It's hard to say one "likes" as grim a book as this, but Red Cavalry leaves a powerful impression. It is a stark tale of war written from the point ofIt's hard to say one "likes" as grim a book as this, but Red Cavalry leaves a powerful impression. It is a stark tale of war written from the point of a writer supremely unsuited for it and yet thrust into it. The account vividly describes the violence and devastation, as well as the absurd banality that so often characterizes the world of those caught up in the daily realities of war. Babel's imagery is arresting and unforgettable....more
Victor Serge's Conquered City is an extraordinary novel in every sense. It captures the period of one year in the Russian revolution, when the revolutVictor Serge's Conquered City is an extraordinary novel in every sense. It captures the period of one year in the Russian revolution, when the revolutionaries are in control of St. Petersburg (or, rather, Petrograd) and have begun a period of purges, reprisals, and terror. It is impressionistic, episodic, and truly a communist story, in its root meaning of communal. It is not an individual person's story, but rather a story, told through glimpses of dozens of different lives, of both a people and an idea in a particular moment in history. In Serge's novel, the revolution itself is the main character, a strange, amorphous but unitary creature -- at once rough beast, fighting out of instinct and elemental need, and political-philosophical being, pressing onward through exceptional, sometimes nightmarish, times, driven by a deliberate consciousness of a higher purpose, an intellectually cohesive and morally justified imperative.
Born in Brussels in 1890, a child of Russian exiles, Victor Serge participated in anarchist movements in both France (where he was jailed for several years) and Spain. In 1919, he traveled to Russia to join the revolution. His fortunes in Russia rose and fell with his degree of agreement with the Soviet political establishment. He was expelled from the Party in 1928 and later imprisoned, and eventually permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Conquered City, written in 1931 in quick succession after two other revolutionary-themed novels, is a reflection of what he witnessed during the civil war in St. Petersburg.
The New York Review of Books Classics edition of Conquered City includes a foreword by translator Richard Greeman which illuminates the novel a great deal, providing important context. For example, this excerpt from the foreword quotes Serge to describe both his primary thematic interest in writing the book, and his conscious aim to create a narrative greater than any one character:
"His goal in writing Conquered City, he wrote to [French author Marcel] Martinet in 1930, was to 'reconstitute with the greatest accuracy and precision the atmosphere of one period of the Russian Revolution. . . . In [Conquered City], I would like to dramatize the conflict of that power grappling with history and itself -- and victorious.' Serge went on to outline for Martinet his plan for this new novel which he believes will be 'radically different' in its form compared to
'any I have read. . . . It will have a sort of plot, central if you will, but like a narrow thread running through a complicated design. . . . It is not a novel of handful of people but that of a city, which is itself a moment and a fragment of the revolution. I keep rather close to history -- without writing history -- and chronicle, but above all concerned with showing the men who make events and who are carried away by events. From this standpoint, the characters have but a subaltern importance, they appear and disappear as they do in the city without occupying the center of the stage for more than a few instants.'"
Serge's work has been largely unknown until recently, but the NYRB Classics series has brought him a new world of readers. Greeman's foreword notes that as a Russian writer who published most of his work in Paris, Serge embodied a dual cultural perspective. Greeman adds, "Ironically, Serge's literary cosmopolitanism and Marxist internationalism has prevented him from being domesticated into the university, where departments are divided into national literatures like Russian and French, both of which apparently ignore his work." I can attest to this personally. I have a Masters degree in Russian literature, with a particular interest in early 20th work, and yet I had never heard of Victor Serge before a friend introduced me to this novel.
Serge's work stands out among other fictional accounts of the revolution. He was committed to the revolution and remained dedicated to its ideals, but was not blind to its contradictions and excesses. The revolution's young idealists often wound up either corrupted by the regime or disenchanted by it, resulting in a literature that either falsely idealizes the revolution, or rejects and condemns it completely. But this piece occupies an unusual middle ground, providing a refreshingly multi-layered picture that encompasses both the hope and the tragedy of the revolution, seen through the eyes of a true believer. Serge's point is that within its own success, the revolution carried its own demise. In remaking society, it remade itself, purging the contaminating elements within itself and in the process becoming many of the very things it fought against.
Beyond the politics, the novel impresses stylistically and narratively. It is filled with deeply evocative images and passages too numerous to count, which convey a full atmosphere of advance, defeat, struggle, hope, resignation and acceptance in the smallest detail. For example: looking out over a still, clear winter morning panorama of the city, at a time when shortages, hunger, and industrial collapse pervade the city, a character observes, “All this beauty was perhaps the sign of our death. Not a single chimney was smoking. The city was thus dying.” (p. 57)
Elsewhere, an official of the new regime reflects on having been stopped and questioned by a sentry guarding a woodpile, and voices his discomfort with his own relative privilege, and its contradictory necessity:
“He had taken me for another wood thief at first. I could have been one. People steal the wood that belongs to everyone, in order to live. Fire is life, like bread. But I belong to the ruling party and I am ‘responsible,’ to use the accepted term, that is to say, when all is said and done, in command. My ration of warmth and bread is a little more secure, a little larger. And this is unjust. I know it. And I take it. It is necessary to live in order to conquer; and not for me, for the Revolution.” (p. 35)
Also, true to Serge’s intent, while the barest outline of a plot can be discerned among the details, it is not nearly the most important focus of the story. The reader is carried along from chapter to chapter, peeking into rooms and lives that sometimes also bounce tangentially off one another, deflecting the narrative into another room, another scene, another story. Many characters lives’ intersect, usually unbeknownst to the characters themselves. Sometimes fates of parties with quite opposing motives and loyalties mirror each other in their crises, if not their intent. Often, the story throws the reader from the end of one chapter into the middle of a unrelated conversation or action in progress at the beginning of the next, leaving the reader to orient herself to the new surroundings and events. And in the end, the entire novel seems to fold back on itself, completing its year-long journey on a night that is almost a perfect stylistic echo of the opening night, which at the same time, it clearly does not parallel in action.
The effect of all this is powerful, an aesthetically complex story that conveys the paradoxical reality of the social and political revolution, communicating the principled idealism that drove it, as well as the individual hardship that it caused. ...more