UNFORGIVING YEARS.

Last year I wrote briefly about Victor Serge’s novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev; at that time I said I was very much looking forward to Serge’s World War II novel Unforgiving Years, and I have now finished reading it (in Richard Greeman’s translation from Serge’s Années sans pardon; does anyone know if it has been translated into Russian?). It’s a strange, vivid nightmare of a novel; J. Hoberman, in his NYRB review, says it reminds him of “Max Ernst’s epic canvas Europe After the Rain, painted between 1940 and 1942, when the artist, like Serge, was on the run from France to the New World” (here‘s an image of Europe After the Rain II, not to be confused with the 1933 Europe After the Rain I, painted on plywood previously used by Buñuel for his hilarious and violently controversial movie L’Âge d’Or), and I think that’s a valid comparison. Both novel and painting are strange, somewhat off-putting, and hard to turn away from. The novel’s four sections are set in Paris before the war, in Leningrad during the siege, in Berlin as it was falling in 1945, and in Mexico after the war (where Serge himself wound up after the U.S. refused him entry); the characters are, as in the earlier book, disillusioned revolutionaries, but this novel concentrates on psychology rather than politics, and it’s filled with dream imagery and wild metaphors. It also has a fair amount of poetry, and as a service to readers who know Russian I will identify the Blok poem quoted on page 83 as “Рождённые в года глухие” (the lines translated in the text are “В сердцах, восторженных когда-то,/ Есть роковая пустота”) and the poem quoted on page 115 as Iosif Utkin’s “Слово Есенину” (the quoted lines are “Кому нужны бокалы,/ Бокалы без вина?,” “Есть ужас бездорожья,/ И в нем – конец коню!/ И я тебя, Сережа,/ Ни капли не виню,” and “А кроме права жизни,/ Есть право умереть”); does anyone recognize the lines translated on page 162 as “Keep quiet, dissemble, make secret/ Your feelings and your thoughts” are from Tyutchev [see MV's comment below]. (There really should be a footnote on page 109 explaining to the non-Russian reader the story of “Lermontov’s classic poem ‘Three Palms’” (Russian text): the palms complain to God that they are growing uselessly in the desert, whereupon a caravan shows up and rests beneath their welcome shade… and the following morning chops them up for firewood before moving on. This imagery is relevant to just about everything Serge ever wrote.)

A passage on page 220 could serve as an epigraph for the novel: “the devastated cities are sisters, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Coventry, London, Lübeck, and this city [Berlin] too: they could all be mistaken for one another in a photograph.” The fact that a Russian communist, immediately after the war, could write sympathetically about Berlin and its suffering inhabitants will give you some idea of Serge’s uniqueness, and of why he was so roundly ignored by pretty much everyone for decades. I’m glad he’s finally getting his due.

Comments

  1. does anyone recognize the lines translated on page 162 as “Keep quiet, dissemble, make secret/ Your feelings and your thoughts”?
    Молчи, скрывайся и таи
    И чувства и мечты свои…
    (Тютчев, Silentium!)

  2. Ah, I knew it sounded familiar but couldn’t place it as Tyutchev. Many thanks!

  3. Published in 2002 in the journal Ural (that journal was the first to publish Nabokov’s Dar) – here.

  4. Thanks very much! That’s only the first section of the novel, but it says the whole thing was expected to be published by Praxis. Hmm, but Google tells me it doesn’t seem to have been published. Too bad. I would think the second section, set in Leningrad, would be especially interesting to Russian readers.

  5. I am not sure that Serge could be qualified as a “Russian communist”.

  6. Why not? His being born in Brussels doesn’t mean he wasn’t Russian any more than my being born in Tokyo means I’m not American. He grew up speaking Russian and was steeped in Russian culture; it was a historical accident that he wound up writing in French (and I suspect he’d be more widely remembered today if he’d written in Russian).

  7. I did not think about the “Russian” but about the “Communist”. It’s too short.

  8. He would certainly disagree with you. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1919 and as far as I know never left it; he was generally in the Trotskyite camp, although he quarreled with Trotsky about some things, so unless you don’t consider Trotsky a communist you should allow Serge that title.

  9. solus rex says:

    Re: Тютчев, “Silentium!”
    The best translation of this poem is, undoubtedly, the Nabokov’s one:
    Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
    the way you dream, the things you feel.
    Deep in your spirit let them rise
    akin to stars in crystal skies
    that set before the night is blurred:
    delight in them and speak no word.
    How can a heart expression find?
    How should another know your mind?
    Will he discern what quickens you?
    A thought once uttered is untrue.
    Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
    drink at the source and speak no word.
    Live in your inner self alone
    within your soul a world has grown,
    the magic of veiled thoughts that might
    be blinded by the outer light,
    drowned in the noise of day, unheard…
    take in their song and speak no word.

  10. Nabokov was a wonderful translator before he decided to become a literalist crank.

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