Book Reviews

25 janeiro, 2008

171) Victor Serge: um anarquista contra o stalinismo

Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years
Edwin Frank
The New York Book Reviews Classics
January 25, 2008
(See review)

A few words about Victor Serge, his too-long-delayed recognition as a great writer, and Unforgiving Years, Serge's last novel, completed before his death in 1946 but not published in the original French until 1971, and only now appearing in English translation. Serge's extraordinary life—as a youth, he was imprisoned in France for his anarchist connections; he fought in the Russian Revolution, only to denounce the Bolsheviks for their abuses of power; he was exiled by Stalin to Siberia, then miraculously released and deported from the USSR; he spent his last years as an increasingly lonely prophet of the anti-Communist left—all this has led to the neglect of Serge's no less extraordinary accomplishment as a novelist. He is one of the greatest of twentieth-century political novelists, and his work more than holds its own—I'd even say overshadows—that of contemporaries like Andre Malraux and Ignazio Silone, not to mention such fading Cold War relics as 1984 and Darkness at Noon.

Serge's neglect can be attributed to various things: not only the fact that he was always and everywhere an outsider, but also, somewhat paradoxically, to his work's being imbued, even in the face of horror, with an irrepressible, almost incorrigible, vitality. Serge writes about people caught in the tightening vice of an unforgivingly political world, but he never succumbs to the belief that this is the only world there is—that politics is, much less should be, the be-all and end-all of existence—any more than he supposes that there is any way of simply opting out, hands clean, of the political world. He contemplates political realities unflinchingly, without allowing them to intimidate his imagination. He retains an expansive sense of possibility, a commitment to the boundless—one that finds particular expression in his love of the natural world. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev (reissued as an NYRB Classic with an introduction that is one of Susan Sontag's most ambitious and thoughtful late statements), an old Bolshevik returns from the Gulag to Moscow by sled—he is being summoned, he has no doubt, to his death—and Serge gives this trip an altogether unexpected turn, transforming it into an astonishing, beautifully specific meditation on the night sky and the immensity of the Russian taiga. The world, Serge never doubts, is bigger than what human beings make of it. There is a saving horizon beyond our ends and means.

Unforgiving Years displays the same reach and the same richness, whether describing the rainy labyrinthine streets of a demoralized pre-World War II Paris, the siege of Leningrad, or the surreal ruins of a bombed-out German city on the verge of being over-run by the Allies. (It is a measure of Serge's imaginative range and sympathy that he should be the author of one of the first—and to this day one one of the most striking—literary descriptions of the German experience of defeat.) The last scenes are laid in Mexico, where those left standing are reunited in a landscape that is at once lush and severe, a prolific new world that, however, is still overshadowed by the old one, a place where the abiding truths of nature and the passing struggles of history converge in an uncanny perspective. The book has an epic scope—it is a picture of a planet in convulsion—without foregoing the detail of everyday life or a sense of the moment. It is a spy story and a war story and (several) love stories, gripping and terrifying, passionate and thoughtful, while the men and women in it—they include secret agents, true believers, philosophers, artists, and assassins—are at once larger than life and powerfully alive.

I'm happy that this wonderful book should at last be seeing the light of the day in English as an NYRB Classic. I hope that it will introduce new readers to a major modern writer—who, as it just happens, was also a hero of our time.

Edwin Frank, Editor

P.S. One additional reason for Serge's neglect may be that, though he wrote in French, at heart he was a Russian novelist. His parents were Russian radicals in exile from the Tsarist regime. Serge himself was, as mentioned above, deeply involved in the Russian Revolution. If you're interested in Serge you might well want to look at these other NYRB Classics, too.

Victor Serge (1890-1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anti-Czarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living "by chance" in Brussels. A precocious anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving for Russia to join the Revolution. Arriving in 1919, after a year in a French concentration camp, Serge joined the Bolsheviks and worked in the press services of the Communist International in Petrograd, Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and jailed in 1928. Released and living in Paris, he managed to publish three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history of Year One of the Russian Revolution. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider's knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin's Moscow show trials and machinations in Spain which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947. His classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary and his great last novels, Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev (the latter also published by NYRB Classics), were written "for the desk drawer" and published posthumously. »

Richard Greeman, the translator of four of Victor Serge's novels, has written a doctoral dissertation about Serge along with numerous other studies of his work and life. A collection of Greeman's political essays, Dangerous Shortcuts and Vegetarian Sharks, appeared in 2007. More of his work can be found at www.richardgreeman.org.

Short Book review:
Unforgiving Years
By Victor Serge
Translated from the French and with an introduction by Richard Greeman

Unforgiving Years is a thrilling and terrifying journey into the disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century. Victor Serge's final novel, here translated into English for the first time, is at once the most ambitious, bleakest, and most lyrical of this neglected major writer's works. The book is arranged into four sections, like the panels of an immense mural or the movements of a symphony. In the first, D, a lifelong revolutionary who has broken with the Communist Party and expects retribution at any moment, flees through the streets of prewar Paris, haunted by the ghosts of his past and his fears for the future. Part two finds D's friend and fellow revolutionary Daria caught up in the defense of a besieged Leningrad, the horrors and heroism of which Serge brings to terrifying life. The third part is set in Germany. On a dangerous assignment behind the lines, Daria finds herself in a city destroyed by both Allied bombing and Nazism, where the populace now confronts the prospect of total defeat. The novel closes in Mexico, in a remote and prodigiously beautiful part of the New World where D and Daria are reunited, hoping that they may at last have escaped the grim reckonings of their modern era.

A visionary novel, a political novel, a novel of adventure, passion, and ideas, of despair and, against all odds, of hope, Unforgiving Years is a rediscovered masterpiece by the author of The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

Reviews

Serge remains sophisticated even during the book's more noirish moments, and action sequences form an inseparable part of his hypnotic, prophetic vision.
— Publishers Weekly

Translated into electric English by Richard Greeman, Unforgiving Years is a seething, hallucinatory novel.
— Harper's, John Leonard

The work of the writer Victor Serge faultlessly captures the labyrinth of bureaucratic incrimination into which the Soviet Union descended.
— The Atlantic

A witness to revolution and reaction in Europe between the wars, Serge searingly evoked the epochal hopes and shattering setbacks of a generation of leftists...Yet under the bleakest of conditions, Serge's optimism, his humane sympathies and generous spirit, never waned. A radical misfit, no faction, no sect could contain him; he inhabited a lonely no-man's-land all his own. These qualities are precisely what make him such an inspiring, even moving figure.
— Bookforum

Also see:

The Case of Comrade Tulayev
By Victor Serge
Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask
Introduction by Susan Sontag

The best novel ever written about the Stalinist purges is also a classic tale of risk and adventure that stands beside Malraux's Man's Fate and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Short book review:
The Case of Comrade Tulayev
By Victor Serge
Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask
Introduction by Susan Sontag

One cold Moscow night, Comrade Tulayev, a high government official, is shot dead on the street, and the search for the killer begins. In this panoramic vision of the Soviet Great Terror, the investigation leads all over the world, netting a whole series of suspects whose only connection is their innocence—at least of the crime of which they stand accused. But The Case of Comrade Tulayev, unquestionably the finest work of fiction ever written about the Stalinist purges, is not just a story of a totalitarian state. Marked by the deep humanity and generous spirit of its author, the legendary anarchist and exile Victor Serge, it is also a classic twentieth-century tale of risk, adventure, and unexpected nobility to set beside Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and André Malraux's Man's Fate.

Reviews

One of the great 20th-Century Russian novels...there are extraordinary passages of natural description, a beauty that defies what takes place within it
— Nicholas Lezard, Guardian

The brilliance of his novel utterly ineluctable as it sweeps across 1930's Europe from the gulags to the Kremlin, to Paris and to Barcelona.
— The Times (London)

The Case of Comrade Tulayev is in the great tradition of the European novel. It is the Human Comedy of a police state, with a sense of urgency and doom hanging over the winter-bound capital, where the innocent confess their guilt and punishment falls on the guiltless, and where the explanation of event is given not as historical formula, but with the actuality of flesh and blood.
— Francis Russell, The Christian Science Monitor

I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be very usefully compared. The essence of the man and his books is to be found in his attitude to the truth. There have of course been many scrupulously honest writers. But for Serge the value of the truth extended far beyond the simple (or complex) telling of it.
— John Berger

I have undergone a little over ten years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries and written 20 books. I own nothing, on several occasions a press with a vast circulation has thrown filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that it is not over yet. Let me be done with this digression; those were the only roads possible for us. I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.
— Victor Serge, 1943

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