Victor Serge’s life was hugely eventful and his critical mind, without being bound by a priori opinions of a narrow kind, took note of what was happening around him.
He was drawn to anarchist thought and but when the October Revolution occurred in 1917 he understood its revolutionary importance and was determined to reach Russia and support the Bolsheviks. Who, after all, would not have given Bolshevism a chance and this comes across with feeling in his best book, “Memoirs of a revolutionary”.
Serge, discerning the danger of authoritarianism well before Stalinism took hold, was disillusioned by the Bolsheviks’ response to the Kronstadt uprising in 1921. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union and was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Lucky to escape, he made his way to Mexico and soon after wrote a semi-fictional account of the invasion that was first published in 1946. The book, “Last times”, had a troubled editing history and has now been revised by Richard Greeman and published by New York Review Books.
The story begins in and around a less-than-respectable hotel in Paris where people are becoming increasingly aware of the rapid Nazi advance towards their city.
Fleeing to the south for the possibility of a place on a boat leaving Marseilles or across the Pyrenees to Spain are the only alternatives to staying and waiting to see what happens: “Spain washed in blood, kneaded in blood, yesterday’s hell, today’s promised land.”
Serge lived through this traumatic period of Parisian history and he creates various characters who express different reactions to what is to come.
Some comfort themselves with the thought that French culture had disarmed them by putting to sleep ferocious instincts: “Decadent, do you think? That’s the name barbaric vigour gives to truly civilized people!’ Others valiantly attempt to carry out their duties, like the exasperated policeman who finds himself trying to cope as citizens come to him ‘like supplicants with invisible ropes around their necks”.
For those still riveted to their former lives, the sense of displacement that comes with being a refugee proves overwhelming.
Others quickly adjust and small merchants hope they will be able to resume their business affairs; only those who have very little, like Serge himself, can deal with the unknown.
A sense of betrayal is shared by many even when it is not immediately clear who the traitors are. Petain is waiting to shame his country and shopkeepers are already adding German marks to their tills.
Serge knows how class and patriotism cut across one another in complex ways and there are no depictions of heroic Resistance fighters. One character, a writer, observes how ‘we have been warning and prophesying, and writing articles of an irreproachable dialectic in our little papers that nobody reads’. Now it too late: the last times have arrived.
“Last times”, by Victor Serge. is published by New York Review Books. A number of other books by Serge are available from the same publisher.