the world, and us, its representatives, what she thought of us—the unexpurgated truth.

But there was nothing of the sort in the diaries. There were hints and semitones of meaning, folds in the weave that denoted emotion, “hurray” written in the margin against the note of a phone call with my father or with me, a few opaquely bitter comments on her parents’ anniversaries. And that was it. It was as if the main task of each and every note, each completed year’s diary, was a faithful witnessing of the exterior, and a concealment of the authentic and interior. Show everything. Hide everything. Preserve it forever.

What was it she held to be of such value in these diaries? Why did she keep them by her bedside until her dying day, frightened they would be lost, often asking for them to be moved closer to her? Perhaps the written text as it stood—and it was the tale of a life of loneliness and the imperceptible slide toward nonexistence—still had the force of an indictment. The world needed to read all this, to realize just how shoddily we had dealt with her.

Or, strange as it seems, for her these pinched records might have contained the substance of joy, which she needed to immortalize, to add to the pile of manuscripts that, as Bulgakov wrote, don’t burn, and which speak without any intention toward the future. If that’s the case then she succeeded.

October 11, 2002

Working backward again. It’s 1:45 p.m. Just put the towels, nightgown etc. except dark colors in to soak. Will do the bedlinen later. Before that I brought everything in from balcony. 3 degrees, the vegetables might have frozen. Peeled and chopped pumpkin and put in a box ready for freezer. Very slow work! Watched television and did it in two hours and a little more. Before that I had tea with milk.

Slept from 4:00–6:00 p.m., couldn’t resist a little nap. Before that T. V. rang about the telephone. And he rang before 12 as well to check whether the television was working. This morning not a single channel worked. Got up at 8 when Seryozha was washing in the bathroom. Left after nine, took my time to get ready. Bus No. 3 didn’t come till 9:45. We waited an age. Should have taken the 171. There were crowds everywhere and it took far longer than usual. Bus station. Newspapers. But I did manage to buy the pumpkin, first I’ve seen this year. And carrots. Got home around 12. Wanted to watch Columbo. Took my hypertension pills last night just after 1:45 after measuring B. P. Waited for it to come down so I could take more pills. Spent 20 mins trying. Couldn’t measure B. P. Got to bed at 3 a.m.

July 8, 2004

Lovely sunny morning, not the rain promised. Had coffee with condensed milk and went out around 11. Crowds everywhere. Sat for a long time, until 1:00 p.m., by the pond, looked at the grass, the trees and the sky, sang, felt very well in myself.

People were out walking their dogs along the paths, and pushing babies in strollers, and lots of parties of youngsters in their swimsuits, relaxing and having fun.

Managed to pay without standing in line, bought cream cheese. Strolled home. New school has a beautiful border. Tall plumes of bedstraw and wild rose. Just perfect! On the way home saw some boys playing in an abandoned old car. They had a plastic bottle stuffed full of seed pods. Apparently they’re edible.

October 11, 2005

Couldn’t sleep. Didn’t much want to get up or get going or do anything. 10:40 mail was delivered and I went back to bed after that. Sveta came just after that. She’s such a good girl, she gets the best of everything for me. Had tea and spent the day in bed. Thanked V. V. for bringing up mail.

Bobrova rang after 12. She came on Thursday.

I rang the clinic. Ira from Social Services, and Yura in the evening. Watched television and tidied all the washing on the chair. Went to bed at 11:30 p.m.

Hot day. I wore the skirt Tonya got me. “Dreary sort of life, of no use to anyone,” as you might say. Tea in the afternoon, coffee in the evening. No appetite whatsoever.

But there was one note, quite different from the rest. On July 17, 2005 she wrote:

Sima rang this morning. I got down the photo album afterward. Shook all the photos out and spent a long while looking at them. I didn’t want to eat, and looking at the photos gave me such a feeling of melancholy, tears, real sadness for the times passed, and for those who aren’t with us anymore. This pointless life of mine, a life lived for nothing, the emptiness in my soul … I wanted to lose myself, forget it all.

I went back to bed and slept for the rest of the day, strange, can’t think how I could have slept so long, didn’t get up till the evening, till 8:00 p.m. Drank some milk, closed the curtains and lay down, and again this sleep to transport me away from reality. Sleep is my salvation.

*

Months passed, maybe years. Galya’s diaries lay around the place, caught up in piles of other papers, the sort of papers you leave out, thinking they will come in handy, and instead they discolor and age like old kitchenware. I suddenly and involuntarily remembered them when I arrived in the town of Pochinky.

Pochinky had a dubious claim to fame in our household. This one horse, dead-end little town, over two hundred kilometers from Nizhny Novgorod, was the place we’d all come from and no one had ever returned to. No one had even made an attempt to return there in the last seventy-odd years. Nabokov writes about existence as “but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”—well, this quiet little provincial town, of little interest to anyone, became over the years that first dark eternity in the collective memory of our family.

Ours was a large family back then. I dimly remember accounts of dozens of brothers and sisters, photographs of carts and horses and wooden buildings. But these accounts were eclipsed by the tales of the wild adventures of my great-grandmother, Sarra Ginzburg, a native of Pochinky. She had been in prison in Tsarist times and had even lived in Paris, and trained as a doctor and then treated Soviet children, including my mother and me, and everything I was told about her had the laurel-leaf taste of legend. There was no one left to verify all these fantastic tales and no one would have wanted to.

We had a relative, Leonid, who was constantly on the brink of visiting the shrunken husk of this nineteenth-century town. He talked about it as one might an imaginary polar expedition. He spent his days attempting to instill this enthusiasm in others, his near and distant relatives (I was one of his last converts). He had striking pale eyes, almost transparent, and his enthusiasm was a constantly running motor. On the rare occasions when he found himself in Moscow he would visit to discuss his plans with my parents. Then one day he arrived unexpectedly and found my parents gone, they’d emigrated to Germany. I was the family’s sole remaining representative in Moscow. I’d never considered a sentimental journey like this, and I was intoxicated: for the first time it seemed as if our family’s native home was within reach, and therefore a real place. The more Leonid insisted on the hardships we would face, the distances we would travel, and the elaborate preparations that would need to be made, the more the journey seemed quite against the odds—and the more promise it held for me. In the end this Leonid, who spent so many years planning a trip with the whole extended family, a sort of return of the Tribes of Israel, died without ever realizing his dream. Pochinky remained as fantastical and unknown to us all as the fairy-tale city of Kitezh.

And here I was, just that little bit closer to Pochinky. Why I went I can’t say, and I can’t remember what I hoped to discover there, but before I left I spent a long time online, turning up facts. Pochinky was at the outer limits of the known world, I found it on an ancient map: beyond Arzamas, tucked in the wilds beyond Pushkin’s estate at Boldino, surrounded by villages with doomsday names. There were no railway lines in these parts, the nearest station was three hours’ drive. I decided to cut my losses and hired a driver in Nizhny Novgorod.

We left Nizhny Novgorod early in the morning along wide, pink, still wintery streets. The town slipped into valleys and then reappeared in the car windows with its peculiar, not-quite-heedless clutter of industrial sites and picket-fenced wooden houses, conceding nothing to the modern world. When we reached the road out of town the car seemed to move by itself, racing along with unnecessary speed: the driver, father of a three-month-old baby, kept his hands on the wheel and was disdainfully silent. The road flexed up and down in tight little waves, frail remains of snow clung to the ground under the fir trees. The world grew poorer with every kilometer. In the blackened villages new churches gleamed like china, white as new crowns on old teeth. I had a guidebook extolling the beauty of Arzamas, now long behind us, and a little book on Pochinky, published twenty years before: it mentioned a shop owned by the Jew Ginzburg, who traded in sewing machines, and that was all. There was no mention of the legendary Sarra.

We traveled for long hours. At last the hills began, a dusky ridge of them, Umbrian hills, the color of dark copper, rising and falling as evenly as breath. Sometimes a brief flash of water. After we passed the exit for Pushkin’s Boldino estate there was a series of Pushkin memorials along the road. According to legend his local mistress had lived in the village of Lukoyanov. Little groups of trees like herds of animals.

Pochinky was built along a long main street: little side streets departed from the high street at tidy right angles. An attractive church in a classical style stood on the far side of the road. I learned from the guidebook that this was the Cathedral of the Nativity, where a certain Orfanov had once been priest. I knew the name, Valya Orfanova often sent us greetings when I was a child, and once she had asked my mother to buy me a book from her, so Masha will have something to remember me by. Mother picked out a poetry collection by the Symbolist poet Fyodor Sologub at the secondhand bookshop, but unfortunately it turned out to be a late work, The Great Good News Herald, a book of Communist poems published in 1923, filled with proletarians with flaming ideals. Useless to me, as I judged it then, not yet able to appreciate the exquisite soundplay underlying the hackneyed sentiments:

The officer’s horse
The enemy force
Treads in its dance
Treads on my heart

I had a strong desire to abandon the deserted main square in search of a place where there was something I could see and touch, but Maria Fufayeva, a local historian, was waiting for us there. It was a Sunday but they’d opened up the town library just for us. An exhibition of watercolors of Pochinky’s streets hung in the library; painted a hundred years before, they’d been sent from Germany for the exhibition. A German family had lived in Pochinky toward the end of the nineteenth century, and I had a sudden memory of the painter’s name, Gethling, being mentioned when I was a child.

The pictures were gemütlich, cheery: a pretty house with a chemist’s sign and some flowering mallow, the house of Augusta Gethling, the painter’s sister, who had tutored my great-grandmother for her school entrance exam. The house was still standing, but its little porch was gone, the facade had been concreted over and the mallow and the carved window frames had disappeared. No one could tell me anything about the house with the large yard and the horse and cart, the home of Sarra and her family at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And that was all. Much like the diaries of Aunt Galya, the reader had to content herself with shopping lists, notes of television programs, descriptions of the weather. Whatever stood behind this, swaying and rustling, was in no hurry to show itself, and perhaps didn’t intend to show itself at all. We were offered tea; we were taken for a guided tour of the town. I searched the ground beneath my feet constantly as if hoping to find a dropped kopeck.

The village had the shrunken feel of a vanished town, a once bustling center which had sprung up around the largest horse fair in the whole region. We crossed a vast market square, a vacant space now overgrown with trees, somewhere in its center a lead-gray statue of Lenin, but otherwise a place abandoned by people, too large to be useful in any new reincarnation. It was fringed by pretty little wooden houses, like the ones in the watercolors, some showing the signs of hasty, ugly renovation. And we were shown another square, a little asphalted space where Solomon Ginzburg, Sarra’s brother, had owned a shop in the twenties. Here we stood a while and took photos, a group of us, surly women in coats and hats. The wind was too icy for smiles. On a curb by the main road another monument glittered in the grass, dedicated to Kapral, a mighty stallion and a stud horse for a full twenty years.

A little drive beyond the bridge over the river Rudnya was a derelict complex of buildings, the size of a small town, used for horse breeding. They had been built at the beginning of the nineteenth century and had once belonged to the cavalry regiment of the Imperial Guard. But even before this, horses had been bred here: kabarda and Nogay, stallions, horses, geldings and Nogay mares, and Russian colts and herding horses.

Catherine the Great built up the business to an industrial scale. The resulting huge square building with its classical lines and peeling whitewashed walls, its subsiding central tower and the arched entrance, symmetrically matched on the far side of the square, was intended to be an outpost of civilization, a little island of Petersburgian refinement. It had fallen into total disrepair relatively recently, in the nineties, and it now stood surrounded by bare earth, blasted by the long winter. The last horses moved about the open paddocks: heavyset chestnut horses with pale and tufty manes. They lifted their heads and pushed their muzzles into our palms. By now the sky was dazzling, the clouds formed a mountain ridge across the horizon, and a skin-pink light glowed under the crazed white facade of the buildings.

We’d already traveled halfway back when I realized I’d forgotten the most important thing: there must have been a cemetery of some sort, Jewish or otherwise, where my ancestors were buried. The driver had his foot on the accelerator, the names of villages were flashing past: surreal, earthy names. I called Maria Fufayeva on my mobile. There was no cemetery, just as there were no longer any Jews left in Pochinky. Actually, no, in fact there was one Jew left in Pochinky, she even knew his name: Gurevich. Strangely enough it was my mother’s maiden name.

—Translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale

 

Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow in 1972, is a poet, essayist, journalist, and editor in chief of the online newspaper Colta. In 2018, she was awarded the Bolshaya Kniga Award for In Memory of Memory.

Sasha Dugdale is a British poet, playwright, and translator.

By Maria Stepanova, from In Memory of Memory, copyright © 2018 by Maria Stepanova, translation copyright © 2021 by Sasha Dugdale. Originally published in Russian by Novoe Izdatelstvo as Памяти памяти. Published in arrangement with Suhrkamp Verlag.

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