Here’s what happened: I was looking at pictures someone sent me from Germany, and one of them was particularly striking. Winter, a dark forest or maybe a park, and a narrow path winding its way right to a church, and a giant Christmas tree all decked out in glorious lights, and the sky above looks not like Germany but more like Gzhel porcelain or Vyatka toys, dark blue with enormous cold stars. On my tiny screen, the tree was lit like a bonfire, and it looked like a perfect postcard if you wanted to, say, wish someone a happy new year; all it needed was a couple of words appropriate to the occasion.
I sent the card (“good tidings in the new year”) to several people, some of them even responded, and a month later I opened the picture file again. But then—well, yes, the dark forest or park with its snowy hills, the shrubs, the church, the spruce—of course this was a cemetery. I have no idea how I failed to notice it the first time around.
But it’s quite easy not to see the cemetery, it is always in your head anyway; any thought brought to its endpoint will brush up against it: unmarked graves, half-covered in snow, and at the end of the road a spruce (“All the apples, all the golden ornaments”), and not much further—the church, we-all-fall-down. As the Orthodox hymn for the repose of the deceased says, “The whole world is a common, sacred grave, for in every place is the dust of our brethren and fathers.”
For some reason it matters to us how much space will be set aside for each and every person. The old jokes about six feet of English soil (“and since he’s taller, we’ll add one more”) can be easily put into the language of the Vagankovo cemetery. As if the size of our last earthly allotment meant something—and the more space surrounds you, the greater, freer, sweeter the rest. The obscure meaning of posthumous landownership (“Though senseless flesh will hardly care / Precisely where it goes to rot”) alludes to a merger with the landscape—or an acquisition that doesn’t require expert witnesses. Meanwhile, the earthly lot of the dead is shrinking before our eyes, which is hardly just the result of overpopulation and lack of space.
W. G. Sebald’s essay “Campo Santo” was published posthumously in a book in which three or four essays sketch the deliberately incomplete outline of a journey through Corsica. These essays leave a strange impression, as if the author were approaching the light at the end of that tunnel we’ve heard so much about from popular literature. The narrator and the narration thin out over the course of their movement, they are dissolved in quick flames; the very language and its objects—Napoleon’s uniform, the school fence, the village burial rituals—are in equal measure blinding and transparent. The author crosses over, the letters stay behind. It’s not surprising that the central text in this book is about a cemetery.
There, Sebald laments the fact that there are no ghosts to be found in Corsica anymore. The way he describes them (short, with blurry features, always at a slant from reality, petulant like children, and vengeful like jackdaws), there isn’t much to lament. But the fact that the local dead were no longer left offerings of food and drink (on doorways and windowsills), that they stopped frightening their fellow villagers on late-night roads, that they stopped visiting relatives and strangers, saddens him more than you would expect. His strange compassion for these unpleasant creatures, his visible displeasure that they have to lie in the narrow communal cemetery instead of on their own land, or the fact that the living and dead no longer exist on equal terms, seems suspiciously personal—as though the author had a vested interest here, as though this were his very own sorrow. And that is in fact true: this essay was written from—and on—the side of the dead. The uneasy urgency that Sebald’s own end, a senseless death in a car crash, gives this text forces us to read it all in italics, like an urgent missive from the end of the world, from the borderlands between here and there. The trouble is that, if we are to believe its message, there is no difference between here and there.
The dead mean less and less to us, Sebald says. We clear them from the road with the utmost speed and great zeal. They take up less and less of our time, they take up less space: cremations, urns, little cells in a concrete wall. “And who has remembered them, who remembers them at all?” He describes cemeteries as if they were prisons or reservations (designed to isolate, edge out, weigh down with granite and marble, to deprive the dead of their own, to surround them with strangers). He mourns the things that knew how to live on for decades (we remember what those were like: a father’s coat, worn for years by his son, a grandmother’s thimble, a grandfather’s geometry box, a memory of mother—a ring or an armchair) and suddenly found themselves replaceable. The absence of the will to preserve, which has gotten a hold of all of us, can also be described in another way, as a military operation or social reform: its task is an abolition of memory.
Indeed, the past is so broad that, it seems, we want to hem it in a little, to reduce all of it into less: just the important stuff, just the good parts. The idea that history (and culture) has a short and a long program, a top five or ten (the way only the church bells of the sunken city of Kitezh rise out of the lake) is not new. What’s new is how strangely weary we are of everything that preceded us. The new currents—theories in the vein of Fomenko, which compress time and space into a single point; educational reforms, with their inevitable cuts to the humanities—are all driven by the simpleminded desire to make things more simple. So that the well is a little less deep, so that there is less homework to assign, so that the buzzing mass of lived experience can be rolled up into a compact, taut ball (or rolled out into a transparent thin crepe). To use Sebald’s own words, “We have to keep throwing ballast overboard, forgetting everything that we might otherwise remember.” Under our feet, there’s either the raft of the Medusa or a rock “no larger than the head of a seal jutting out of the water” from the old fairy tale. On it, the present is living out its time: washed by the sea of the dead, half-drowned in the past, half a step away from death and oblivion, eyes tightly shut.
When the past is not preserved but discarded (the way you might clip hair or fingernails), the dead have fallen out of favor. They find themselves in the position of an aggrieved minority. They lose the right to our attention (and the ability to dodge said attention); they no longer have a say—they are remembered as others see fit. In a way, they are beyond the purview of the law: their possessions belong to others, anyone can insult them, we don’t know anything about them, but we act like they don’t even exist. Cemeteries, these ghettos for the dead, move to the outskirts of large cities—beyond the threshold of the everyday, where the living can only venture a couple of times a year, with dread, as if crossing a front line.
Because the first thing a cemetery conveys—any cemetery, large or small, covered in marble sculptures or in weeds and nettle—is the actual bulk of everything that came before me (“I had not thought death had undone so many”). Our natural inclination to look at history as an exhibit of accomplishments (or a sequence of traumas) is suddenly pushed out by other kinds of histories. Cooking pots, bedsheets, irons, porcelain, faience, diapers, baby powder, hollow gold rings, underskirts, postcards from the city of Gorky, a Niva edition of Chekhov, sleds, a Napoleon cake, union fees, ring four times, theater clutch bags, two-kopeck coins, quarter-kopeck coins, a monthly pass (September), a vocabulary notebook, a butter dish, a mimosa, a ticket to the Moscow Art Theater. Over each grave, like a post, like a beam, there is an invisible (maybe glowing, maybe devoid of any color or weight) mass of what has been. It reaches as high, it seems to me, as the sky, and indeed the sky rests on it.
What is memory to do in a world of overproduction—when there is so much surrounding us, so many old pots, featherbeds, glasses cases? So many dead languages and so many unmarked and abandoned graves? At the old Jewish cemetery in Prague it went like this: There was very little space, and many dead people, and time passed year after year. The dead were buried in layers, one floor atop another, and when they came up against an old headstone, they would pull it out and put it right next to the new one, like a row of steepled houses. This seems like the fate of any attempt to bury one’s dead: you try to dispatch a dead idea underground, and an older one works itself loose underneath it, and not even one, but three, like the heads of the hydra. That’s what history looks like from a fixed vantage point: layers and layers of accidental proximities and irresponsible analogies; from this perspective it really seems that it’s time to digest the past. To draw out (of the organism) the excess, the unnecessary, the things that have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. To leave the nutritious, the beneficial, the usable. To remove the typical, to leave in the singular. At last, to establish a vertical.
But everything about the reality of graveyards resists the vertical. The trade of the dead is, in the most literal sense, horizontal; their bodies and their deeds prove the futility of any kind of selectiveness. Rows, and rows, and rows, names and dates, if you can even find a name. A giant day care, a nursery with millions of beds—that’s what it looks like, if you imagine for a minute that the sleepers might wake. A dormitory under the open sky, with little beds (and bunnies on each cubby). And look how many of us there are.
If one believes that our true home is not here but in the open sky, any one thought will come up against the cemetery and move along it like a runway. I like to picture it like the cemetery in Rome whose name can be translated as the heterodox cemetery, Cimitero Acattolico. There are stone pines, and cypresses, and quiet, sluggish cats, and an old city wall, and an Italian (farsighted) sky. Persephone’s pomegranates ripen, splatter, and spill their seeds over the footpaths. There lie people with strange fates—those who died far away from home (and if everything other than heaven is a foreign land, we will all meet the same fate). Young women (“beloved wife of so and so”—of twenty-two, twenty-six, nineteen years and six months, February 6, 1842). Young children (“Wordsworth attended the christening,” the stone says) and grown children (“son of Goethe,” the stone says). Keats, Shelley, Viacheslav Ivanov (representatives of the vertical). And behind them, and in front of them, and together with them—all-all-all, all the epithelium of the past and present, hoping (or not) for the resurrection of the dead. Fourth-rate writers, third-wave emigrants, no-name Germans and Danes, old Russians and new Romans. Kôitiro Yamada, born in Hiroshima (“of Aki Province”), died in Rome thirty-three years later—on the fifteenth of January, 1883. Shiny thickets of acanthus. A stone boy in tall boots. “Thy will be done.” “Zum Licht.” “Harmony, harmony was your last sigh.”
To the Memory of Robert
The eldest son of Mr. Robert Brown,
of the City of London, Merchant.
Who unhappily lost his Life at Tivoli by his
Foot slipping, in coming out of Neptune’s Grotto,
on the 6th July 1823.
Aged 21 years.
By this Fatal Accident
a Virtuous and Amiable Youth has been
suddenly snatched away in the bloom of Health
and pride of Life!
His disconsolate Parents are bereaved
of a most excellent Son,
His Brothers, and Sisters have to lament
an attached, and affectionate Brother,
and all his Family and Friends
have sustained an irreparable Loss.”
“Under this stone
rests the body of the former psalmist
of the Imperial Russian Mission,
“Her soul was pleasing to God.
To the unforgettable dear daughter
Anna Khristoforovna Flerova.
Born in Rome August 13 1877
Died April 12 1892.
Rest until the joyous morning, dear child.”
“Here lies buried the red army soldier
Danilov Vasilii Danilovich.
A faithful son of the Soviet people,
a fighter for the partisan cause in Italy.
Born in 1919 in Kaluga,
died tragically January 6 1945.
VASSILY DANIELOVICH, 1919 ✝ 6 J 1945”
Though on the sign it is written:
“Don’t pluck these blossoms”—
it is useless against the wind,
which cannot read
—Translated from the Russian by Maria Vassileva
Maria Stepanova is the author of more than ten poetry collections as well as three books of essays and the documentary novel In Memory of Memory. She is the recipient of several Russian and international literary awards.
Maria Vassileva is a poet and translator. Her work has appeared in VQR, Ploughshares, and Modern Poetry in Translation. She holds a degree in Russian literature from Harvard University.
Excerpted from The Voice Over, by Maria Stepanova, edited by Irina Shevelenko. Copyright © 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.