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“An eternal vagabond of life and the idea” #victorserge @nyrbclassics

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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!

… in which I (mostly) resist the bookshops of Leicester! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media might have picked up that I’ve been off on my annual tour (ahem!) round the East Midlands, visiting the Aged Parent and the Offspring in their various locations. I *do* look forward to this modest journey because:

a. it’s nice to get away

b. I like to travel on trains…

c. you can read a lot on trains!

(It *is* nice to see family, too!) So I left Mr. Kaggsy holding the fort, and scheduled a lot of posts and set off. I had a bit of a quandary about what chunkster to take along to read en route, and in fact I ended up taking this:

Victor Serge is an author I’ve covered many times on the Ramblings; I love his writing, and his life is as fascinating as his books. His Notebooks have been released by New York Review Books, and the book was the perfect companion to my travels. As you can see, there is a positive *forest* of post-its – sign of a book which is going to make you think and stay with you, which this one definitely is. I am still reading and will share some thoughts eventually…

So, normally on my visits I end up buying *lots* of new books, but I was amazed to return from my travels with only *two* new volumes!! These are they:

Chagall and Berger

The  Chagall caught my eye as I whizzed into Hatchards at St. Pancras whilst on my way to a rail connection; it was about his life in exile and I kind of felt it chimed in with the Serge. Plus it’s a pretty new Penguin Modern Classic – I do like their current colour scheme! The only other book I picked up was from the one second hand shop in the centre of Leicester (nothing from the charity shops!!) It’s an old Pelican edition of some selected essays and articles by John Berger which I’d never come across before, and it was Not Cheap. However, a glance at the contents was enough to persuade me:

Berger contents

I don’t know if you can make it out from my rubbish photo, but there is an essay about Victor Serge! Berger on Serge – oh my! Not to be resisted! I still can’t believe that I only came home with these two new books; as Youngest Child reminded us, Middle Child had to lend me a suitcase on one visit as I had so many finds to transport home. Maybe I’m just becoming more selective…

Whilst in Leicester, we paid a little visit to the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery. I always like to pop in when I’m in the city, as it has a nice collection of German Expressionists as well as some dinosaurs and Egyptians. The current exhibition turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, as when we arrived we discovered there was a show dedicated to the artists who were behind the wonderful images in Ladybird Books!

The exhibition was a real treat. There were sections dedicated to the main artists involved, with original artwork, Ladybird books and covers, as well as examples of other uses of each artist’s artwork. I grew up reading these books, as did the Offspring (we may still have some in the house…); so it was absolutely fascinating to see the stories of the art behind them. I’m particularly fond of the 1950s and 1960s artwork (I love that mid-century modern feel); and it was wonderful to see some large and lovely artworks from that era.

I took a few snaps of images that particularly caught my eye:

Harlech Castle – we used to holiday in North Wales and have visited the castle!

John Bull magazine from 1951 featuring the Festival of Britain – with which I have a bit of an obsession…

An extra fun element was the fact that as well as a wall display made up of a positive mosaic of Ladybird books, there was a pile in the middle of the exhibition that you could pick up and browse through. In fact, the exhibition was very child-friendly, with places where you could draw as well as reading nooks designed for children (and into which 24-year-old Youngest Child had to crawl… you can’t take them anywhere…)

A beautiful old typewriter on display – I learned to touch-type on one of these!! 😮

It was a really fascinating exhibition, and in fact the whole gallery/museum was a lovely place to wander through. On my way out, I spotted another resonance with my current reading:

John Berger quote

The gallery has a quote from John Berger on one of the walls – so they get a thumbs up from me!

As well as visiting the New Walk Museum, we also popped to the National Space Centre (there’s a family connection – don’t ask….) I’d never actually been inside before, but Eldest Child had visited with my late dad back in the day. It was actually a really interesting place to go, as I do like hearing about space travel, and there was an interesting show in the Planetarium. I also got very silly-excited about seeing this:

Need I say more? No.

Apart from all this gadding about, there was of course the chance to explore new to me purveyors of vegan food, and a favourite was the Prana cafe where we had yummy vegan scones:

Middle Child also played host and made me a lovely vegan Sunday breakfast, so I was very spoiled!

And fortunately, because of my good behaviour, I didn’t have a ton of extra luggage to haul back with me on the train, so I was able to relax on the return journey and enjoy the Serge Notebooks – perfect! 😀

*****

I did, however, return home to some lovely bookish post:

The Hugo Charteris is from Mike Walmer, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Charteris, as I did enjoy the first of his I read. The Hess book is part of a new imprint from HarperCollins called HarperVia, and is set in Germany in the early 1960s. It sounds absolutely fascinating, and will be ideal for Women in Translation month if I get to it in time… But first I need to finish Victor’s Notebooks! 😀

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

A life spent fighting for a cause #1951Club

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Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
Translated by Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis
Glossary and Notes by Richard Greeman
Foreword by Adam Hochschild

My final read for the #1951club is very different from the others; instead of fiction (mainly crime!), it’s an autobiographical work by the author and revolutionary Victor Serge. I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before, covering several of his fictions which I’ve absolutely loved. This book, however, is Serge’s account of his own life, one spent fighting for a cause, and it’s absolutely fascinating. The book is a long one, only completed last night, and it’s left me with much food for thought.

Serge was what you might call a professional revolutionary; born in Belgium to a family of émigré dissidents, it was inevitable that he would grow up following their example, and after his parents split up when he was 15 he was pretty much on his own, joining a socialist group but later being drawn to anarchism. He led a peripatetic life with spells in prison and exile, living in countries from France, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Austria and of course Russia – his spiritual home and the place he eagerly travelled to when the 1917 Revolution took place. He joined the Bolsheviks, having become a little disillusioned with anarchism, and somehow survived the awful conditions of the civil war.

However, Serge’s initial enthusiasm for the new regime was tempered with concern about the turn it was taking. He disagreed with the harshness of those now in power, recognising early that things were moving away from the purity of the initial beliefs and becoming mired in bureaucracy. He was also quick to realise that the Secret Police were corrupt and uncontrolled and that an atmosphere of mistrust and toeing the party line was developing. Bravely, he continued to speak his mind and disagree with those in power, and frankly I found myself often wondering how it was he made it through these times alive.

Serge spent time overseas on foreign missions, trying to help the Communist organisations in other countries bring about revolution. However, his outspoken views and the fact that he aligned himself with Trotsky meant that inevitably his life in Russia was coming to an end. He was constantly monitored, his family harassed and he was exiled to Orenburg for some time in the early 1930s. As the terror in Russia expanded, overseas contacts agitated for his release and he managed to escape with his wife and child to Belgium and then France. Serge then fled Occupied France and the final chapter has him in Mexico pondering on the future; however, I know enough about his life to be aware that he  would spend the final few years of his life there, and there is a short coda about his death from his son Vladimir.

Serge never hesitated to speak his mind, and he could see the flaws of Soviet Russia while other left-wing groups and organisations were in denial. A communist who criticised the communist regime, he was welcome in neither the east nor the west, viewed with suspicion by both sides.  And as Trotsky became more and more of an outcast, Serge was tarred with the same brush and became a marginalised figure.

“Memoirs of a Revolutionary” is a long and involving book, and makes fascinating reading. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and the mistrust that was felt between east and west, but the portrayal of the differences earlier in the 20th century is stark. Communism really was seen as a threat to the western world and like Trotsky, Serge became a stateless exile, hounded from country to country but unable to find a place to live and work.

Parts of the book are by necessity a tragic litany of imprisonment, interrogation, torture and death as, one after another, friends, colleagues and fellow fighters of Serge meet their end from the Party hierarchy. It’s quite chilling to see inside the network of betrayal and mistrust, the constant need to be alert because you’re being followed by enemies and agents, and the defences needed against friendship and intimacy as anyone you meet is a potential assassin.

The book is full of vivid pen portraits of all the historical figures Serge knew and encountered, and it often seems if he is trying to record them for posterity. A constant presence running through the book is The Old Man, Trotsky, to whom Serge’s loyalty never falters even when he disagrees with the elder’s current beliefs.

We were entering a world frozen to death. The Finland station, glittering with snow, was deserted. The square where Lenin had addressed a crowd from the top o f an armored car was no more than a white desert surrounded by dead houses. The broad, straight thoroughfares, the bridges astride the Neva, now a river of snowy ice, seemed to belong to an abandoned city; first a gaunt soldier in a gray greatcoat, then after a long time a woman freezing under her shawls, went past like phantoms in an oblivious silence.

There is some beautiful, evocative writing – Serge can capture place or person deftly in a few lines – and although he keeps bringing himself back to the point, i.e. writing about his life within the revolutionary conflict, the author in him can’t help creeping out. As the introduction points out, Serge was not a writer who could spend hours crafting his prose, returning to it and honing it; he was composing on the run, always pursued by enemies, and this does give his work an immediacy and a vibrancy – I do feel he was a born writer.

Be warned though that this *is* a book with plenty of politics. Although Serge writes wonderfully, and can capture up a place and its atmosphere in a paragraph, at the heart of his narrative is the Russian Revolution, the Communist Party and its betrayal by the post-Revolutionary events. This is a book from 1951 (published posthumously) with depth and historical perspective and it makes fascinating reading; I’m glad I was spurred on to pick it up – it’s a real glimpse into a totalitarian past that has echoes in our modern world.

Some late entrants to the field! #1951club

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The starting date of the #1951Club is getting closer and I’m still pondering on what to read next. A comment from HeavenAli reminded me that I have another lovely crime title to consider in the form of Nancy Spain’s “Not Wanted on Voyage”. I picked it up second hand and posted about it a while back, as there was an intriguing old photo tucked away inside; but certainly it would chime in well with my current enjoyment of classic crime. Here it is, next to another possibility:

Yes – gasp! – an e-book!!! It’s not a format I’m fond of, but I find I have Victor Serge’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionary sitting on my iPad, and it was published in 1951. I’ve loved all the Serge books I’ve read so far, so this is a strong candidate for a 1951 read. Watch this space to find out what I actually *do* pick! :))

Tales of Siberian Exile

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Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge
Translated by Richard Greeman

Victor Serge is fast becoming an author I turn to when I want a book that I know will be enthralling and beautifully written. After discovering him via his “Conquered City” in 2014, I was recently bowled over by “The Case of Comrade Tulayev”. And after spending some time in the rarefied world of (fictional) history (I’m reviewing a little out of order here), I felt that I needed to read something that dealt with the human side of the past and how it affected people on a smaller scale – so Serge seemed the ideal choice.

midnight

“Midnight in the Century” was first published in 1939, and whilst looking through the introduction I realised that I was slightly reading Serge’s books out of order; events in this one, though not directly leading onto “Comrade Tulayev”, do feature at least one character who will turn up in that book. However, that didn’t faze me too much…. 🙂

“Midnight” is a story about exile; most of the action takes place in the Siberian town of Black Waters, where a number of political deportees have been sent. There is the old Bolshevik Rhyzik (who will play a crucial part in “Tulayev”); Varvara, determined yet vulnerable; Avelii, drawn to Varvara despite the risks involved in becoming emotionally attached; Kostrov, a late arrival, whose presence will have a destructive effect; Elkin, ex-president of the Kiev CHEKA; and young Rodion, a somewhat naive comrade who struggles to understand the dialectic behind the revolution.

The little town is a strange outpost of the Soviet Union; built on a history of dissent, it still houses Russian Orthodox Old Believers whose faith is an anathema to the Communist authorities. A mixture of old ways and modern attempts at technology exist side by side, and the locals struggle to meet the quotas imposed on them for fishing and the like. The people here are still rooted in the land, and regardless of the political system imposed on them, their lives still go on much as they always have.

The Trust occupied a long, narrow suite of rooms inundated by the ceaseless crackle of typewriters and adding-machines, on the corner of Prison Street over a co-operative full of useless neckties and tooth-powder which people used to whitewash the insides of their houses in the spring.

Against this background, the political exiles struggle to maintain their belief in the revolution despite their betrayal and imprisonment. Items of news are smuggled in from outside; rumours of a Trotskyist organisation are whispered about; and they all try to make sense of what has happened to them and to anticipate the ultimate fate of the revolution (which they still regard as going on). But with spring comes another purge of sorts from the nerve centre of Moscow, and the exiles are arrested and imprisoned. Only Rodion is able to make a bid for freedom – but will he succeed?

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Once again, Serge serves up a fascinating novel, peopled with an engaging set of characters, all dealing with their own personal moral crisis. His portrayal of the insidious nature of Soviet rule, and the twists and turns of suspicion, is once again presented convincingly, but that’s less to the forefront in this novel than it was in “Tulayev”. Instead, we see how the revolutionaries are tied to the party despite their resistance to its methods and the way it has developed. The tragedy of the exiles is that they’re unable to free themselves from the revolution they helped bring about despite their criticisms of it; unlike Rodion, they cannot conceive of breaking away and setting up an alternative. But Rodion, younger and less hide-bound by theories and dialectics (which he struggles to understand), can envisage a different revolution and a different party, and this vision enables him to attempt his escape. In the hands of a lesser novelist, these characters could become merely cyphers; but Serge is such a skilful writer that each takes on a distinct and believable life of their own

There is nothing left but our defeat, firmly accepted since it must be. For we can neither separate ourselves from the proletariat, nor disobey the truth, nor ignore the course of history. And for the moment the dialectic of history has placed us under the wheel. Life goes on, thanks to us. The victories will begin again when we are no more.

Serge based the novel on his period of exile in Orenburg on the Ural river, and it’s an eminently readable and beautifully written book that really captures what it must have felt like living in exile. His descriptions of the landscape and the responses of the exiles to the land are evocative, and despite the darkness reaching out from Moscow into the Russian country, the book does end on a small note of hope. However, the power of the written word really cannot be under-estimated; many of Serge’s books which were critical of Stalin and his regime were published while he was in exile and associating with Trotsky. The latter was murdered in Mexico in 1940 by one of Stalin’s agents; Serge’s death in a taxi in Mexico in 1947, apparently from a heart attack, has sometimes been attributed to Stalin as well.

Leon Davidovich Trotsky’s portrait looked right back at them; intelligence and energy were stamped across the forehead; pince-nez glasses; a definitive flash in the eyes… Rhyzik frowned. “The main thing, you see, is that they don’t kill him!”

“Midnight” was translated by Richard Greeman, who provides an excellent introduction and useful notes; and very sweetly, has illustrations by Serge’s son, who was an artist known as Vlady. To be honest, you do need a certain amount of knowledge about and interest in Soviet history to get the most out of Serge’s books, and it may be this that has stopped him being more widely read. That’s a shame, because his novels are shaping up to be some of my favourites and I’m really looking forward to my next read of Victor Serge.

Dark Days and Conspiracy Theories

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The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge
Translated by Willard R. Trask

Thinking about it, I’m not actually sure what prompted me to pull “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” off the shelves right now; it’s a book I’ve had for a couple of years, gifted for either Christmas or birthday by Eldest Child, and it just called to me at the moment. Perhaps enjoying “Kolymsky Heights” gave me a taste for an actual Russian author!

I’ve written about Serge before, in my review of his “Conquered City”, and I said at the time:

I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature – since I first studied the Russian Revolution in my teens and following on from that dragged my friends to see “Dr. Zhivago” at the cinema. Since then I’ve read a *lot* of Russian books, both classic and modern literature, but this is my first experience with Victor Serge. Which is odd, really, as I’ve been aware of his name for years – maybe it just took NYRB to reprint and bring him back to prominence. Wikipedia says:

“Victor Serge, born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (December 30, 1890 – November 17, 1947), was a Russian revolutionary and writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919 and later worked for the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was critical of the Stalinist regime and remained a revolutionary Marxist until his death.”

That really just scratches the surface as the excellent introduction to this volume makes clear. Serge had an exciting and active life, moving from country to country, and although he hated what Communist Russia came to stand for, he never lost faith in the force of revolution.

“Conquered City” was a powerful book, and one of the things which struck me about it was Serge’s wonderful use of language. That’s evident once more in “The Case of Comrade Tulayev”, an engrossing and beautifully written book with many layers.

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The story opens with us meeting two lowly Muscovite neighbours, Kostia and Romachkin. Both are poor and disaffected, living in a city where there are shortages and disease and discomfort. Romachkin, the elder, has a Colt pistol which he gives to Kostia; and in an unpremeditated action, when the latter spots Tulayev on the street, he recognises him as an unjust man who is involved in the current purges and shoots. Tulayev dies, Kostia flees and there is nothing to connect him to the murder and so he gets away scot-free.

However, we are in Soviet Russia in the late 1930s, where purges and executions and conspiracies are the norm, and a culprit must be found. Those in charge find it impossible to conceive of any kind of random act of violence and therefore it must have been a plot and there must be conspirators. The apparatus of the Soviet state grinds into action, and the search begins for the perpetrators.

What starts as a fairly simple story deepens as the tale develops, as there are a number of people involved with axes to grind. The younger party members use the opportunity to get rid of the older members, whose connections to the revolution go back a long way and who might have inconvenient memories. The repercussions of this one random act are far-reaching, like ripples in a pond spreading from the single point where a stone was dropped. The most unlikely people are suspected of taking part in the conspiracy and each chapter explores an individual’s life, beliefs and connections to Tulayev.

Serge’s book is wide-ranging, encompassing just about every kind of Soviet citizen who could have been affected and laying bare the effect of the constant purges. There is the peasant-made-good Commissar, Mateyev; the Party functionary Erzhov; the high-ranking Kondratiev who flies off to report on the progress of the Spanish Civil War; and the old-guard theorist Kiril Rublev who sees everything with a very clear eye. Add into the mix the final part of the puzzle, in the form of the imprisoned and exiled Ryzhik, and you get the cast of characters who will be accused of conspiring to kill Tulayev – even though it’s impossible and untrue. For the State needs to have scapegoats and only a conspiracy will do; to admit that this was a random act by a nobody would be unthinkable.

Ryzhik clearly deciphered the hieroglyphics (perhaps he was the only person in the world to decipher them, and it gave him an agonizing feeling of vertigo) — the hieroglyphics which had been branded with red-hot iron into the very flesh of the country. He knew, almost by heart, the falsified reports of the three great trials; he knew all the available details of the minor trials in Kharkov, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, Krasnoyarsk, trials of which the world had never heard. Between the hundreds of thousands of lines of the published texts, weighted down with innumerable lies, he saw other hieroglyphics, equally bloody but pitilessly clear. And each hieroglyphic was human: a name, a human face with changing expressions, a voice, a portion of living history stretching over a quarter century and more.

Each of the so-called conspirators actually has nothing to do with the death of Tulayev; each is inexorably drawn into it by the machinations of the various prosecutors and investigators, none of whom are safe from investigation themselves; and each of the accused deals with the situation in their own way.

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None of this is rushed, and Serge allows the story to unfold at its own pace; we see Kondratiev in Spain during the conflict (which helps us place the book a little more precisely), allowing his human side to come through at a great cost; we watch the rise of Mateyev and then the fall, as his native cunning fails him; we see Erzhov struggling to retain his privileges; we follow Ryzhik in and out of exile in Siberia; and we watch Rublev calmly continuing to work on his writings while in prison. All of these men represent the different types of Soviet revolutionary, and each is committed to revolution in his own way. Some of the men will perish, some will not, according to whims or connections or choices, and in many ways the acts of the state are just as random as the act of Kostia which started off the whole process.

The case ramified in every direction, linked itself to hundreds of others, mingled with them, disappeared in them, re-emerged like a dangerous little blue flame from under fire-blackened ruins. The examiners herded along a motley crowd of prisoners, all exhausted, all desperate, all despairing, all innocent in the old legal meaning of the word, all suspect and guilty in many ways; but it was in vain that the examiners herded them along, the examiners always ended up in some fantastic impasse.

“The Case of Comrade Tulayev” was a deeply satisfying book to read. Apart from the fact it covers a country and a period of history which fascinate me, it’s just so brilliantly written. There is a ring of authenticity about the book; with Serge’s long experience in Soviet Russia, you feel he’s drawing on his knowledge of what it was like to live through the horrors of the 1930s and his story never strikes a false note. His depiction of how it felt to live amongst the purges is unparalleled and I don’t think I’ve read a book that captures so well the mental twists and turns, the lack of trust amongst people, the small slips that can cause a person’s fall from grace.

The characters are allowed to meditate on their lives and beliefs, and through them Serge explores what happened in Russia at the time. The book was composed in a number of locations, ending up with Mexico in the early 1940s, where Serge had fled; and there is the sense of the man looking back at the times he had lived through and measuring them. There is also a powerful portrait of Stalin, named only as “The Chief”, a constant presence throughout the book either in person, or as a whisper amongst people, or as a picture on every wall. Serge, of course, had plenty of personal knowledge of how it was to work under Stalin which only adds further credibility to the book. Nowadays, we all know about the purges and the executions that went on in 1930s Russia; but at the time Serge was writing this, it was not common knowledge and, as the introduction points out, if Serge’s book had been published when he wrote it, he would have been the first to break the news to the outside world; as it was, that honour fell to Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”.

What were needed today were books like thunderbolts, full of an irrefutable historical algebra, full of merciless indictments, books which should judge these days, every line of which should breathe implacable intelligence, be printed in pure fire. Such books would be born later.

However, I keep going back to the quality of Serge’s writing, and that’s an important factor here that lifts the book above what could have been simply a political novel. Serge has a lyrical quality to his writing, almost impressionistic in places, and his characters are beautifully painted and ring true. Not all are party functionaries; Serge is equally at home portraying peasants and workers and clerks and everyday people, as well as the wider world. At one point, Xenia, the daughter of one of the investigators, is seen in Paris where she’s on a mission for the Soviets; her thoughts, the contrasts between East and West, and the belief that Russians still held in their revolution, are wonderfully realised. Yet Serge is clear-eyed about the faults of the Soviet system and brings plenty of wry sarcasm to bear.

So I’m immensely glad I picked this book up about now, as it ended up being one of my best reads of the year so far – and will most likely be in my top ten. I’m not sure how well Serge’s work is known nowadays, but on the evidence of the two I’ve read, he deserves huge recognition. I believe many of his works weren’t published until after his death, and his novels appear to have been very neglected. Yes, you do need a certain interest in Soviet Russia and perhaps a little basic background knowledge, but even without that this would be an incredibly powerful book. My edition is an NYRB one, with an excellent and informative introduction by Susan Sontag, and in fact the publisher has several Serge books on their list. I really can’t rave about or recommend “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” enough – and now I have a *massive* book hangover…

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