Three summers ago, when I set off on my usual annual round trip to visit the Aged Parent and the Offspring, I took with me a book which turned out to be an epic read: “The Notebooks of Victor Serge“. The author is a long term favourite of mine, one who’s featured on the Ramblings many times, and so this release from NYRB was very exciting and turned out to be one of my reads of the year. Fast forward to 2022, and the first time I’ve done that round trip since the pandemic, and lo and behold NYRB issue another massive tome from Serge, just in time for me to take on my travels – how obliging!!! 🤣🤣🤣 Seriously though, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time and it was perfect for me to immerse myself in whilst making slightly nervous steps back into the wider world. The book is “Last Times”, translated from the French by Ralph Manheim and revised by Richard Greeman, and it’s a stupendous read.

“Last Times” tells of the fall of France in the Second World War and the effects that occupation by the Germans has on a disparate group of characters. The book opens in a seedy hotel in Paris, where reactions to the coming changes are mixed; some think the discipline and orderliness of the Germans will be good for the country; others are more clear-sighted and recognise what’s coming. In particular, those who are emigres, like Dr Ardatov, have been through similar experiences already; and the Jewish characters are ready to flee. Then there are two young protagonists, the Jewish Maurice Silber and Spanish Manuel Ortiga, both of whom have good reasons for wanting to stay away from the Nazis. Hilda is a German revolutionary who is also under threat from the occupying forces; and Laurent Justinian, an emotionally battle scarred soldier, is on the run from his experiences. Another central character is Felicien Murier, a celebrated and decorated French author, who could have lived safely under the new regime because of his prestige, as long as he went along with the literary stunts the German authorities wanted from him. Simpler folk are woodburner Augustin Charras and his daughter Angele, caught up, as were all the regular people of France, in the frightening conflict.

Dr Simon Ardatov made twenty-five francs in an evening, considerably less than if he had been a porter; yet the carrying of heavy loads requires muscles a man does not have at the age of sixty-three; and Simon Ardatov knew from experience that half a century of study does not equip a man for washing cars or peddling patent medicines. The sad thing about surviving several historical catastrophes is that you grow old like everybody else, and after spending your strength resisting fascism you still need one or two meals a day.

These are some of the main characters in what is a richly populated book which explores the lives and fates of those caught up in the occupation. The beginning of the book focuses on Paris, where the protagonists await the arrival of the Germans. The tone is chilling, and as the Nazis arrive, many try to carry on as normal – after all, they’re just ordinary people and there is always someone in charge; does the change of the ‘man at the top’ make that much difference to their lives? It soon becomes clear, however, that it will; there’s a brutality about the occupiers, anyone who doesn’t fit in with their Aryan theories is vulnerable, and many of those with strong anti-Fascist feelings decide to flee to the free zone, heading south to Marseilles, which is the last point of departure from France to a safer world.

So the narrative follows the various journeys the characters take; whether by train, truck or bicycle, there’s a huge mass of people moving south and the journey is not without its dangers; whether from other travellers, war planes overhead or groups of enemy soldiers, the escapees are always at risk. Travelling groups form and break apart, new friendships are made, and some will not make it as far as Marseilles. However, for those who do there is no guarantee of safety; there are enemies around every corner, fake papers will not always be enough, and even for those who manage to make it onto a boat away from Europe, there are still risks ahead. The conflict has made it clear that the world is a much smaller place than we thought and there are dangers everywhere…

The important thing is that the totalitarians will be carried away in their turn. We are at the edge of the pit, but the pit has been dug for them too. They’re taking Paris, one day Berlin will be taken or destroyed, you don’t need astrology to know that. And neither France nor Europe can die without being reborn. Something new must be done, and they’re doing it, but with the oldest implements in the world: madness, war, chains, the inquisition.

“Last Times” is a book which does not hurry its story and it’s all the more powerful for it. As we follow the protagonists through their journeys we get the chance to know them, to hear them debating life and its meanings with others and with themselves; and because we’ve come to know them, their fates can be even more moving. The central character, perhaps, and one who may well represent Serge himselve in the narrative, is Dr Simon Ardatov, a Russian emigre who has seen many changes in the world and has a realistic view of events. Becoming a refugee again is something he takes calmly and in his stride, and he was the protagonist to whom I became most attached. Murier, too, was a perhaps unexpectedly powerful character, and the part of the book where he witnesses the arrival of the Nazis in a Jewish area of Paris is masterly and chilling. The women characters are perhaps less well formed than in Serge’s other books, falling into uncomfortable madonna/whore cliches at times (there are a *lot* of streetwalkers in the book!) Hilda is perhaps the most interesting of the women but unfortunately she’s a little underdeveloped; maybe for strong woman characters in a similar situation it would be best to read something like “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky!

The true style of the present era is that of the concentration camp. We are living in this atrocious hole here because we are in a gentle country characterised by a negligent humanism that was a generation behind the times or perhaps two generations ahead of the times – that remains to be seen. The concentration camps of Russia and Germany are masterpieces of organisation of a type hitherto unknown in history.

However, the book also raises strong moral questions as to how to behave in extreme situations like this. Some simply choose to follow the herd and go for an easy life, trying to live alongside the new regime as best they can. Survival is, after all, probably a human’s strongest instinct, and it will force many into selfishness and sometimes betrayal; it’s hard to be too judgemental because of course we have no idea how would we react in a similar situation. Some of Serge’s protagonists find hidden reserves; some, however, take what they feel is the only way out. Once more, who knows how they would behave under such circumstances… The rich and kaleidescopic collection of characters give the author a chance to explore a wide range of human behaviour, as well as to incorporate his own experiences – for, of course, Serge himself fled France via Marseilles and a ship to Mexico where he found temporary refuge before his untimely death in 1947.

Interestingly, “Last Times” is perhaps a more conventional novel than you might expect to find from Serge, who was known for his often experimental styling. However as Richard Greeman makes clear in his excellent introduction, Serge wrote the book intentionally this way, as a kind of attempt at a bestseller (and indeed the book was very popular in its initial release, capturing as it did the effects of recent dramatic events on the people in France). However, this is no potboiler; the book is beautifully and lyrically written, mixing passages of description of the settings with sometimes brutal events and philosophical musings of the characters. It’s a heady mix which creates an unforgettable tableau of people and landscape in a clash between opposing ideologies. It also explores the depths to which humanity can sink, and Serge’s often chilling narrative leaves you in no doubt about how ghastly human beings can be.

“Last Times” has had a slightly turbulent publishing history, as Greeman explains in a note on the translation. Ralph Manheim was an esteemed translator and worked with Serge when translating the book. However, the publisher, Dial Press, made a number of changes to the book which were never approved by either Serge or Manheim, and many of Serge’s changes were not incorporated. The final version, therefore, was not what Serge would have wished for and so Greeman (who has done so much to promote Serge’s work) has restored the missing passages and revised the translation, presenting here a full version of the original book – which is wonderful!

This has been a hard post to write in some ways; I was so involved in the book and so knocked out by its brilliance and epic range that I find it difficult to capture that and convey just how I feel about it in a coherent fashion! Serge’s writing always has this effect on me, with his mix of wonderful writing, unforgettable characters and settings, plus his underlying wish for a fair and just world. This is a timely and relevant release, in a world which is still wracked with war and conflict, full of refugees seeking for a safe haven. Suffice to say that “Last Times” will be another Serge work which makes my books of the year list, and it cements his status as one of my favourite writers. Highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. “Last Times” is out tomorrow from NYRB Classics