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Orphan of History

Unforgiving Years

by Victor Serge, translated from the French and with an introduction by Richard Greeman
New York Review Books, 341 pp., $15.95 (paper)
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Victor Serge, Mexico, 1944

Singular and solitary, the novelist Victor Serge (1890–1947) appears as an orphan of history, a chance survivor improbably clinging to the coffin of the Bolshevik Revolution. The main characters of Unforgiving Years, Serge’s final novel, written in Mexico, the place of his own final exile, are his fictional brothers—disillusioned Soviet agents surviving the hell of wartime Europe only to be thrown, like he, into some hitherto unimagined Atlantic void.

Unforgiving Years begins with D, a dedicated revolutionary with a cyanide capsule adhered to his scalp who now believes himself hunted by Stalin’s agents. Looking for a way out of 1938 Paris, he contemplates his “final break with all the reasons for living—ideas, cause, motherland, unity in danger, invisible battle for the future, vision of a forward-marching world!” After D escapes to Mexico, his spiritual comrade Daria follows him on a westbound freighter, seven years and considerable suffering later. She’s “traveling on her last passport, her last money; outside every law, very possibly pursued, free, free!”—and naturally, for a Serge character in such circumstances, contemplating her extinction.

Creatures of thought as well as action, D and Daria are descendants of the talkative nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. Even (or perhaps especially) as the world falls apart, they are absorbed with the workings of their minds. “I’m turning into a character out of a novel for intellectuals,” D jokes to himself. During the siege of Leningrad, Daria hastens over blackened snow amid exploding shells, wondering if she is “still thinking within the material truth of history.” Stalin appears only as a poster in a government office; his name is never mentioned—nor are those of Lenin and Trotsky—but D and Daria spend considerable time pondering past associations, turning their service to the Party and Revolution over and over in their thoughts. During his last night on earth, D mentally revisits the Central Asian scene of a youthful exploit in the Russian civil war and poses the essential question: “How did we—insurgent, united, uplifted, and victorious—bring about the opposite of what we wanted to do?”

These characters may not speak for Serge but theirs are the voices that haunted him. D, the same age as Serge, muses that an entire historical epoch was required to shape him. Born in Brussels to revolutionary parents, brought up in one exile and dying in another, Serge passed his life in a succession of prisons and left-wing political parties. A participant in three European revolutions, he became familiar with millennial expectation and catastrophic loss. Only after he ceased to be a professional revolutionary did he become a novelist. His first book, Men in Prison, was set in France, written in German (and Germany), finished in Moscow, then mailed piecemeal back to France for publication. His best-known novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, was begun in Paris, then continued while he was on the run through France, crossed the Atlantic, and detained in the Dominican Republic. The book was finally completed in Mexico and published in France a year after the writer’s death. He was buried in Mexico City’s French cemetery, a “Spanish Republican.”

Victor Serge may not be a household name but neither is he completely unknown. His devastating analyses of Stalin’s Soviet Union were first translated by American Trotskyists in the late 1930s and were reprinted into the 1970s. Partisan Review published his essays and fiction. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was well received, if deemed by some critics inferior to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, when it appeared in English in 1950. In The Nation, Irving Howe called Serge’s novel “the best fictional portrait we have of Stalinist Russia, richly credible in atmospheric detail and bound by a coherent view of what Stalinism means.” (Writing in The New International, a sectarian Trotskyist publication, Howe was less detached, cautioning readers that “the material is so close to us, the point of view so congenial, the pathos so unbearable…that we are emotionally defenseless against the entire impact of the book.”) Despite his arguments with Trotsky, Serge was a Trotskyist hero. If he was largely forgotten by cold war liberals en route from youthful Trotskyism to mature neoconservatism, the British publication of Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, written in 1941 with the encouragement of Dwight Macdonald, stimulated his rediscovery by the New Left. Beginning in 1967, Richard Greeman translated and introduced Serge’s early novels, which at the same time had been reissued in France.1

The memoirs are crucial, for Serge’s greatest story was his life. His father, Lvov Kibalchich, was a noncommissioned officer of the Russian imperial guard with ties to the extremist revolutionary Narodniks who in 1881 assassinated Alexander II. (Indeed, his assignment was to shoot the Tsar should Alexander survive the first attempt on his life.) Serge’s parents escaped and took refuge in a Brussels slum. “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged,” their son would recall.

By age fifteen, Victor Kibalchich, as Serge was then known, had begun living on his own—as a photographer’s apprentice, a draftsman, and a linotype operator, organizing all the while for the Belgian Socialist Party. A few years later, having read Peter Kropotkin’s Appeal to the Young, he toured utopian colonies in Belgium and France. At nineteen, he moved to Paris and, working intermittently as a printer and translator, threw himself into the fringe political scene. Serge was a precursor of the New Left before he even joined the old one: he followed from the start anarchism’s most extreme line, asserting that not class warfare but the individual’s total revolt against the strictures of society would serve as the engine of social change. Calling himself Le Rétif (The Unbroken One), Serge wrote for L’anarchie and later, as the journal’s editor, went on to defend the violence of a few colorful motorcar-driving bank robbers known as the Bonnot Gang. The police searched L’anarchie ‘s offices and in 1911 found two revolvers; the fiery young editor was arrested, charged with harboring the bandits he had publicly defended, and imprisoned for five years (an experience he would describe in his first novel, Men in Prison).

Released in the midst of World War I, now calling himself Victor Serge, the twenty-seven-year-old anarchist made his way to neutral Barcelona to join up with the syndicalist organizer Salvador “Sugar Boy” Seguí. A rebellion broke out (and was crushed) but Serge was already en route to Russia; or rather, already on his way to a French prison camp where, although he then had no connection other than sentiment to the Russian Revolution, he would be detained for over a year as a Bolshevik agent. The uprising in Barcelona, the World War, and his abortive journey home provided material for Serge’s second novel, Birth of Our Power.

The Russian Revolution would be the supreme event of Serge’s life. He arrived in Red Petrograd, capital of the motherland he’d never seen, in early 1919; by May Day, he had become a functionary of the Communist Party. Serge criticized Lenin’s intolerance and his faith in the power of the state but he was also a realist—or so he thought at the time. “Within the current situation of Europe, bloodstained, devastated, and in profound stupor, Bolshevism was,” in his eyes, “tremendously and visibly right. It marked a new point of departure in history.”

Serge fought in defense of Petrograd, attacked twice that year by the White Army. He taught political education courses, working under Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Setting up the Com- intern publishing house and running its Romance-language section, editing international journals and cataloguing the archives of the tsarist secret police, Serge knew everyone—he moved in Petrograd’s ruling circles, while keeping in touch with Mensheviks, Left Social-Revolutionaries, and members of the so-called Workers’ Opposition. (He was the lone Bolshevik to attend the funeral of Kropotkin, the anarchist-Communist whose books had sent him off in search of Utopia as a teenager.)

The Bolsheviks’ massacre of thousands of sailors following the 1921 Kronstadt Rebellion shook Serge’s faith. Requesting to be sent on a mission to the West, he was dispatched to Berlin to edit the Comintern’s European press service—and also to serve as an agent of the German Communist Party. Spirited out of Berlin with the failure of the Communists’ 1923 Hamburg putsch, Serge returned to the Soviet Union in 1926. Two years later, having written an imprudent article that described the recent expulsion of Trotsky and the oppositionists as a “grave error,” Serge was himself expelled from the Party and shortly thereafter arrested by the secret police for “anti-Soviet activity.” He nearly died of an intestinal occlusion twenty-four hours after leaving prison. It was then, approaching forty, that Serge resolved to become an artist, mentally sketching a series of documentary novels about what he had seen and experienced—the extreme circumstances of prison, revolution, and political persecution.

Over the next few years, Serge completed Men in Prison and two other novels, Birth of Our Power and Conquered City (a nightmarish account of Red terror), as well as a history, Year One of the Russian Revolution—all composed in fragments and mailed to friends in Paris so that if their author was again arrested (as he eventually would be), the assembled manuscripts could be published abroad (as they were). In their tone, the novels have the immediacy of battlefield reports. The nameless narrators of Men in Prison and Birth of Our Power, and even that of the more personal Memoirs of a Revolutionary—itself a series of snapshot portraits—are observers. Apparently blessed with total recall, Serge excelled at character vignettes; his books are remarkable for their swarming casts. Notwithstanding a talent for describing different personalities, he took seriously the notion of a collective hero, writing in his memoirs:

Individual existences were of no interest to me—particularly my own—except by virtue of the great ensemble of life whose particles, more or less endowed with consciousness, are all that we ever are.

In early 1933, Serge was deported to a prison camp in Orenburg, on the border of Kazakhstan (the setting for his later novel Midnight in the Century). But by now he was a known figure in Paris. Intellectuals rallied to his cause; he was released in the spring of 1936 (a favor Stalin granted the French fellow traveler Romain Rolland) and expelled from the Soviet Union. Two complete novels—one an account of the pre-war French anarchists, the other a sequel to Conquered City—as well as a book of poetry and the continuation of his history, Year Two of the Russian Revolution, were confiscated by the secret police before he left. The Spanish civil war broke out shortly after he arrived back in the West. Weeks later, Stalin charged his old Bolshevik comrades with treason. That summer, the first major show trial opened, with Serge’s erstwhile boss Grigory Zinoviev, an early Bolshevik and former supporter of Trotsky, accused along with fifteen coconspirators of the murder of Sergei Kirov and planning the death of Stalin, among other crimes.

  1. 1

    Since then, The Case of Comrade Tulayev has returned to print (New York Review Books, 2004), while various small presses have brought out anthologies of Serge’s political pamphlets, his correspondence with Trotsky, and even his poems. An English-language biography, Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope (Verso) by Susan Weissman, was published in 2001.

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