Victor Serge’s Diary
New Left Review recently published selections of Victor Serge’s diary. Serge was, of course, the only one to come out of the Russian Revolution looking spotless, partly because he wasn’t in the highest positions of power, one suspects, though he was certainly courageous enough and ended up in Lubyanka prison waiting to be shot by Stalin. He is, for me, one of the greatest of that generation, a terrific writer, a real hero. My next novel, The Stars Askew takes its title from one of his poems. In any case, his diaries are pretty wonderful: written without any hope of being published, yet full of detail and interest. The most interesting parts are the personal ones, where he describes Claude Levi-Strauss, Andre Breton, Stalin and others. But I was also interested in his political pieces.
Let’s start with a taste of what they’re like:
Marseille, winter 1940–41. Narrow back streets dingy by day, lost in the shadows by night, criss-crossed by washing lines draped with clothes strung from the windows. Narrow and slippery, the stone oozing poverty, magnificent ancient mansions now lairs with vast entrances like caverns (carved gates, rue de la Prison). Stench. Pizzas, Greek, Russian, Annamite, Chinese restaurants. Rue de la Bouterie, the brothels with their lights out, Chat Noir, Magdeleine, Lucy, locked doors for the rush of sailors, notices in several languages. At the bottom of the alleyway, the port’s bright lights, spindly masts, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde on the golden rock in the distance, the azure sky.
An Annamite or Chinese procession (funeral, festival?) files past in the rain under banners of cloth and coloured paper. Scampering, the thin, sallow faces of smart but sad coolies.
Lively square, ancient fine houses, baths, the church below the hospital. We go inside to admire the Easter crèche, with all its little figurines at work, sawing wood, shoeing horses, etc. For twenty sous, the figures move.
Serge handles image and detail here wonderfully. Then there are the political reflections. Here are some of selections from these:
The strength and glory of the Russian revolutionaries is that they created a whole atmosphere. Lenin and Trotsky, surrounded by the Bukharins, the Zinovievs, the Lunacharskys, Smirnovs, Bubnovs, those fifty top-ranking men, those two or three hundred second-tier activists of the highest calibre, formed a cultured, educated milieu, schooled in the Marxist method, driven by revolutionary zeal, profoundly honest—a success that is almost unique in history. Intellects and characters were strengthened, developed through this contact. (Stress: that the intellect is as much social as bio-psychological, and again the psychological is social by definition: or Beethoven in a village in the Auvergne, among the deaf, Einstein among the illiterate, Trotsky in Coyoacán during the worldwide reaction.)
That selection interested me because Serge describes the top tier of the Bolsheviks as only three hundred or so people – how interesting that it was so small.
Jeannine’s birthday. Finished the Memoirs, I shall probably call the French edition Souvenirs des mondes disparus. What is left of the worlds I’ve known, in which I’ve struggled? France before the First War, the war, the victory, Spain, where the revolutionary yeast was so powerfully fermenting, the Europe of ‘the birth of our power’, Russia of the great epic years, Europe of complete hope, Germany and Austria of hesitant watersheds, Russia of Thermidor, West of the Popular Fronts? Nothing of these worlds will be reborn, we are hurtling towards new- ness, through disasters, towards unforeseeable rebirths or long twilights that now and then will resemble rebirths. And so many dead behind me on all these paths!
How history had changed, and Serge is trying here to grasp the new-ness of events. He barely lived past World War Two, but he is clearly sensing that the poet-war years would be different from the pre-war years. Later, he suggests one way, which relates to Gramsci (whom he mentions as ‘The leader of the Italian PC , my friend Gramsci, was dying in prison.’):
I say that the state has changed its nature and is no longer the armed body of one class for the domination of another, as Engels had it, with the exception of the totalitarian regimes; the modern state is also the organization of communications, of schools, of public health, etc.
He continues on:
That the economic structure of the world has changed, traditional capitalism giving way to a planned economy, thus with a collectivist bent, which could be that of monopolies, of totalitarian parties—or of democracies of a new type, if they succeeded in coming into being…That the defeats of European socialism are not solely attributable to the inadequacy of leaders, although that is of some significance, but can be better explained in terms of the decline of the working class and of socialism as a result of modern technology—chronic unemployment, declassing of the jobless, tremendous increase in the productive capacity of machines, with less human labour required; greater influence of technicians…. That we are being carried along by the current of an immense revolution, but that the Russian Revolution will not repeat itself except in episodes of secondary importance. That socialism must renounce all ideas of dictatorship and of working-class hegemony and make itself the representative of the great masses among whom a socialistic consciousness is germinating, obscure and without doctrinal jargon.
Here Serge is clearly trying to grapple with the changes between the period of 1900-1939, and the period the world was just entering, from 1945-1990. He’s obviously swimming around, trying to anchor himself. Anyway, his diaries are great. I can’t wait to read them – in French if necessary.
A picture of Serge:
And as an example of his portraits, which are more interesting than the above, but are primarily of historical interest:
André Breton. Entirely stylized. Personality that is a pure act, deliberately put on like make-up. For lack of a real personality. Always playing a part, for him the world is a stage. But if the actor is no more than his role, there is no longer an actor, there is nothing but a fictitious, false person. This is not higher reality or surreality, but unreality, insipidness.
None of his ideas stand up to a more probing critique that takes things seriously. As coherent as a well-constructed arabesque. Snippets of Marxism, astrology, Freudianism, Sade, Nouvelle revue française picked up at the flea market for hackneyed ideologies. The whole is no more than an attitude that is purely literary (the word ‘literature’ being taken not in the sense given to it by Dostoevsky or Lawrence of a direct, imperiously sincere expression of life, but in its NRF–Deux Magots sense: a construct, a game, commerce, to impress). ‘Automatic writing’ using dictionaries: special effects, artificial automatisms, less revelation and spontaneity than in simple writing that is not intended to be automatic. A process used in the absence of spontaneity or a capacity for work rooted in self-confidence. (Since there is no self, nothing but an act.)
Remarkably decadent character.
Is there not, in this objective judgement (which I want to be objective) something profoundly unjust? Not to underrate André’s perfect dignity, the strength of character (sometimes courage) evident in his stylization, even internal, his authentic bursts of poetry, a very sharp but uneven mind given to sudden flashes and capricious probing rather than a sustained effort; at times more profound than broad, more egotistical—in other words more preoccupied with his own importance than with true understanding. The stuff of a big, strong personality, but ruined in Paris, by this inter-war Paris, living on that literature of which Verlaine said ‘all the rest is literature’.
Objective judgements are necessarily unjust at a certain point. (1) Because they can never be entirely objective (impersonal); (2) because they do not consider the person from the inside, identifying with them like a novelist or poet, and so unaware of essential factors, that can only be intuited, through empathy. (In this sense, empathy and love perhaps attain another objectivity, of a non-scientific kind, since it is not subject to precise verification, but higher, more profound, more alive. The difference between the truth of the work of art and that of the document.)