Victor Serge, The Unconquered
Some writers are destined to have two deaths—the first in life, and the second in memory. The lucky ones can be resurrected from that second death by cultural circumstance and the aid of overseeing angels, irked by injustice, believing these Lazaruses should be helped from their tombs. In 2004, Susan Sontag opened her essay “Unextinguished” with this query, much to the present case: “How to explain the obscurity of one of the most compelling of twentieth-century ethical and literary heroes, Victor Serge?”
How indeed. A self-educated and unwavering Russian Marxist who fought in the Bolshevik Revolution, Serge was born in Belgium (in 1890), wrote in French, lived mostly in European exile, and died in Mexico (in 1947). Although a handful of his unpublished books appeared in France after his death—including the much-lauded Memoirs of a Revolutionary—and his best novels began sporadically to appear in English between the ‘60s and ‘80s, Serge was essentially undergoing his second death, ignored by the custodians of literary talent. Sontag suggests several possible reasons, none of them good enough: Serge was perceived as primarily a revolutionary rather than a literary artist; his writing did not belong clearly to either French or Russian literature, so neither claimed him; and his radical politics earned him potent enemies, both on the pro-Communist left and among the tastemakers of bourgeois culture.
In 2001, Verso published Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, an inclusive biography by Susan Weissman. Soon after, New York Review Books began reprinting Serge’s work: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Unforgiving Years, and Conquered City. Sontag’s essay appears as the introduction to Serge’s masterwork, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a novel about the unstanchable hysteria of Stalin’s purges. Serge’s novel Midnight in the Century, just reissued in a translation by Richard Greeman, was published in Paris in 1939, that sinister year of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the hecatomb of Poland.
From 1933 to 1936, Serge suffered internal exile in Orenburg, in the Urals. Because he never wavered in his Oppositionist fervor and nobody would hire him, he came within an inch of starvation. Midnight in the Century emerged from those years of deportation—it chronicles the stomped-on lives of exiled oppositionists, mostly Trotskyists, who trundle after hope in the cause, keeping faith with the initial promise of October 1917.
Almost entirely shorn of plot, Midnight in the Century is a character study of extremity, of victims attempting to maintain their dignity in a system that has stripped them of their selfhood. The deportation outpost of Chernoe translates as “Black Town,” because for the people here that’s precisely what constitutes the present: a blackness tottering on despair. Through the perspectives of five deportees—Elkin, Ryzhik, Avelii, Rodion, and Varvara Platonovna—Serge shows how pitilessly political prisoners were broken in the Gulag. There is an academic, Kostrov, whose interrogation and imprisonment we witness in all its soul-killing oppression and squalor, and an engineer, Botkin, arrested for perceived anti-Stalinist sentiment discovered in his diary. If there exists a christos among so much personal and national calamity, it is Rodion, questioner and quester, a young idealist who escapes from Chernoe to keep ashine the aspirations of the proletariat, the aims of the Revolution before they were polluted by Lenin and then ravaged by Stalin.
The title of this novel was the phrase employed by the opposition on the left to describe the anguish and betrayal that spread under the despotic girth of Stalin. At one point, an older leftist asks Rodion, “What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?” Later, after being beaten, Rodion will mutter the line to himself in a kind of exasperated torpor.
Contemporaneous with both Kafka and Orwell, Serge can read like an alloy of both: the uncommon political acuity of Orwell and the absurdist comedy of Kafka, a comedy with the damning squint of satire, except the satire is real. In Serge’s world, the deadly hypocrisies of bureaucratic rule pervade every aspect of living, and living doesn’t mean what you think it means. Rodion wonders, “Is the bureaucracy a class?”—a good question but spoken into the void. He asks a comrade, “Is there such a thing as fate or is it only a word and whatever must happen, happens?”, and then later asks himself, “Where to find a bit of real clarity? Whom to ask for an answer? How to become—truly—men?”
Throughout Midnight in the Century, human beings must question not only their own fate but their very essence because they’ve become equated with the expendable, the inhuman, the animal. One informer has “something rodent-like in her face.” The prison called Chaos gives off a nauseating “odor of human animals.” We read of “the simian beard of a stubborn prisoner” and the “pig-like expression” of another. Those living in internal deportation are “as vile as the earthworms.” A character hears the “sounds of animals moving in the darkness close by,” and one isn’t sure if those animals are bipedal. When a uniformed official, Comrade Fedossenko, arrives in Chernoe—to assert “law, commandment, faith, punishment, pride, the Plan”—the deportees behold this armed apparatchik as “a hunter lying in wait . . . A jailer’s soul in a bear-hunter’s body.” As a smeared ruck of the emaciated gathers for their pittance of bread and fuel, they stink “like corpses and animals.” One deportee puts it plainly enough: “We belong to another species.” You find this embittered evocation of animality and otherness everywhere in Serge’s work.
If Midnight in the Century can be said to carry a banner, it is the banner that Serge himself carried throughout his life: truth matters, and lies are the comfort of killers. In Chaos, Kostrov’s interrogation anticipates Winston’s in 1984: his interrogators play “a complicated game by means of sentences with double meanings in which veiled threats mingled with wheedling entreaties.” Kostrov has been pestled into acquiescence and knows it is “impossible, useless, to say a word. Any word would be turned against itself, would mean, after rolling in that muddy stream, the opposite of the truth.” That was Stalinism’s sinister achievement: to turn truth into farce and farce into life; to bowdlerize the past and nullify the future, leaving only the unwavering ache of the present. To read about the Great Terror, about Stalin’s purges and the Gulag and collectivization, is to read about a sadism so eager, an anguish so ungodly, they defy your every attempt at comprehension made in comfort. The numbers of the dead vary depending on the historian, but even the lower estimate, ten million, is so outrageously gruesome as to seem surreal, somebody’s vile mistake, a terrible miscalculation. Our nightmares have no idea.
As with the Shoah, Stalin’s despotism hamstrings the imagination, nails up a “No Trespass” sign before the path to understanding. The torture, the imprisonment, the disease, the extrasolar cold of Siberia: the imagination fails. In Solzhenitsyn, in Vasily Grossman, in Robert Conquest, the doors of perception open onto the gates of hell. The gale of madness obliterates distinctions, so that at the worst moments of the Soviet fiasco one can barely perceive the lines between socialist and communist, anarchist and fascist, Tsarist and Bolshevik, revolutionary and counterrevolutionary.
When Serge’s heroes in Midnight in the Century long for October, for the purity of 1917, for that incipient Bolshevik pulse, for what exactly are they longing? Certainly not for a system they suspect is organically polluted, intrinsically malevolent, impossible to achieve. They wouldn’t agree that the blueprint for human perfectibility is always a blueprint for human calamity—they wouldn’t be overly impressed that “utopia” means “nowhere”—nor would they agree that there’s a steel cable connecting Marx to Lenin and Lenin to Stalin. No, Serge’s working heroes long for that “real clarity” in Rodion’s question—for a reinstatement of the meanings of words, for an end to the defiling of verity, because only then will it be it possible to end the unrelieved, overweening backwardness of Russia. The truth, Serge knew, is superior to its opposite.
In Rodion’s escape from Chernoe we are meant to glimpse the optimism of the revolutionary agenda, but it is an optimism that comes at the exhausting price of having to be continuously renewed, and of having to subsist on too little nourishment. If Sontag is right in asserting that “revolution was the modern tragic drama,” then it was a tragic drama in which Serge was determined to have a part. Although later in life he was suspicious of the Trotskyist program, he nevertheless maintained his fealty to the leftist opposition.
The line between not giving up and then giving in is thinner than most would think, but Serge continued to invest faith in the noble idea that the majority will not be ruled by the minority. And he continued to fire his art in the forge of history. Among the many lineaments of Victor Serge’s talent are the yearning fertility of his prose and the undiminished integrity of his vision, a vision both humanistic and immune to deception. His work of witness, much needed now, is a shining reminder that the depths to which the tormentors can sink have some correlation to the heights to which the tormented can rise.