Notebooks 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
Translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman

As I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings (and on any kind of social media I happen to be near!), I’ve been rather absorbed in the Notebooks of Victor Serge over the past couple of weeks. The very wonderful NYRB Classics seem to fly the flag for him; several of his novels and his “Memoirs of Revolutionary” are available in their imprint (and I’ve read most of them…) However, this volume really is something special, and I’ll share some thoughts on it below – though I fear these will not really do the book justice. I’m sorry – this is going to be a long post!

The Notebooks

Serge’s real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich and he was born in Brussels to Russian parents. His life was a peripatetic one, moving from place to place – France, Spain, Russia to join the Bolsheviks, prison, exile and eventually emigration. He finally went into exile in Mexico during the Second World War, and died there in 1947. Described as an anarchist, Bolshevik and Left Oppositionist, it seems to me that he was concerned overall with justice, equality and freedom; but more than anything else he was an exceptionally gifted author and a witness to his times.

All we know of ourselves is a kind of waking dream, finely worked by the will, enlightened by consciousness – but a dream all the same.

The diaries cover the period from 1936-1947, and this is in fact a landmark publication which gathers material from a number of sources. Serge’s notebooks have only partially been published in the past, and the note on the text sets out the various sources from which this material has been brought together to give the most complete edition, and the first one to be rendered in this form in English. Again, bouquets and kudos to NYRB for bringing this volume to us; because it’s an absolutely incredible and absorbing read.

The Notebooks on their travels, already a bit festooned…

The notebooks open in 1936 with Serge in Paris treating us to his thoughts on Andre Gide. The entries between 1936 and 1940 form a chapter on their own as they’re more fragmentary, but after that each year has a section of its own until Serge’s death. The years in transit and then exile perhaps afforded more opportunity for writing, and certainly the Mexico days saw Serge taking stock of the past, noting and commenting on world events, theorising about the future, and recording, vividly, his impressions of the world around him. So Serge fills his notebooks with all manner of things: impressions of those he knows or encounters, thoughts on his beliefs and what may come of socialism and indeed the world; drafts of letters to friends and colleagues; meditations on the history of the Revolution and the fate of Trotsky; his own emotions and his longing for his partner Laurette; and beautiful prose which relates his travels in exile and records the natural world around him (for which he obviously has a profound affection). It’s a heady and wonderful mix, and a privileged glimpse into the unique mind of a great revolutionary and writer.

At that time I decided, given the growing reaction, to dedicate myself to history and literature, novels, to work at defending and ripening, my ideas. Duty of a witness, conclusion that intellectual activity remained the only one possible.

Serge’s life was not an easy one; persecuted for much of it because of his beliefs and his refusal to toe the party line, things became particularly difficult in exile as he was constantly under attack for his association with Trotsky (even though he disagreed with the latter’s outlook towards the end of his life). He was under constant threat of assassination, and indeed there are still theories around that his death from a heart attack in a Mexico taxi was in fact murder. However, the notebooks reveal that his health was suffering a little and he records consulting a doctor, shortness of breath etc, which tends to lend support to a natural death.

One thing that’s stunning is the sheer variety of subjects upon which Serge touches in his narrative; from political philosophy through memoir and personal recollection to quite beautiful passages of description. And what’s quite incredible is the range of players you encounter in these pages – from Trotsky to Leonora Carrington to Andre Breton to Blaise Cendrars to Levi-Strauss, Serge knew an incredible array of people and his pen portraits are vibrant and memorable; you do find yourself wondering if there was anyone Serge didn’t know, and I didn’t quite expect to meet so many names I already knew within these pages. He seems generally clear-sighted about those he comes into contact with, and is quite critical of some; Anna Seghers does not get off lightly for aligning herself with the Stalinist regime, and he considers Diego Rivera to be very fluid in his choices of who to follow… Breton reappears at several points in the narrative; it seems that he and Serge were quite friends, although there is falling out but eventual much more understanding on Serge’s part of the man that Breton was.

One sees, one lives intensely, but not everything, for the poem changes from moment to moment, and it is so immense that it can’t all be taken in.

However, there are some extremely poignant pieces: Serge mourns the suicides of Walter Benjamin and Stefan Zweig in particular, penning a desperately moving piece on the latter. He also writes most touchingly about Mandelstam, a fragile man with nevertheless enough courage to write poetry against Stalin. Chagall makes an appearance, which has a lovely synchronicity with the fact that I picked up the latter’s “My Life” whilst reading Serge. Inevitably, there are times when the book reads somewhat like a litany of deaths, becoming a kind of memorial as Serge sees and records so many of his contemporaries fall by the wayside, either by natural causes, suicide or by assassination.

Public Domain – Via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, he had no illusions about the forces that were ranged against him, and he offers a pithy analysis of Trotsky, Hitler and Stalin. His discourse about the horrors of the Nazi regime and the mentality of those who take part in atrocities seemed very astute to me; and his discussion of, and awareness of, concentration camps in more than one nation is somewhat ahead of his time. It’s worth remembering that Serge was in a very difficult position; he had spoken (and continued to speak) out in opposition to Stalin’s terror, and this was at a time when Russia was an ally against Germany. Therefore, he was under constant threat from all sides for continuing to say what he saw as the truth. He was probably also feared as a survivor of the Russian Revolution, uniquely placed to record the many historical events he’d lived through; of particular interest were his memoirs of his times working with Trotsky, as well as the sadness of his encounters with the latter’s widow after the assassination.

All my Serges (I have one e-book but must get a tree version…)

The Notebooks are a wonderful mix of the personal and the political, then. The sections recording his journey into exile via Marseilles, then by circuitous route by boat eventually to Mexico, are particularly powerful. As they passed the various countries on their way, Serge recorded his impressions of the landscapes in vivid and evocative prose.

The coast is low and mountainous, gullied in all directions by the rains, in places well cultivated. Reddish rocks and green slopes, sandy banks to the sea, the backdrop rounded like the backs of beasts. The land is violet and blue in the morning mist. Around noon it’s illuminated, even though the sky is cloudy, and it gathers together a mass of pink, rust, ochre, dark green, light green tones, somber touches of distant rocks, all of it full of life, almost carnal, sculpted by the waters. One can see that the Earth is alive. It’s astonishing that men haven’t sufficiently realized this obvious fact and constructed a religion out of it.

However, his thoughts are often on ethical matters, and as the ship passes by Oran, in Algeria, the setting for Camus’ “The Plague”, this is the first of many occasions when Serge reflects upon the horror and stupidity of racism. Serge is accompanied by his son Vlady, having had to leave his partner Laurette and daughter Jeannine in France. There is such power and poignancy in the writing of these sections that they’ve kind of burnt themselves into my brain. It was some time until his partner and daughter were able to join them in Mexico, when Serge was able to take joy and comfort from having his family on hand, and the notebooks reflect this in places.

I refuse to think about how far away it is, because you are near, you are coming, and I must, I want, to be able to feel you close in your absence, and all our memories must be present in the separation in order to enrich and find our strength. Our memories are us. You are every bit as real to me as everything I see, as everything I touch, I want to be yours at every moment. We are moving towards each other, united by our momentum and our communion. I am in you. You are in me.

The travel writing is quite stunning in places; Serge was always a great writer and he brought his talents to capturing the landscape around him:

More than two hundred kilometers by road, towards the Pacific, across a vast landscape of mountains under a hot sun. This volcanic earth, violently convulsed, constantly opens onto new horizons of sharp-edged ridges against mild, lustrous skies. The rocks here shattered in all directions in the era of geological revolutions. Aridity, little cultivation, the impression of a land without people, given over to plants armed with prickly thorns, splendid magueys with enormous, drooping, vase shaped leaves, organos rising straight up to a height of five meters or more, terrifying perpendicular cactus bushes of so intense a green that they seem almost black. There are areas of stony desert with silver tones. Near Taxco a semicircular hole in the wall of mountains cuts the horizon.

He seems to have moved frequently around Mexico, and there were some wonderful passages in particular about his visits to active volcanoes:

We are all squatting outside on a mat facing a crater that breathes, sings, and exhales subterranean fire. It’s cold out. The purple flames are rising without letup and falling in a rain of incandescent stones that we can see streaming to the bottom of the crater, hundreds of metres off. When the volcano catches its breath, its outline dulls, then blackens. We followed the rising of the meteors and their fall. Some of them reach as far as the green stars and float among them for a long moment. The Milky Way falls on the volcano so that it seems to have two infinite extensions: the dark, heavy, threatening extension of its clouds and the aerial, glacial, softly luminous one of the Milky Way. In contrast with the terrestrial blaze, the stars are a shimmering steel blue tending towards green. We hear the hissing descent of the lava to our right. And we see red slides flaming down the crevices of the hills.

So much of what he said rang true, so many of his descriptions took my breath away, that I ended up with a book positively festooned with a forest of post-it notes. Serge seems always so clear-sighted about the world around him, and was a great (and often prescient) thinker – this particular comment struck home at the moment:

This is the time of falsified – that is, betrayed – values. Anyone even slightly well informed has the sensation of breathing lies of such low quality that they don’t even contain the involuntary homage to truth proper to useful and, in a way, decent, lies, which only aim at misleading moderately.

I was struck too by a scary dream Serge had in 1943 which almost seemed to foresee the atomic bomb… There are also some wonderful thoughts and reflections on literature and writing; on specific authors in places, and also on the eternal problem faced by Russian writers of his time which Serge recognises in himself. Because of the hostility from all sides, Serge found it almost impossible to publish anything (and therefore to make any kind of living) and was stuck with a situation familiar to any reader of Russian literature from the Soviet period:

To write only for the desk drawer, past age fifty, facing unknown future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result?

And one of the things which makes the Notebooks such a wonderful reading experience is that the writer in Serge is always to the fore – his prose is excellent.

The final reckoning – all those post-its!!!

Well, I could go on and on, but this post is long enough as it is and I’ve really only scratched the surface. As I mentioned, towards the end of the book the entries thin out until late in 1957 they just stop… I must admit I found myself a bit emotional at this point, having immersed myself in Serge and his world for nearly two weeks. It felt kind of like losing a personal friend… 😦 I’ve had something of an obsession with Serge since first reading his fiction; reading the Notebooks has only made that much worse. Make no mistake, this is a big book and a commitment to read. At just under 600 pages (and NYRB do pack a lot onto each page!) it’s a work that you need to submerge yourself in, but it’s brimming with riches and the rewards are immense. Notebooks is a groundbreaking, vital and important work which stands, perhaps, as Victor Serge’s final testament and commentary on the times he lived through; it really is a magnificent book which I can’t recommend highly enough.


A special vote of thanks needs to go to the translators for their work on the Notebooks. Both Abidor and Greeman have worked on Serge’s books before (Abidor editing and translating an anthology of Serge’s Anarchist writings; and Greeman having translated and written introductions for five of Serge’s novels). So both are well-placed to work on the Notebooks. The supporting notes appear usefully at the bottom of each page and were at just the right level for me (as I know a reasonable amount about the history and the period!); and there was an extremely helpful – nay, essential! – glossary of names at the end of the book. Inevitably, there are a *lot* of people mentioned in the book and the glossary gives a little info if you’re not sure who they are. An exemplary edition, and an essential read. Marvellous!