NYRB Classics is bringing out a new edition of Unforgiving Years, which I haven’t read yet but probably will, to accompany its reissue of his The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which NYRB reissued a while back, and which I did read a while back in a battered old second hand paperback. Of Serge, the NYRB Classics editor says (link):
He is one of the greatest of twentieth-century political novelists, and his work more than holds its own—I'd even say overshadows—that of contemporaries like Andre Malraux and Ignazio Silone, not to mention such fading Cold War relics as 1984 and Darkness at Noon.
Hm, let me think about that. I resist calling 1984 a “relic.” I haven’t read it in years, but I’m one of those bitter-enders who thinks that Orwell was and is just as great as we always thought. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is, perhaps, a different sort of creature. It was surely an important political statement in its place and time, although I suspect serious readers recognized from the start that it was more important due to its context than it was for any possible intrinsic merit.
Silone—I wonder if anyone under 50 has even heard of Silone? He is perhaps a classic exemplar of the category of “troubled liberal,” and we know those guys all get chewed up by events. I read Bread and Wine a few years back and found it naïve—but it had a kind of charm about it, a good deal of the flavor of a certain time and place. I read Fontamara a couple years back in an Italian student reader, and made it the subject of my first-ever substantive blog post. I don’t suppose it was a “great” book—it seemed a bit manufactured, as if produced for a show—but its compassion seemed sincere and some bits were telling, and some bits tellingly funny. So, I’d say Silone is a keeper.
Malraux. Ah, Malraux. I certainly remember when we treated him like an icon. But I also remember assigning Man’s Fate to a class of undergraduates years back—it was for one of those get-to-know-the-faculty seminars that meet in your living room—and finding it almost indefensibly false. Good writing in its way, I suppose, but preening, self-aggrandizing moralism in a style that makes my skin crawl. I suspect in general, Malraux’s reputation as fallen pretty low.
So, where does Serge fit? As I say, I haven’t read Unforgiving Years, but on the strength of Comrade Tulayev, I certainly want to. Like the other authors mentioned here, I suppose he is in some sense a product of his time. But then again, who isn’t? The best of these—certainly Orwell, probably Silone—have a way of at once capturing and at the same time transcending their time, allowing them to reach forward and make contact with a very different time. On that score, I’d say Tulayev measures up. I think he did a good job of capturing some of the deceptions and of what Auden called the “Low, Dishonest Decade”—and, more than the deceptions, the self-deceptions that allowed some people to get themselves sucked into it.
I certainly wasn’t politically conscious in the 30s (!) but I was by the 50s (at least in a childish way) and I knew old lefties who said “We never knew! We never knew!” Serge is living proof that somebody knew, and tried to tell the truth before it was fashionable. That’s enough reason for Serge to survive and, I hope, to endure. I look forward to Unforgiving Years.
Postscript: The introduction to Tulayev is by the late Susan Sontag. NYRB calls it one of Susan Sontag's most ambitious and thoughtful late statements. I’m not persuaded: if I had read the intro alone, I might well have skipped the book. But that might just be a thing between me and Susan. Read the book because of Susan if you like, or in spite of her if you prefer. But do read it. And, probably, read the new one, too.