|John with colleague Vivian Archer|
I've personally been involved with the shop since the mid 80’s, first as an employee in 1989, then children’s buyer. Vivian Archer, manager since 1987, encouraged me to return to bookselling when John and Jean, stalwarts of the children’s shop, retired. I have never regretted the move for one moment and despite the almost ceaseless changes within the industry I never ever wake up reluctant to go to work!
Into this unexpected space I received a proof copy of this particular book and I knew I wanted to revisit it when I was kindly asked to submit a review as I had found it both stimulating and engaging for a number of reasons. As a lover of books, it is difficult not to be drawn to Fitzcarraldo Editions, an imprint that takes its name from the typeset it uses and which houses pages between blue or white covers which just to hold is an aesthetically pleasing experience.
I studied history as an undergraduate in the late 1970’s and within this I had also taken a course on the Emancipation of the Jews in Europe taught by the late Chimen Abramsky. At the same time, I knew little about the day to day lives of Russian Jewry in the late Tsarist and Soviet periods. Stepanova’s family lived through and ultimately her branch of her family survived these times although others were victims of Pogroms and the Holocaust itself. How they did so is revealed through shared memories, correspondence and other artefacts.
Stepanova, in partnership with her English translator, has created a wide ranging, beautifully written exploration of a family history which links to major events and social history in Russia and parts of Europe where her ancestors and their descendants studied and made lives for themselves over the course of the Twentieth Century. There are enlightening sections on the large numbers of Russian women, including her own great grandmother, who studied medicine in Paris before the First World War as well as a son’s moving letters to his mother from the Siege of Leningrad. Stepanova seems to question how does one put these lives into the context of their times and how do we know whether in relation to Post Memory if “things were better back then”
W.G Sebald is something of a torchbearer as Stepanova introduces links to other personages and their artistic legacy which often coincide with my own interests and preoccupations as does the writing of Sebald himself. These memorably emerge as essays within the book taking in themes which include the self-portraits of Rembrandt and photographer Francesca Woodman and the art of Joseph Cornell. Perhaps most movingly, Stepanova revisits Charlotte Saloman’s haunting “Life? Or Theatre” a work that I first encountered when I saw some of the original paintings in Amsterdam in 1988. The essays had me turning to my bookshelves and Googling images of the works under discussion
Anecdotes are many and I have no space to share them here but they seem to reveal as much about the human condition as anything else and highlight the impact of family secrets and links to personal histories we can perhaps all identify with. What survives does not always link us reliably or definitively to the past as Stepanova herself discovers. “Here is time passing, the human is washed away but objects keep their outline” Maybe it is the tangible things that matter most. I certainly think so as although I have my memories and photos aplenty I am best able conjure up one of my own grandmothers each time I use her bone-handled tomato knife.