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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (NYRB) must be the most profound and modernist spy novel of the 20th century. Serge was born in poverty in Brussels in 1899 to émigré Russians after fleeing the Czar. He became a political activist, was jailed and arrived in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. Climbing the hierarchy of the Comintern, he fell foul of Stalin, went to prison, followed by his exile from the Soviet Union. Unforgiving Years would be Serge's final novel, destined, as far as he was concerned, for the bottom drawer. And you can see why. It's his darkest and most extreme book. Paranoid, unrelenting, brutal, poetic, surreal, hallucinatory, the book moves from pre-war Paris to Leningrad under siege to Berlin during the last days of the war to Mexico (this last part reads like a B. Traven story). Serge's translator, Richard Greeman, in his informative introduction, suggests that D, the main character, is based not only on Serge himself, but a defector, actually the head of Stalin’s apparatus who met with Serge in Paris, Walter Krivitsky, died in a hotel room in Washington under mysterious circumstance, as well as another Soviet agent, Ignace Reiss, who, in the process of defecting to Trotskyism, was murdered by Stalinist agents on his way to meeting Serge in Switzerland. In a sense, one might say that Serge's novel is antidote to Celine, at least so far as the depiction of the horrors of war is concerned. Translated into English for the first time, Unforgiving Years tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. Earlier Serge writing is quite different in style and content, and definitely less modernist in orientation. I would also recommend The Case of Comrade Tulayev (reprinted by NYRB as well), about the reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Like Unforgiving Years, it was one of his last books, and one that Serge did not seek to publish during the latter years of his life. Unforgiving Years is the real thing, the sort that the likes of Alan Furst would die for. If anyone thinks latest batch of post-apocalyptic novels, like The Road, are bleak, they should try this one.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.