by Aashish Kaul
Marseilles. Late winter, 1941. Icy winds. A boat preparing to depart for Martinique in the Caribbean Sea, a boat with just two cabins and a total of seven bunks for the lucky few. For the rest, the hold with little light or air, with makeshift bunk beds hurriedly assembled. A very long and distressing voyage ahead for nearly four hundred men, women, and children escaping one or another persecution, now being herded into the steamer by armed gendarmes, free with their hands and insults, as if these hapless passengers were convicts in the process of deportation, or worse.
Incredible, then, to believe that amid this wretched, jostling mass of humanity is the father of Surrealism, André Breton, who, in days to come on the high seas, unable to rest in the crowded hold, would often be seen wrapped in a thick blue overcoat striding the deck in search of some empty space. Even more incredible seems the presence of Comrade Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, former companion of Lenin and Trotsky, described by an observer on the boat resembling a prim and elderly spinster, with a clean-shaven, delicate-featured face from which issued a clear voice accompanied by a stilted and wary manner that had an almost asexual quality.
Incredible, perhaps, but true. Incredible, perhaps, to us, but not to those who lived through the tumultuous times, for incredulity is the preserve of those born into a peaceful and stable world. In any case, we have for evidence, from the brief mention of this episode in the early pages of Tristes Tropiques, the testimony of at least one observer, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, himself escaping from Vichy France by the skin of his teeth, but who at least was fortunate enough to secure a bed in one of the only two cabins on the boat.
Capitaine Paul-Lemerle in Marseilles, bound for Martinique, 1941 (Photo via Maîtres Du Vent)
Breton may have found the going tough, Victor Lvovich’s son, Vlady, or his partner and future wife, the ethnologist Laurette Séjourné, may have railed against the misery of the voyage and the unknown terrors awaiting them on the far side of the Atlantic, but not the seasoned revolutionary Comrade Kibalchich himself, to whom such precarious conditions were the very marrow of life as he had lived it for all of his fifty one years, and about which he had as few false illusions as he had hopes of triumphing over them in his own lifetime.
Born in 1890 in Brussels to itinerant and impoverished Russian anti-Czarist exiles, Victor Lvovich grew up stateless and penniless, his world view and personality forged in the smithy of iniquity and inequality of times that had little thought or empathy to spare for the less than fortunate but also of the family myths of revolutionary idealism and sacrifice, becoming by turns a pamphleteer and an anarchist in his teens, while at the same time continuing his haphazard and unorthodox education that included a generous dose of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky among others. His perilous peregrinations repeatedly found him as a participant or witness at crucial turning points in Europe’s political and revolutionary history, including the 1911 trial of the “tragic bandits” of French anarchism, the 1917 syndicalist uprising in Barcelona, the 1919-21 Russian Civil War following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Left Opposition’s fight against Stalin all the way up to the beginnings of the French Resistance in Marseille, from where he finally escaped to Mexico with Séjourné and his son, leaving behind his wife, Liuba Russakova, who, unable to deal with the tragic and dangerous outcomes that the family suffered on almost a daily basis, had for years been confined to a mental institution, and his daughter, Jeannine, in the care of family friends, later to be reunited with her father in Mexico.
Given the unnerving and nomadic nature of his life, and given the periodic bouts of illness due in part to his periods of imprisonment in both France and Russia, he must have sensed instinctively that his life was already in its final phase, and that he would never see Europe again. Hence, the almost muted grandeur and stoicism throughout his journey over the Atlantic in that crowded boat, which later led Lévi-Strauss to compare him to certain Buddhist monks he had seen in Burma. Already estranged from Trotsky through false and often malicious propaganda, and severe criticism of him spreading fast in the American press after the Soviet Union and the United States became partners in war in 1942, Comrade Kibalchich found himself in an even more delicate situation upon reaching Mexico, having first suffered along the way countless tribulations in Martinique and Dominican Republic, where he was often constrained to use all his resources to remain just a step ahead of the assassins loosed on him by Stalin’s GPU. He died six years later in November 1947, suffering a heart attack in the back of a taxi moving through the traffic of Mexico City. Poor and stateless in death just as he had been at his birth and for most of his life, no Mexican cemetery would offer him burial ground, and he could at last be put into the earth only under the dubious classification: ‘Spanish Republican’.
The record of this most remarkable and tragic of lives, and indeed one of the most remarkable and tragic periods of world history, would have easily been lost in the gush of the ensuing years, had not the subject, greatly upset with the ugly turn the events had taken within less than a decade of the Russian Revolution, almost in despair at seeing the politico-philosophical edifice of the system he had believed in turn into a monster before his very eyes, himself taken up the pen to compose a spectacular body of work under the pseudonym, Victor Serge.
Victor Serge (left), Benjamin Péret with his wife Remedios Varo, and André Breton in front of the
Villa Air-Bel in Marseilles. Alamy. (Photo via The Wall Street Journal)
That Serge, who consciously established himself in the Russian tradition, wrote in French is of paramount importance, for his is one of the few cases where the choice of language, quite literally, was a matter of life and death. The fact that he wrote in French and was published in France, where his work reached piecemeal, smuggled out of Russia by sympathetic friends and acquaintances, was not only instrumental in providing sustenance to him and his family during trying times and periods of incarceration and house arrest, but of saving his life when many of his friends and contemporaries engaged in similar struggles lost theirs.
The difficult circumstances in which Serge found himself at the end of the nineteen twenties, which made it impossible for him to publish at home, forcing him to depend on friends to surreptitiously remove in installments the novels he was then writing, pushed him to develop and present his material in radical, alternative ways. One such novel was Conquered City, first published in 1932 by Les Éditions du Seuil in Paris, and recently reissued in English by New York Review Books. Richard Greeman, the English translator of this novel, in his nuanced and learned foreword, throws light on how Serge’s philosophy and circumstances shaped his literary method, while also discussing in depth several facets of Victor Serge’s life and work, including some described above. Arguing that Serge’s novel ‘respects the classic unities of time, place, and action proposed by Aristotle’s Poetics as inherent to the form’, Greeman goes on to observe that in it:
tragic irony completes and complicates heroic action, and fiction rises to the level of epic tragedy. Conquered City gives us the clash of armies, the fate of cities and empires, an action of great moral seriousness entwined with the fate of heroic and essentially good, if flawed (that is, mistaken) individuals. Running throughout are the tragic themes of fate – here incarnated in its Marxist form as historical necessity – and of man’s freedom, incarnated in the will of the revolutionists to change life. The protagonists, in their agony, attain high levels of self-awareness and moral consciousness. . . . Arguably, [Serge’s] conscious purpose in writing his novel was consistent with the therapeutic purpose of tragedy according to Aristotle, whose Poetics defines this function as catharsis: the polis – the body politic – is restored to health by “purging” it of fear and awe during the tragic performance. . . . Thus for Serge the truth of poetics may be said to absorb and transcend the truth of politics.
Greeman then moves on from Serge’s underlying philosophy to the writing process itself, quoting from a letter of the author, where he believed he had hit upon a “radically different” form for the novel:
It will have a sort of plot, central if you will, but like a narrow thread running through a complicated design. . . . It is not a novel of a handful of people but that of a city, which is itself a moment and fragment of revolution. I keep rather close to history – without writing history – and chronicle, but above all concerned with showing the men who make events and who are carried away by events. From this standpoint, the characters have but a subaltern importance, they appear and disappear as they do in the city without occupying the center of the stage for more than a few instants.
Circumstances may have forced Serge’s hand, for all this hinted at a novel made up of detached, self-sufficient episodes that could be conveniently sent abroad and, if necessary, published individually. But Serge, as Greeman shows, may have learnt this method as early as 1923 through the novel Naked Year by his friend and fellow writer Boris Pilnyak. He might also have picked it up from the modernists.
A reader cannot but agree with Greeman when he says that these detached fragments ‘come together to form a whole greater than its parts, with its own implacable unity. The semiautonomous sketches of Conquered City add up to dynamic, dramatic presentation of a year in a great city under siege, torn within by the struggle between revolution and counterrevolution.’
Two years before Serge’s death, the American critic and academic Joseph Frank, subsequently to become the acclaimed biographer of Dostoyevsky, published in Sewanee Review in 1945 an essay called Spatial Form in Modern Literature, later to be included along with Frank’s response to his critics in the book The Idea of Spatial Form. Although he does not refer to Serge, but to Joyce, Proust, and Djuna Barnes among other modernists, and although there is no reason to believe he had even read Serge at the time, Frank’s reflections on spatial form in modern narratives could easily be applied to Conquered City, and more generally to Serge’s work, as would be apparent from his preliminary observations on Ulysses.
Frank begins by observing that Joyce, in Ulysses, presents the elements of his narrative in fragments, as they are thrown out unexplained in the course of casual conversations, or as they lie embedded in the various strata of symbolic reference, allusions to Dublin life, history, and the external events of the twenty-four hours during which the novel takes place. The factual background, which otherwise is so conveniently summarized for the reader, must be reconstructed in this case from fragments, sometimes hundreds of pages apart, scattered through the book. As a result, Frank argued, the reader is forced to read Ulysses in the manner s/he reads modern poetry – continually fitting fragments together and keeping allusions in mind until, by reflexive reference, s/he can link them to their complements.
In such cases, notes Frank, the synchronic relations within the text take precedence over diachronic referentiality, and it is only after the pattern of synchronic relations has been grasped as a unity that the meaning can be understood. While such synchronic relations can only be worked out within the time-act of reading, the temporality of this act is no longer coordinated with the dominant structural elements of the text, becoming merely a physical limit of apprehension, which conditions but does not determine the work.
To read Conquered City in this manner is to also see it as a modernist novel. Serge, himself a reader of both Joyce and Proust, may not have disagreed, but his language and writing style, his matter of fact observations and the astonishing descriptions of St Petersburg in the midst of war and winter, have a quality that is uniquely Russian and somehow pre-modernist. The nobility of its prose, its ease in transmitting great historical and philosophical themes in a language that is as light as it is breathtakingly beautiful, a vision that is as ethical as it is total, its atmosphere at once real and electric, is reminiscent of the best of Tolstoy.
In the end, Serge, the poet, absorbs and transcends Serge, the revolutionary. For even in the pit of despair and very real misery, he never once abandoned his idealism and his hope in the human condition. Perhaps these qualities survive the longest in those who have little else to hold on to. That is why his life and work coincide, and reach us from the distant shores in the style of epic tragedy.
The Bronze Horseman, St Petersburg. A central motif in Serge’s Conquered City (Photo via saint-petersburg.com)