It could be argued that Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (NYRB) is one of the most modernist of spy novels. What can't be argued is that there could possibly be another spy novel so saturated in paranoia. Serge was born in poverty in Brussels in 1899 to émigré Russians after fleeing the Czar. He became a political activist and was jailed before arriving 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 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 a dark- perhaps 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 introduction, suggests that D, the main character, is based not only on Serge himself, but on two others: a defector- in fact, the head of Stalin’s apparatus- Walter Krivitsky, who met with Serge in Paris; and Soviet agent, Ignace Reiss, whose Trotskyism led to his murder by Stalinist agents was he was about to meet Serge in Switzerland. Krivitsky would later die in Washington hotel room under mysterious circumstances.
One might also view Serge's novel as an antidote to Celine's Long Day's Journey..., particularly when it comes to the horrors of war. But, of course, Serge's novel delves even further into the shape-shifting psychology of that period. 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. It's a world in which no one can trust anyone, and circumstances alter personalities and allegiances. No wonder there's so much paranoia. But what's surprising is how much Serge's writing changed over the years. One can only suppose that the war altered the way he viewed the world, and so had to find a form to fit that view. I would also recommend his earlier work, such as 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 another one that Serge never sought to publish during lifetime. Though, for me, Unforgiving Years is the more impressive of the two. It's the sort of novel that contemporary writers in the genre would die for. After all, Unforgiving Years is the real thing, a view of a world in ruins derived from lived experience. Anyone after a post-apocalyptic novel should start here.
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.