The writer and revolutionary Victor Serge was one of the few prominent opponents of Stalin to escape the despot’s wrath. In 1936, in the midst of the Great Terror, Serge fled the Soviet Union for France. When the Nazis took Paris in 1940, he fled to Mexico, where he spent the rest of his days in an exile rife with poverty and grief. In a sense, his notebooks became his new home, a place where he felt comfortable contemplating everything from World War II to Russian literature, from the aftermath of the Revolution to the beauty of an erupting volcano. A new volume from New York Review Books Classics, translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman, presents for the first time in English Serge’s notebooks in their entirety. Below, in a series of entries from 1944, Serge marvels at the brilliance of his daughter’s art critiques, mourns his friends Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Max Jacob, and muses on the darkness of a world at war.
August 9, 1944
A dispatch from Istanbul saying that a Turkish ship transporting 296 Jewish refugees was sunk on the Black Sea; a half-dozen people were saved.
Another dispatch on the water shortage and famine in Florence, an open city around which fighting is going on.
Notes on London’s nightmare, bombed by rocket missiles. It’s an absurd massacre and people have become accustomed to living under it.
An article by Léon Dennen on the extermination of Hungary’s Jews—hundreds of thousands of Jews—by means of asphyxiation cars in a camp in Upper Silesia. The Nazi army brings with it Judenvernichtung Abteil [extermination cars for Jews] that function like efficient offices.
The report by an American journalist on the collective suicide of the Japanese population of the island of Saipan, occupied by the Americans. People witnessed an officer decapitating his last soldiers and then, saber in hand, throwing himself on a tank; young girls brush their hair and wash themselves before jumping into the sea; families perform their ablutions and then drown themselves to the last member … (The Americans nevertheless tried to reassure the civilian population and succeeded in interning a portion of it.)
An official report of the execution by hanging of eight German generals rightly or wrongly implicated in the recent “plot” against the Führer. (I know how plots of this kind are manufactured.)
Scientific reports from America on the famine in China and the variety of deaths by starvation.
Saw, almost without emotion, photos showing the ruins of ancient churches in Russia and Italy; prostitutes in Cherbourg with their heads shaved; French collaborationists hunted down on the streets and begging for mercy on their knees.
We’ve reached the level of the dark times of the early Middle Ages. Need to reflect on this. Extreme difficulty of reflecting on this.
August 10, 1944
Today’s Time magazine, twelve lines: “Missing in action, Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1944, best-selling French aviator-novelist … on a reconnaissance flight over Europe … ” I’d just learned of the death and torture of Max Jacob at the prison in Drancy a week after his arrest last year.
Twelve lines, two book titles, best sellers, for Saint-Ex. It’s true that one can still hope that the amazing luck he had in his accidents may have saved him yet again and that he’s only been taken prisoner. But the calculus of probabilities is against him.
It always seemed to me that a mist floated about him, perhaps a protective mist for the hidden man. The face of an average Frenchman, a naive or veiled gaze, he had several destinies at which he failed as much as he succeeded. He was an excellent aviator until the day he became aware of the risk and grandeur of visions. He then became a good writer, limited but magnificent (Night Flight). The writer became aware of human and social problems, and the novelist lost in the deal. He wanted to understand things in depth and remedy them; he elaborated theories, sought social formulas, nearly drowned in his artless investigations and discoveries. I thought he would no longer be able to simply construct a good novel. He touched on politics, hemmed in by his bourgeois, aristocratic, et cetera, family milieu and by well-paid journalism; was a sympathizer of the Croix-de-Feu and was passionate about the Spanish Civil War. He ended by allowing himself to be carried along by the waters of Vichy and only drew away from the French legation in Washington when Vichy’s game was lost. But I continue to believe that he was always tortured by this inner struggle, groping about, penetrated with the hypertrophied conscience of a period of decadence.
One evening at a café with red leather seats on the place de l’École Militaire we discussed the Spanish revolution, production, and Marxism. Pencil in hand, he set out to demonstrate on paper napkins that the sum of human labor indispensable for collective life didn’t vary with the advent of machines because the construction of the machines themselves absorbed the labor apparently liberated by chain production. This caused me to suddenly see in him a kind of discoverer of perpetual motion, a technician crushed by technology, just as the socialite was dominated by high society and money, and the sexual being by an exaggerated appetite.
Evenings at his home on the terrace on the place Vauban during the Paris World’s Fair: fireworks over the Eiffel Tower, vast clouds over Paris, Consuelo in a Persian robe. His amazing card tricks on the large, pine table … It was beyond imagining. But I saw in his library fat books on card tricks, probably closely studied. His love for mystification, a counterweight to a serious view of life. Last encounter at Léon Werth’s, the night of the invasion of Belgium. He felt that all was lost, drowning in depression. (We didn’t know the news yet.)
September 10, 1944
Herbert Lenhoff, seeing me at work on the novel, asked me if I feel in full possession of my powers.
No. Never was I so far from this feeling. The novel on the Moscow Trials was painful for me to write, but I had the sensation with it of giving everything I have to give. And that of a duty fulfilled, of fidelity. Unpublishable until when? Les Derniers temps will be a sincere and probably satisfying novel, but nothing more, except on a few pages where the comprehension of man elevates it a little. Terribly difficult to create in a void, without the least support, without any atmosphere. If I could truly allow myself to let go, shake off the weight of the external and internal censors (the latter a reflection of the former), the book would be a hundred times more worthwhile and I’d feel a hundred times better, but psychologically this is a quasi-impossibility. To write only for the desk drawer, past age fifty, facing an unknown future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result? A rather rich projection against a background of despair; and I prefer practical compromise with the social censors than a deliberate dive into despair. And again: remain reasonable: things can and must change enough before long for me to be able to breathe more freely. Compromise is after all an act of confidence, of a confidence mutilated and hardened, but still alive. I’ve come to wonder if my name alone won’t be an obstacle to the publication of the novel.
Strange to observe that in this free country of the Americas I’m writing the same way the Russians wrote around 1930, as the last spiritual freedom was dying there. Pilnyak, Fedin, Tynyanov, Kaverin, and even the facile Lavrenev talked to me the same way I talk to myself when I’m alone. Lydia Seifulina took to drink and became neurasthenic; Pasternak expected to go to prison … Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, an authentic poet, read us in private an inspired tale in Giraudoux’s style, impressions of the Caucasus mixed with allusions to freedom of the imagination, which no power can ever wipe out (no power except the censor and the political police). As he ended his reading his thin irregular face with its worried eyes, was exalted: “Do you think it’s publishable?” Zoshchenko raised his yellow, reticent, regular face to say: “It doesn’t seem so scandalous to me.” I had the painful impression of the sneaky, roundabout rebellion of a fearful child, seeking subtle ways of saying things without seeming to. A short time later Mandelstam stupidly attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself out of too low a window. And he “had problems.” One evening, at my house, he was strained and embarrassed. “It’s that you’re a Marxist,” he admitted. When I showed him a volume of photos of Paris by night, the strain between us quickly evaporated before these images. “Thanks to these photos I feel confident again … ”
October 2, 1944
Jeannine, while eating supper, notices the painting by V. Brauner: a large, symmetrical flower whose stem is the talon of a bird of prey grasping a tree trunk. At the center of the flower a crystal contains light and color … Jeannine: “Papa, why do people paint things that don’t exist? There’s no flower like that, with a bird’s claw and a crystal. It’s not real. Why paint what’s not real?”
“But perhaps there are flowers that are like that.”
“No, I’m sure there aren’t. You’re telling fibs.”
“Maybe we see them in dreams.”
“Ah … but dreams aren’t real.”
“In any case, it’s very beautiful.”
“Yes, but it’s not real.”
I have long been surprised by her concrete and positive mind-set. About a story, she always asks: “Is it real? Did it really happen?” No real interest in fairy tales and the marvelous, which Lunacharsky and many others asserted correspond to a child’s needs. The influence of Laurette, who reads her tales by Anderson and who loves the marvelous, has had no impact on her. In this sense she is different from Vlady, whose imagination freely runs wild (and past twenty continues along the levels of distorted reality). In this sense, she takes after me, my scrupulous concreteness, without my ever having taught her anything. (This was also my father’s mind-set, who considered himself scientific in all things.) But aren’t children infinitely more realistic and interested in reality than grown-ups, who need escape into the marvelous, the mystical, the surreal, and the unreal—or that other fantastic reality of the inner world?
November 5, 1944
Benjamin Crémieux has been murdered by the Nazis. I barely knew him, his vacillating and complacent attitude toward Russian totalitarianism not having allowed us to frequent each other. Under the regime of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact he “saw things clearly,” with bitterness, and we met each other in the corridors of the Quai d’Orsay. He, in an officer’s uniform, a rabbinical beard and glasses, very bourgeois-ly and nobly the Jewish intellectual, with an astute mind. Without much force, he was intelligent and cultivated, truly attached to the values that were being threatened. They seized him, humiliated him, insulted him, and killed him. He must have suffered enormously, like so many others, and no one will ever know. A newspaper devotes eight lines to him in the same issue that Brillat-Savarin gets several columns and idiotic chitchat fills whole. Everything in its place.
An enormous indifference greets the announcement of deaths. Giraudoux is dead; Max Jacob was tortured and murdered; Saint-Exupéry disappeared, no reaction, no moved or moving note, no real interest among people who know the works and the men, nothing, or almost nothing, in the press. And when something is published it’s so stupid and pitiful that it would be better not to publish anything. Obviously there are too many deaths and they can no longer be counted. Books and ideas are henceforth worth so little that there’s no need to even speak of them. I recall the indifference that greeted the announcement of Sneevliet’s death. Are there more than three or four of us who truly remember Otto Rühle, Alice, and Fritz Fränkel? I’d like to believe that someone whom no one thinks of has maintained a heart-stricken memory of them. It’s possible. Decline in value of man and a decline in the quality of people’s character. I’m surprised that people don’t fight harder against this general degradation. It’s possible to have a strong reaction and to remain alive in a more dignified manner. The devastating current is strong, but people surrender to it too much. Always the problem of cowardice and courage.
I recall with gratitude a letter from Duhamel that I received in Leningrad in 1931 or 1932. I’d written him to announce the death of Maximilian Alexandrovich Voloshin, whom he had known since their shared youth. He answered: “I passed a night meditating on that life and that death … ”
Death of old Maillol in an auto accident on a road in the Pyrenees. Suspicious.
—Translated from the French by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman
Victor Serge (1890–1947) was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian anticzarist exiles, impoverished intellectuals living “by chance” in Brussels. A precocious, anarchist firebrand, young Victor was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. Expelled to Spain in 1917, he participated in an anarcho-syndicalist uprising before leaving to join the Revolution in Russia. Detained for more than a year in a French concentration camp, Serge arrived in St. Petersburg early in 1919 and joined the Bolsheviks, serving in the press services of the Communist International. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and briefly arrested in 1928. Henceforth an “unperson,” he completed three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, and Conquered City) and a history (Year One of the Russian Revolution), all published in Paris. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Using his insider’s knowledge, Serge published a stream of impassioned, documented exposés of Stalin’s Moscow show trials and machinations in Spain, which went largely unheeded. Stateless, penniless, hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947. His classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary and his great last novels, Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev, were written “for the desk drawer” and published posthumously.
Mitchell Abidor is a historian and translator of French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Esperanto. Among the books he has edited and translated are an anthology of Victor Serge’s anarchist writings, Anarchists Never Surrender; Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution; and May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, where he still lives.
Richard Greeman has translated and written the introductions for five of Serge’s novels (including Unforgiving Years and Conquered City). A veteran socialist and cofounder of the Praxis Center and Victor Serge Library in Moscow, Greeman is the author of the website the Invisible International.
Excerpted from Notebooks, 1936–1947, by Victor Serge, translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman, available now from New York Review Books Classics.