The Art of Critique: Victor Serge’s “Midnight in the Century”

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Guy Patrick Cunningham in The LA Review of Books:

I TREASURE GREAT POLITICAL FICTION, in part because it’s so rare. Literature — fiction in particular — thrives with time, whereas the specifics of political struggles are notoriously transient. That makes it hard to write truly political work, as opposed to more abstract “novels of ideas” that might reflect on political themes only indirectly. Certainly George Orwell managed to write fiction that combined political ideas and literary technique — though even he grounded his most important work in science fiction (1984) or fable (Animal Farm). But the political novelist who makes the biggest impression on me is Victor Serge, the longtime political radical who took up literature after turning away from the Soviet Communist Party.

Serge’s biography often gets in the way of talking about his gifts as a writer. To be fair, he lived one of the most interesting lives of any 20th-century man of letters: stateless, a veteran of seemingly every radical movement of the early 20th century, from the anarchists to the Bolsheviks, he participated in the struggle against Franco in Spain, organized against Hitler in both Germany and later in France (where Serge worked with the French Resistance), and he was an early — and vocal — critic of Stalin in the USSR. Susan Sontag considered him a hero, and plenty of others have agreed with her. The fact that all of his novels deal explicitly with political movements in which he participated or historical events he experienced firsthand makes it even easier to get caught up in the drama of his life — especially since he wrote about it so well in his seminal Memoirs of a Revolutionary. But, for the contemporary reader, Serge’s literary gifts outweigh his value as a witness to a particular moment in history. Perhaps no political writer better combined a strict attention to history with a command of novelistic technique. As a result, looking at his work offers great insight into why some political fiction endures even after it has long passed.

The 1939 novel Midnight in the Century, brought back into print in December 2014 by NYRB Classics, exemplifies what makes Serge so compelling. The book mostly concerns itself with the life of several members of the USSR’s Left Opposition, internally exiled to Chernoe, a remote (fictional) town near the Chernaya (sometimes called the Black River). Rather than focus on one or two main characters, Serge focuses on the group itself, while occasionally looking out on Soviet society as a whole. In his Memoirs, Serge explains his disinterest in solitary heroes. “We never live only by our own efforts, we never live only for ourselves; our most intimate, our most personal thinking is connected by a thousand links with that of the world.”

More here.

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