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“But if the unbelievable were not sometimes a reality, there would be no possibility of struggle…”: Victor Serge’s ‘Unforgiving Years’

If there ever had been, if there ever were, somewhere in the world, another reality, it now remained in human memory as no more than a recollection, tinged more by doubt and sadness than by nostalgia. (p. 173)


In Gate of the Sun, his novel about the Palestinian struggle, Elias Khoury writes: ‘how sad it is when revolutions come to an end. The end of a revolution is the ugliest thing there is. A revolution is like a person. It gets senile and rambles and wets itself.’ Unforgiving Years, part-thinly veiled autobiography and part-surrealistic memoir, is about the end of a revolution. Written by Victor Serge (Comrade Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, a man who – like Arthur Koestler – seemed to be at the front-lines of all the significant events of the first half of the 20th century, going wherever ‘barricades were erected‘), Unforgiving Years tracks the attempts of D, once a major actor in the Russian Revolution (as Serge was), now disillusioned with what the Soviet Union has turned into (as Serge became), and determined to renounce the Communist Party and flee to the ends of the earth (as Serge did).

Written in dreamlike, almost hallucinatory prose, Unforgiving Years is divided into four parts, connected to each other only by a single common thread – the travails of Daria, D’s ‘friend and fellow revolutionary.’ Part One opens in Paris, on the eve of the Second World War. D – ostensibly on duty as a Soviet spy – has finally decided to break with the Communist Party, and turned in his resignation letter (‘Everything was falling apart, only risk itself remained, impoverished, coarsened by the loss of any real justification.’ (p. 49)) Expecting to be hunted down and assassinated – the fate of all defectors – D moves frantically through Paris to get his affairs in order, and flee to Mexico. As Paris braces itself for a war that it is unprepared for (‘One of the charms of Paris, unique in the world, is that people here neglect ferociousness – that power – and the organized brutality that drives great empires. ‘ (p. 64)), D and his companion and fellow-defector, Nadine, keep a half-step ahead of Communist Party agents, while D struggles with his own conscience, and coming to terms with the moral failure of the revolutionary project, and everything that gave life meaning (quoting Blok, ‘hearts once full of enthusiasm/Have nothing left but fatal nothingness…’ (p. 83)).

Part Two takes us to the Siege of Leningrad at the height of the Second World War, told from the perspectives of the besieged Soviet soldiers (‘War is a time for submission, for being rational; one can’t want anything for oneself beyond the fleeting moment. Klim spoke reasonably.’ (p. 123)) and citizens (‘The buildings had aged by a couple of centuries in a few short seasons, just as men and women looked decades older in only a few months; the children had aged a lifetime before knowing what life was.’ (p. 123) If Part One was about introspection, about an individual’s interior landscape even as the world presses down from above, Part Two is about the starkness of existence, even as a hint of reflectivity remains (‘There were ways and ways of dying slowly while remaining partly alive.’ (p. 124)) But even that is stripped away in Part Three, where the action shifts a German city at the tail-end of the War, ravaged by the bombings of the Allies and the Soviet advance. Here, life has been pared down to less than its essentials (‘So inexorably did the present annul the past, so simply, so mercilessly did this present perpetuate itself, that no room was left for the anticipation of any other future.’ (p. 184)) (Perhaps) interestingly, the story is told from the perspective of Brigitte, a German citizen and wife of a Nazi soldier, caught up in the dying embers of the War, reflecting a narrative empathy that was controversial for its time (and still is).

And in Part Four, we return to the haunting interiority of Part One. Here, the gaslit streets of Paris are replaced by the Juan Rulfo-esque Mexican landscape of vaguely-undefined horror. Daria – in Paris with D, at the defence of Leningrad, and in the advance upon Germany – makes her final journey, fleeing across the oceans to join D and Nadine in Mexico, little knowing that the agents of the Communist Party are on her heels (‘Some of them escaped with nothing but a shirt and a few papers, enriched – as well as ravaged – by ideas.’ (p. 281)) The novel now exudes a sense of exhaustion, of a death-like bone weariness, and the feeling that everything was staked for ‘the splendor of living in some distant, still-unimaginable future’ (p. 50), nothing gained, and that now, everything ends in meaninglessness.


Victor Serge

In Turgenev’s On the Eve, Andrei Bersyenev is described as being ‘sad with a sadness that had nothing noble in it.’ D expresses a similar sentiment at the beginning of Unforigiving Years, when he contemplates ‘risk … coarsened by the loss of any real justification’, and in some ways, the entire novel charts that course: the peeling away of an illusion. ‘In order to exist fully, the will demands a goal’ (p. 47): we have this wry observation early on, a sentiment reminiscent of Ghassan Kanafani’s “man is a cause“, and everything that follows is an unraveling of that goal (here, the Soviet-communist promise of ‘another reality’), and the fate of the will in a world where the goal is gone, and there is nothing to replace it. So, D can look back with wistful envy at ‘the fortunate communards, to die with all the future before them’ (p. 77) (perhaps the only time in literary history that someone has appended the adjective ‘fortunate’ to describe the communards!), while all that remains for those (like him) who are no longer apparatchiks in thrall to the Soviet Union, is a ‘desolate frankness’. (p. 77)

In some ways, Unforgiving Years is similar to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play, ‘Dirty Hands‘. ‘Dirty Hands’ is set in the imaginary country of Illyria, and follows the fortunes of a Communist party apparatchik (Hugo) as he tries to liquidate a senior leader (Hoederer) deemed a traitor by the Party’s executive. Although he succeeds in the end, inevitably enough, Hoederer is subsequently rehabilitated by the Party many years after his assassination, and Hugo must then disavow his act, the act that had singularly provided meaning to his life. Hugo’s internal conflict resembles D’s in many ways, but perhaps with one significant difference: at the end of ‘Dirty Hands’, Sartre does not offer his readers the possibility of hope; however, despite its grimmer tone, Unforgiving Years never quite allows that last kernel to die. At the very beginning, D observes that ‘if the unbelievable were not sometimes a reality, there would be no possibility of struggle.’ (p. 8) And, soon afterwards: ‘At least admit the possibility. All that remains is to make it happen.’ (p. 47) Indeed – and strikingly – Serge himself wrote, elsewhere, that ‘the ardent voyage continues,/the course is set on hope’ (lines that would title his biography). That insistence that something human always remains, at the end, is what makes Unforgiving Years, for all its tragic setting, a compelling work.

Equally compelling is Serge’s prose style, a perfect complement to his themes. An almost lyrically atmospheric flow of language is punctuated by observations of stiletto-like sharpness: ‘D liked him, to whatever atrophied extent he was still capable of friendship’ (p. 12), ‘ … one of those Siberian landscapes that lends a fresh alacrity to sadness (provided you’re not in captivity)’ (p. 16), ‘she put her money on a heavy breakup scene, with a sprinkling of sentiment over the top like confectioner’s sugar on yesterday’s buns…’ (p. 23), ‘there’ll be time to spare for sorting out memories …’ (p. 35), ‘most couples make up, or annihilate each other in ways that provide no pickings for crime reporters.’ (p. 78)

These, to use Serge’s own words in conclusion, are scattered throughout Unforgiving Years like ‘a dusting of stars’ (p. 175), and these are what make it such a unique novel.  





Filed under Russia, Victor Serge

‘But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded’: Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’

Doctor Zhivago is one of those canonical novels that has been so thoroughly written about over the decades, that there is probably nothing you can say about it that hasn’t already been said, and in a similar manner. It’s plot is simple enough: the eponymous protagonist, Doctor Zhivago (Yury), is caught up in the throes of the First World War, and then the Russian Revolution; sent to the front, thence to Moscow, then fleeing the revolution into the countryside before being conscripted into the Red army during the Civil War, he (involuntarily) traverses the length and breadth of conflict-ridden Russia, simultaneously ridden by that most intense of personal conflicts: being in love with two people at the same time. Zhivago begins by being broadly sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution; by the time the Revolution triumphs, however, he has turned deeply hostile. As much as Doctor Zhivago is about a churning Russia and about its churning protagonist, it is equally about a clash between an institution that, by its own logic, must subordinate everything to a uniform will, and an individual whose intellect will not accept that logic.

For me, the greatness of the book – and its great success – lies in its subtle, moving, and evocative portrayal of this clash. Of course, this is a theme that has been well-explored in literature (most of it, of course, after Pasternak wrote Zhivago): in the writings of Milan Kundera, or Danilo Kis, or George Orwell, to name just three writers who are stylistically very different, but are dealing with the same question. What’s different about Doctor Zhivago, however, is that it is about a pre-totalitarian regime – that is, the fate of the revolution has not yet hardened into (what would ultimately become) Stalinism, and there is a sense that in some way, the possibilities are still open:

“Everything had changed suddenly – the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, who to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need to entrust yourself to something absolute – life or truth or beauty – of being ruled by it now that man-made rules had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life which was now abolished and gone for good.” 

As this passage suggests, the situation, therefore, is considerably more morally ambiguous than the stark scenarios painted by the writers of totalitarianism. This is a historical moment in which to give way to that ‘oceanic feeling’ seems not only understandable, but almost inevitable. Of course, the character of Doctor Zhivago shows us that it is now. As the moral certainty of the purveyors of the revolution increases, he begins to grow more and more ambivalent about it. The contrast shows up most clearly during a moment when, mistaken for a counter-revolutionary, he is briefly apprehended and brought before the local commander (who is also the husband of one of his lovers), Strelnikov. Here is Strelnikov’s description:

“For some unknown reason, it was clear at once that this man was a finished product of the will. So completely was he himself, the self he chose to be, that everything about him struck one immediately as a model of its kind – his well-proportioned, handsomely set head, his eager step, his long legs, his knee-boots, which may well have been muddy but which looked clean, and his grey serge tunic which may have been creased but looked as if it were made of the best linen and had just been pressed.”

This account – and in particular, the almost chilling phrase “a finished product of the will” (bringing to mind, of course, ‘the triumph of the will‘), is set at odds with Zhivago’s own character, described back to him in a letter from his lover, Lara:

“As for me, I love you. If only you knew how much I love you. I love all that is unusual in you, the inconvenient as well as the convenient, and all the ordinary things which, in you, are made precious to me by being combined in an extraordinary way; your face which is made beautiful by your expression, though perhaps it would be plain without it, your intelligence and your talent which replace your will – for you have no will.” 

This distinction – between being a finished product of the will (and thereby being able to subordinate oneself to the cause), and having no will, is mirrored in a parallel distinction that runs through the book – between the abstract and the particular. What Strelnikov needs to have (but doesn’t) “besides the principles which filled his mind, [was] an unprincipled heart, – the kind of heart that knows of no general cases, but only of particular ones, and has the greatness of small actions.” At another point, Zhivago notes that “it was as if there was something abstract in his expression – it made him colourless. As if a living human face had become an embodiment of a principle, the image of an idea.” Here, the juxtaposition of ‘principle’, ‘abstract’ and ‘idea’ on the one hand, and ‘colourless’ on the other, suggests that there is something unnatural, almost inhuman, about the pure revolutionary imagination. At other places, Pasternak refers to ‘the power of the glittering phrase‘, people ‘grim as idols‘, and ‘shrill textbook admirations… forced enthusiasm, and the deadly dullness...’ to suggest that the necessary conclusion to abstraction is the death of all that is human. In fact, Zhivago and Lara fall in love because there is “something intangible, marginal, that we both understand and feel in the same way”, and that something is the sense that “the riddle of life, the riddle of death, the beauty of genius, the beauty of loving – that, yes, that we understood. As for such petty trifles as re-shaping the world – these things, no thank you, they are not for us.”

In some ways, Doctor Zhivago reminds me of Elias Khoury’s latest novel, Sinalcol, set during the Lebanese Civil War. Stylistically, of course, they are very different. Pasternak’s novel contains a sprawling ensemble of characters, epic in scale, highly realist in its description, linear from beginning to an end; Khoury’s is scattered, impressionistic, feverishly moving between past and present. But in both novels, the protagonist is caught up in a war that he is fundamentally unequipped to deal with, because of his fundamental inability to paint over a half-cynical, half-doubting mental landscape with the brush of revolutionary fervour. This leads to paralysis. In Sinalcol, the protagonist has a conversation with a Palestinian revolutionary, where he exhorts her not to subordinate herself to the vision of the revolution; her answer is that it is only through that that she is able to act at all. The understanding that alternative is paralysis in a world where standing by is itself a morally fraught choice is something ever-present in both Sinalcol and Doctor Zhivago, and prevents hasty judgment upon those who have chosen the path of subordination and action. So towards the end of the book, when Lara says this to Zhivago, it is powerful and moving – and yet, and yet, not altogether convincing:

“‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul, stripped to the last shred, the naked force of the human psyche for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbour, as cold and lonely as itself. You and I are like the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with – at the end of it, you and I are just as stripped and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between their time and ours, and it is in memory of all that vanished splendour that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.”

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Filed under Boris Pasternak