Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unforgiving Years: A Disappointment

I'm a big fan of Victor Serge's Case of Comrade Tulayev:  I don't know of any book that better captures the corrosive mix of paranoia and betrayal that crippled even the best intentions among Stalinists in the 1930s.  So I was a natural candidate for first-ever (2008) translation into English of Serge's Unforgiving Years.  Serge wrote the book (in French) in hr months before his death in 1947; the apocalyptic moment just after the detonation of the first atomic bombs, the moment of transition between one war and the next.  It is his attempt at a summing-up, a starting-over, of so much that he wanted to see and understand.

I got around to it this week, in a couple of long waits in a couple of airport lounges.  It was good company, absorbing and stimulating in its way, but in the end, I'd have to rate it a disappointment.  It's an honorable effort, but in the end, I'd say that Serge just  bit off more than he could chew.  He's a piercingly honest chronicler of the events he knows well at first hand, but I don't think he's got the technical skills for a Panavision epic.

We have three major scenes here; the first is Paris in the dark days around Munich--Alan Furst country.  It's a scene Serge understands well and his account of the Paris episode carries conviction although even here, uncharacteristically, there is a touch of Bulwer-Lytton in the prose.  The second is Leningrad during the siege; the third, Berlin just before and after the moment of collapse.  Each of these last two is earnestly narrated and there are flashes of first-rate story telling.  But a lot of it sounds artificial, as if he is recounting at second hand.

A short coda in Mexico is a train wreck: an attempt at summing-up in Mexico is just a train wreck.  In atmosphere, it's a pale reflection of Malcolm Lowry or B. Traven; in content, it comes close to mawkish.    The best you can possibly say is--who could blame?  Who could possibly have made sense of our predicament at that particularly uncertain wrinkle in time?   You've got to admire him for trying and the admiration alone is enough to keep you going, but in the end you can do him a kindness by putting this one aside and remembering his better work elsewhere.

Note:  I haven't read Memoirs of a Revolutionary, non-fiction, though I suspect it's worth the effort.  I did enjoy Conquered City--one of the two best on-the-ground accounts I know of the Russian revolution.  The other is, ironically, the very different We the Living by the very different Ayn Rand.

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