A portrait of Victor Serge
The first time I travelled to Siberia, on a sixty-two train journey from Moscow, I took with me Victor Serge’s novel The Case of Comrade Tulaev. A woman in the carriage perked up ‘oh, so you’re reading a book on our governor’ (the train was going to Novokuznetsk in the heart of the Kuzbass coal basin). I tried to convince her that this was a novel written well over half a century earlier by a Russian writer in the Stalinist era but for her a book about Tulaev could be about none other than the governor of the industrial Kuzbass region. A governor whose reign here has been solid for the entire two decades of the post-Soviet period. Victor Serge’s name, it seems, is almost entirely unknown in Russia, although there is (or was) said to be a Victor Serge Library in Moscow a former director of which was the assassinated anti-fascist lawyer Stanislav Markelov- one of those who in the chaos of post-Soviet times most resembled Serge in terms of his humanity, clarity, fighting spirit and morality. Having read the previously published translation of Serge’s Memoirs during the final years of a course at university and deciding that this was the most important book of those years and discovering that the full unabridged was finally available last year, I immediately ordered a copy.
Both times that I’ve read the book something was transformed in me. Whether it would be by liberating me from those academic strait-jackets which one ties oneself in while studying an undergraduate degree over a decade ago or the fact of discovering something in Serge’s style and descriptions that exude a kind of wonder so rare that the joy of reading becomes a kind of liberation in itself and recognizing that all our conceptions about history are so immensely poor compared with the tremendous witness that Serge bore. I think that Serge’s writings will remain one of the greatest and most extraordinary testimonies to the Twentieth Century along with another rather neglected testimonial masterpieces such as those by Alexander Wat entitled My Century as well as some of the extraordinary accounts that Jorge Semprun was to leave posterity. Life is so present there because for Serge his situation simply dictated that there could be no distance between Life and Words. This is the book that will not fit in because of a kind of fragile grandeur in which the human spirit reaches heights that only a permanently persecuted revolutionary could reach. He became such a permanently persecuted revolutionary precisely because his revolutionary consciousness and conscience was such a profoundly humane one which simply wouldn’t allow itself to trample on a genuine human and revolutionary morality.
I think Owen Hatherley had some fine points to make about Serge’s ultimate consistency in an article which details how both the revolutionary press and the liberal literary press have divided up the publication of his oeuvre.Owen Hatherley on Serge As Sheila Fitzpatrick in a review for The Guardian pointed out one of the key passages which explains the true power and spirit of Serge as well as his passionately humane intent is encapsulated in this passage here in the concluding part of the book:
the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me, and that this feeling has been for me the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.
Serge is the ultimate chronicler of those many thousands of lives from three generations whose memory remained dear to Serge and should be for us too. Before this statement cited by Fitzgerald, Serge talks of these generations of men and his experience which defied what he termed “nearly impossible”:
I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to live a life devoted wholly to a cause which one believes to be just- a life, that is, where one refuses to separate thought from daily action. The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian revolution are probably all dead – any exceptions are only a miracle.
Nearly impossible for Serge and many thousands of those who fought against multiple slaveries – whether of bourgeois capitalism, fascism, Nazism or Stalinism – managed this life of not separating thought from daily action. For me, perhaps, one of the greatest aspects of this book is that these names have been remembered as well as the names of those betrayed this dream of liberation. In many ways, Serge has written something of a Divine Comedy of the twentieth century but gives us a portrait in which the villains in the hell of their misdeeds are of much less interest than those names that history has conspired to forget. Those who died in prison and camps or in despair by their own hands or by hunger or by fascist and stalinist bullets: shot, scorned, betrayed, emaciated, deceived but whose words and deeds will one day be redeemed by another great struggle to free humanity from the shackles of its imprisoned consciousness and from a world in which the few continue to control and deceive the many. When a new generation will learn to “see the cracks of the Earth open wide” it will be good not to forget the example of Victor Serge and those many thousands whose memory and honour he restored in his Memoirs.
The poignancy of his memoirs as a salvaging of the memory of these genuine heroes of the Twentieth Century was, perhaps, encapsulated most succintly in his poem Constellation of Dead Brothers some years earlier:
Constellation of Dead Brothers (1935)
André who was killed in Riga,
Dario who was killed in Spain,
Boris whose wounds I dressed,
Boris whose eyes I closed.
David my bunk mate,
dead without knowing why
in a quiet orchard in France—
David, your astonished suffering
—six bullets for a 20-year-old heart…
Karl, whose nails I recognized
when you had already turned to earth,
you, with your high brow and lofty thoughts,
what was death doing with you!
Dark, tough human vine.
The North, the waves, the ocean
capsize the boat, the Four, now pallid,
drink deeply of anguish,
farewell to Paris, farewell to you all,
farewell to life, God damn it!
Vassili, throughout our sleepless midnights
you had the soul of a combatant
and the wind effaces your tomb
in the cornfields of Armavir.
Hong Kong lights up, hour of tall buildings,
the palm resembles the scimitar,
the square resembles the cemetery,
the evening is sweltering and you are dying,
Nguyên, in your prison bed.
And you my decapitated brothers,
the lost ones, the unforgiven,
the massacred, René, Raymond,
guilty but not denied.
O rain of stars in the darkness,
constellation of dead brothers!
I owe you my blackest silence,
my resolve, my indulgence
for all these empty-seeming days,
and whatever is left me of pride
for a blaze in the desert.
But let there be silence
on these lofty figureheads!
The ardent voyage continues,
the course is set on hope.
When will it be your turn, when mine?
The course is set on hope.