Relentlessly slandered during his lifetime, the work of Victor Serge has nearly been forgotten in ours. Outside a small but devoted fraternity of admirers, he is an obscure presence, dimly remembered and little read, a sad fate for a remarkable writer. 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 in his voluminous journalism, many novels, and a memoir that is a contender for one of the best books of the twentieth century.
Belgian born in 1890 of exiled Russian parents, Serge was an eclectic sort of radical. He possessed a surplus of political identities; he was variously an anarchist, a libertarian socialist, a Bolshevik, a Trotskyist, and a dissident oppositionist in the early years of the Soviet Unionˇnever simply one or the other, but all at once. His career, almost perverse in its accumulation of defeats, took him from one extreme situation to another: from the anarchist fringe of the Parisian demimonde in the years before World War I to abortive revolutionary uprisings in Barcelona in 1917 and Germany in 1923; from civil war in Russia, where he fought in the defense of Petrograd as a Bolshevik supporter, to embattled dissent and impoverished exile in the Soviet Union, then France and Mexico, where he died in 1947 a stateless man.
Serge spent much of his life on the runˇor in jail. His literary terrain, as his advocate and sometime correspondent George Orwell put it, was "the special world created by secret police forces, censorship of opinion, torture, and frame-up trials." Serge knew this world intimately: In Stalin's Russia, he wrote under constant surveillance and harassment; timorous publishers in the West refused his work (Partisan Review was an exception); the fellow-traveling press in France, where he lived for a time after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1936, vilified him because of his anti-Stalinism; both the NKVD and the Gestapo hunted him. Even many Trotskyists wanted nothing do with him.
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 figureˇbut they also explain why he was hated or simply ignored. In this country, his work has gone in and out of print; in Russia, he is virtually unknown. But Serge's obscurity is perhaps not so surprising: An unceasing anti-Stalinist but no Communist apostate like Arthur Koestler or Ignazio Silone, he was of no use to either side in the cold war.
There are, however, a few welcome signs of a belated Serge revival. The major works are slowly trickling back into print: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, essential to understanding the ideological passions of the last century, was republished in 2002, and in January New York Review Books is reprinting The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a grim but masterful novel about the Soviet purges and show trials of the '30s.
There is also a recent biography, The Course Is Set on Hope, by Serge scholar Susan Weissman. An honorable, if flawed, attempt to accord Serge a more central place in the history of twentieth-century political struggle, it has the unfortunate effect of burying him in a mass of theoretical detail and dreary prose. There's too much Serge the political thinker and polemicist and too little Serge the visionary artist of the political novel. (Readers who want a briefer sketch of Serge's life and a trenchant appraisal of his fiction should consult J. Hoberman's exemplary essay in The Red Atlantis.)
Serge turned to writing novels only after his 1928 expulsion from the Communist Party for his criticisms of Stalin. Primarily a political journalist and historian, he was suspicious of the classical novel, finding it too bourgeois, "impoverished and outmoded," as he wrote in his memoirs, "centering as it does upon a few beings artificially detached from the world." Serge instead wanted to give voice to collective entities; he wished to be a kind of bard of the masses. Influenced equally by Dos Passos's panoramas of modern life and the nonlinear, nearly plotless, vastly peopled novels of Russian writer Boris Pilniak, Serge's earliest efforts, Men in Prison (1930) and Birth of Our Power (1931), are striking experimentsˇthe latter written mostly in the first-person pluralˇrough-hewn, intensely episodic, drenched in the coarse atmosphere of detainment and revolutionary awakening among a motley assortment of dispossessed outsiders.
In these works, Serge felt "a strong conviction charting a new road for the novel"; but in retrospect, he did not get so far down that path. For me, it is when he returns to a more "conventional" approach, with a more precise attention to the flux and contradictions of individual consciences, first in Midnight in the Century (1939), then Tulayev, that Serge succeeds most as a novelist. (Somewhat ironically, the literary critic Irving Howe, who thought Tulayev a "second rank novel," accused it of being too stately, if not middlebrowˇin short, too bourgeois.)
Set in 1939, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, written by Serge as he fled the Nazis after the fall of France in 1940, completed in Mexico, and published posthumously in 1948, is nothing less than a sharply etched portrait of Homo sovieticus. Serge takes stock not just of daily life in Stalin's Russia but also of the party's monstrous, strangling bureaucracy. War with Germany is imminent, as is the fall of the Spanish Republic to Franco's forces, events that enforce the sense of historical gloom. There is no central character; as is typical with Serge, the novel swarms with masses of figures, party officials, minor functionaries, commissars, provincial leaders, old Bolshevik intellectuals, doomed oppositionists, and even Stalinˇ"the Chief"ˇhimself.
The case of the title is the assassination of party boss Tulayev. Serge based the incident on the murder of Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov in 1934, an event Stalin used as a pretext to eliminate his adversaries such as Bukharin and Zinovyev in a series of show trials, forced confessions, and purges. Stalin's complicity in the murder has been the subject of much debate. Serge, however, believed Kirov's killer acted alone, and the shooting of Tulayev is an acte gratuit of a disgruntled minor civil servant.
The killing sets in motion a vast investigation and a rounding up of suspects. The party bureaucracy is simply incapable of countenancing an individual act, even though it knows the real suspect may never be foundˇ"You must see, nevertheless," concedes one investigator during an interrogation, "that the Party cannot admit that it is impotent before a revolver shot fired from no one knows where, perhaps from the depths of the people's soul." It needs instead to name a conspiracy financed by international capitalism and the enemies of the revolution.
Through a clashing, jaggedly organized series of interior monologues, biographical sketches, and dramatic set pieces, the entire history of the Russian revolution, from its early days to the forced collectivization of the '30s and bureaucratic stasis, is recapitulated from the divergent views and life stories of the characters. Serge's imaginative sympathies extend in all directions: to Rublev, the old Bolshevik intellectual who before confessing to crimes he did not commitˇhe accepts his role in the "conspiracy"ˇsets down a history of the revolution's errors for a future generation; to Kondratiev, a guilt-wracked confidante of Stalin who summons the courage to defy the party; even to Stalin himself, a lonely, isolated figure trapped atop an edifice of lies, incompetence, and servility. In an almost miraculous gesture of self-denial, Serge is able to bestow a kind of grace on those who were his enemies in life.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev is gritty and rough, saturated in the squalor of Moscow life; but it also pulses with lyrical flights that take us up into the stars, which represent for Serge the regenerative, transformative moments that History promises but has yet to deliver. Tulayev is infused with mysticism; it is a work of cosmic longing, as if Serge is turning to the eternity of the universe itself to avoid the utter despair right in front of his face. Here, Ryzhik, an oppositionist traveling by sleigh from his Siberian exile to meet his fate in Moscow, contemplates the canopy of the frozen heavens above: "[The stars] filled the sky; he felt that convulsions raged beneath their apparent immobility, that they were ready to fall, ready to burst on the earth in tremendous flames. They enchanted the silence; the snow-crystal world reflected their infinitesimal and sovereign light. The one absolute truth was in them."
Though Tulayev records the tragic failures of revolution and the triumph of Stalinism, it also represents a sublime refusal to grant them final victory. Serge said he wrote Tulayev not out of any love of literature but as an act of witness. Its welcome republication today is an important occasion, one that lets us understand more profoundly the darkness that is much of twentieth-century history.
Matthew Price is a New York˝based writer.
THE CASE OF COMRADE TULAYEV BY VICTOR SERGE. NEW YORK: NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. 336 PAGES. $15.
VICTOR SERGE: THE COURSE IS SET ON HOPE BY SUSAN WEISSMAN. NEW YORK: VERSO. 320 PAGES. $35. BUY NOW
Selected books by and about Victor Serge
Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, translated by Peter Sedgewick, edited by Adam Hochschild, Patricia Hampl, Carl H. Klaus. Iowa City, IO: University of Iowa, 2002.
Men in Prison by Victor Serge, translated by Richard Greeman. London: Writers and Readers, 1981.
Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge, translated by Richard Greeman. London: Writers and Readers, 1982.
Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism by J. Hoberman. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1999.
Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent by Bill Marshall. New York: Berg, 1992.