Victor Serge seems to be becoming more and more prominent these days, which I welcome. It’s partly because his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev features on various lists of books to read before you die and NYRB have added Memoirs of a Revolutionary to their library of his books in their Classics series, with an intro by the wonderful historian Adam Hochschild. I think it is also fair to say that Christopher Hitchens’ championing of him has played a role, Hitchens having come to Serge in his youthful International Socialist days, before their Leninist turn. In 2003 he wrote:
After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.
Serge features in Hitchens’ posthumous Arguably: as one of the “intellectual misfits…ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler”, dying in “penurious exile in Mexico”.
Far less well known than Hitchens, Richard Greeman deserves credit for keeping the Serge legacy alive too. You can listen to his “Conscience of a Revolution” broadcast here.
Here is some recent Serge-blogging:
- James Bloodworth nominates him as an intellectual hero.
- Adam David Morton starts what looks like an excellent series on his novels.
- Orwell mentions him in his 1942 diary: The Communists in Mexico are again chasing Victor Serge and other Trotskyist refugees who got there from France, urging their expulsion, etc., etc. Just the same tactics as in Spain. Horrible depressed to see these ancient intrigues coming up again, not so much because they are morally disgusting as from the reflection; for 20 years the Comintern has used these methods and the Comintern has always and everywhere been defeated by the Fascists; therefore we, being tied to them in a species of alliance, shall be defeated with them.
- More negatively: A Churl attacks Susan Sontag’s introduction to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (from the same NYRB series mentioned above). The petty, mean-spirited, Stalinoid post is mainly worth reading for his quotations from Sontag, which I reproduce below the fold.
Image above via War and Peace, from whom I also took the Hitchens quote.
It was the climate of opinion that made the courageous Romanian-born writer Panaït Istrati (1884-1935) consider withdrawing his truthful report on a sixteen-month stay in the Soviet Union in 1927-1928, Vers une autre flamme (Towards Another Flame), at the behest of the powerful French literary patron, Romain Rolland, which, when he did publish it, was rejected by all his former friends and supporters in the literary world; and that led André Malraux in his capacity as editor at Gallimard to turn down the adversarial biography of Stalin by the Russian-born Boris Souvarine (1895-1984; real name: Boris Lifchitz) as inimical to the cause of the Spanish Republic.[…]
And there was more: a memoir of the anarchist movement in pre-First World War France, a novel about the Russian Revolution, a short book of poems, and a historical chronicle of Year II of the Revolution, all confiscated when Serge was finally allowed to leave the USSR in 1936, as the consequence of his having applied to Glavlit, the literary censor, for an exit permit for his manuscripts – these have never been recovered – as well as a great deal of safely archived but still unpublished material.[…]