Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book review: Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge – life in the Stalinist Soviet Union // Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge – review

Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge
reviewed by Nicholas Lezard

About halfway through this novel, we find ourselves at the head of a queue for cigarettes in the no-horse town of Chernaya (or “black-waters”). It’s , essentially a penal colony. There are two other queues, for bread and kerosene, but, as the novel puts it: “Right now the third queue, for cigarettes, is the most interesting since the cigarettes are there.” Anyway, Rodion – a young, self-educated man who’s ended up in Chernaya for innocently making the Communist party look ridiculous by, among other things, quoting from a year-old issue of Pravda – hands over his money, which the clerk just sweeps up and says “Next” without handing over the goods. And why should he? “The counter-revolution,” as someone else in the queue explains, “has no right to them.”

Elsewhere, a friend tries to look on the bright side; the sun is shining.

“Remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.”
“And thought?” asked Rodion. “Thought?”
“Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?”
“Midnight’s where we have to live then,” said Rodion with an odd elation.

Victor Serge certainly knew about living in the century’s midnight. In the mid-30s, in the grip of Stalin and Hitler, a significant chunk of the world was not allowed to think freely. Serge, although a committed revolutionary and admirer ofTrotsky, managed, by my reckoning, to live slightly less than one-fifth of his life neither in prison or exile; his death in 1947 of a heart attack in the back of a taxi in Mexico is considered by some to have been an assassination. He had enraged Stalin, and although much of his writing was not published until after his death, this novel did come out in 1939, when Stalin came down on anything that was not the outrageous praise expected from the citizenry – and Midnight in the Century is very much less than that. 

It’s an insider’s view of life in the Soviet Union: the constant (and usually justified) fear of arrest; the networks of corruption and corrupt allegiances; what it’s like to have everything in your life gone through with a fine-toothed comb by the secret police. One character is sent to London, Paris and Berlin to see how the west makes tractors. In Paris he finds a copy of Trotsky’s opposition newspaper and in a panic conceals it in a semi-pornographic magazine. A couple of days later, he tears it up and flushes it down a train toilet, but his belongings have already been searched, and a cold welcome awaits him when he returns home.

The novel as a whole is strange: there are periods in it when you might feel you are missing out if you are not up to speed on revolutionary history (although there are useful notes), and you might have the occasional sense that things are happening beyond your comprehension. The main character of the first chapter disappears for a large chunk of the book, but I think this is actually a clever literary device. The novel coheres, and there are passages of such beauty, insight and compassion that they take your breath away. Consider this, as a brutal commissar arrives in Chernaya:

It is good to be alive.
Let us agree that these events, taking place on totally different levels of creation, have no perceptible relationship. But the fact is that myriad buttercups covering the plains with a golden powder had opened precisely as Comrade Fedossenko was arriving that morning.

We can also thank the translator, Richard Greeman, for that.

In 1933, Victor Serge was arrested by Stalin’s police, interrogated, and held in solitary confinement for more than eighty days. Released, he spent two years in exile in remote Orenburg. These experiences were the inspiration for Midnight in the Century, Serge’s searching novel about revolutionaries living in the shadow of Stalin’s betrayal of the revolution. Among the exiles gathered in the town of Chenor, or Black-Waters, are the granite-faced Old Bolshevik Ryzhik, stoic yet gentle Varvara, and Rodion, a young, self-educated worker who is trying to make sense of the world and history. They struggle in the unlikely company of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who are also suffering for their faith. 

Against unbelievable odds, the young Rodion will escape captivity and find a new life in the wild. Surviving the dark winter night of the soul, he rediscovers the only real, and most radical, form of resistance: hope.

QUOTES
Fiction, for Serge, is truth—the truth of self-transcendence, the obligation to give voice to those who are mute or who have been silenced… . The presumptive case for exempting Serge from the oblivion that awaits most heroes of truth lies, finally, in the excellence of his fiction.
—Susan Sontag

Whatever he wrote, including his fiction, was a kind of personal history of the Left, in haste, in bloody ink, on bandages. Like Koestler in Darkness at Noon, Serge seems to be saying that man, the particular, is more important than mankind, the abstraction.
—John Leonard, The New York Times

Victor Serge was, and remains, unique: the only novelist to describe successfully, from the inside, the now long-lost milieu of the socialist movement in Europe, its Soviet product, and its destruction by Stalinism. He has been described as a political Ishmael, comparable to the lone survivor of the wrecked Pequod.
—Stephen Schwartz, The New Criterion

He was an eyewitness of events of world historical importance, of great hope and even greater tragedy. His political recollections are very important, because they reflect so well the mood of this lost generation. His novels will find readers now because they help grant an understanding of the aftermath of the Russian revolution and its impact on militants and intellectuals, a world of yesterday almost as distant from subsequent generations as the Napoleonic wars…His articles and books speak for themselves, and we would be poorer without them.
Partisan Review

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 no-man’s-land all his own. These qualities are precisely what make him such an inspiring, even moving figure.
—Matthew Price, Bookforum

A special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle.
—George Orwell

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

Serge can recognize the range of experience and responses that make up the texture of life in even the most nightmarishly repressive system —Scott McLemee

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

There are passages of such beauty, insight, and compassion they take your breath away.
—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Perhaps no political writer better combined a strict attention to history with a command of novelistic technique….[Midnight in the Century] exemplifies what makes Serge so compelling….His books remain relevant — and show exactly why political fiction, when it’s done right, can be as intellectually fulfilling as any work of political philosophy.
—Guy Patrick Cunningham, Los Angeles Review of Books

One of the great novels by one of the politically honest (and adventurous) souls of the 20th century. Anyone who cares about oppression, power, and the abuses that link the two, should read Midnight in the Century —Jonathan Sturgeon, FlavorWire

Stylishly detailed….This is history at its most immediate and enduring – filtered through the nerve endings of the men and women who lived it — Christopher Byrd, Barnes and Noble Review

[Serge’s work is] quite beautiful, and full of moments of mystery and wonder, reveling in sublime incomprehension —Helen Stuhr-Rommereim, Full Stop

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge – review
.... Starting from an immensely deprived childhood, it proceeds to a brief heyday of optimistic identification with the Russian revolution and work in the Comintern, followed by decades of persecution, first in the Soviet Union, as an Oppositionist in Leningrad, and then a deportee in Orenburg, and finally outside it. Even the Trotskyites made him an outcast, although Serge retained an admiration for the Old Man, and died, like him (though not by an assassin's hand), in exile in Mexico.

This is a republication of the 1963 Oxford University Press edition prepared and translated by Peter Sedgwick from Serge's original French text, and the new edition retains Sedgwick's introduction, along with a post-Soviet essay on Serge by Adam Hochschild, a usefully expanded glossary of short biographies, and a number of charming and accomplished pencil sketches of Serge and his friends by his artist son, Vladimir. Vlady, who survived the travails of Europe and ended up with his father in Mexico, also contributes a moving paragraph on Serge's death (by heart attack in Mexico City in 1947 at the age of 57).

Serge's story is often remembered for the vivid portraits of contemporaries dotted throughout the text – revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, all of whom he knew well, Comintern figures such as Angelica Balabanova and Georg Lukács, the American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, French writers such as André Gide and Romain Rolland, and a host of others. Independent non-conformist though he was, Serge knew everyone who was anyone on the European revolutionary and left-intellectual scene in the 1920s. Even awaiting rescue in Spain with other French refugees in 1941, he found himself in the company of Walter Benjamin and shared a villa with Varian Fry (anti-Nazi journalist and director of the American Relief Committee) and the surrealist writer André Breton.


A child of itinerant and impoverished Russian revolutionaries, Serge was born in Belgium in 1890 and spent his adolescence in Paris, doing various manual jobs and consorting with other angry and despairing youths in a "world without possible escape", as Serge characterises Europe on the eve of the first world war. Interned as a foreign revolutionary during the war, Serge was plucked from a French concentration camp in 1919 and sent to Russia – where he had never been – under an exchange negotiated by the new Soviet regime. Though inclined to anarchism and independent judgment, Serge joined the Bolsheviks, becoming close to a number of the leaders, as well as the writer Maxim Gorky, and stayed in the party despite his anguish at the suppression of the Kronstadt rising at the end of 1920. Stalin was never one of Serge's intimates, though he makes a brief early appearance "trying to catch Zinoviev's attention" at a Comintern meeting – "frightening and banal, like a Caucasian dagger", in Serge's memorable phrase.... read more: