War of the Beasts and the Animals, and In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova – review

The Russian poet’s eloquent writing is caught between a pursuit of the past and the meaninglessness of memorialising

Translated poetry seldom finds its way into this column. It is too high risk: there is the probability the original voice will seem muffled or will not travel. But an exception has to be made for Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow and a leading voice in post-Soviet culture: poet, journalist, publisher and force for press freedom (founding editor of, an online independent site) who has been showered with prizes in Russia but has not, until now, been much known here. She is translated by Sasha Dugdale, a poet herself, whose imaginative instincts serve her tirelessly. Having said this, a sense that we might be playing Russian whispers (I don’t speak the language) cannot be altogether avoided if only because, as Dugdale explains in her introduction, there is much in Stepanova’s challenging writing that does not translate at all. And yet it has been Dugdale’s remarkable project to give Stepanova a parallel life by dextrously furnishing her modernist poems with English examples.

It is essential to read War of the Beasts and the Animals alongside its companion work, the richly absorbing “documentary novel” In Memory of Memory (just nominated for the International Booker prize). Stepanova scrutinises the memorialising drive of writers and artists: Proust, Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell, WG Sebald, Charlotte Salomon – the book is, in part, a Jewish history. Yet she has a simultaneous regard for oblivion, for not recording, for the right to vanish definitively. Holocaust photographs, she argues, need protecting from their audiences. Her writing exists on an edge between an avid pursuit of the past and an acknowledgment of the eventual meaninglessness of memorialising. There is a sense that she might, at any point, be tempted into silence. She writes eloquently about modern technology’s influence on memory, about the wantonly comprehensive record digital photography makes possible – its images persisting into an unwanted immortality. By contrast, she salvages piercingly personal material, including letters from “Lyodik”, her grandfather’s cousin, killed in 1942 in the siege of Leningrad.

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