Victor Serge 1933-1937

Correspondence Between Victor Serge and Benjamin Fondane

Source: Benjamin Fondane (edited by Patrice Neray and Michel Carassou), Le Voyageur n'a pas fini de voyager. Paris – Méditerranée et L'Ether Vague, 1996;
Translated: for 2019 by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2019.

Translator’s note: Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944) was a Romanian-born Jewish poet and philosopher who settled in Paris in 1923, from which point he wrote in French. As a philosopher he was a follower of Lev Shestov and Kierkegaard, while his poetry is heavily influenced by Jewish themes. He was also a filmmaker, and made several films, all now lost, in Argentina. Not a particularly political individual, what politics he had were anti – communist, so it is particularly interesting to read his respectful, even mutually admiring exchanges with the revolutionary socialist Serge. Fondane lived on rue Rollin in Paris’s Latin Quarter for many years, and it was from there that he was sent to the camp at Drancy in 1944 after his hideout was revealed to the authorities. He was offered his freedom but refused it unless his sister, who was also in German custody, was released as well. They were both sent to Auschwitz on the next to last train from France, where both perished. In his Notebooks Serge paid homage to Fondane, writing that “Benjamin Fondane ended by taking the measure of the worst anguish of the present time before the gas chamber.”

Serge to Fondane

July 13, 1933

My Dear Fondane,

I thank you for sending me your Ulysse. [1] A poet is fully justified if he succeeds in communicating his emotions, his view of the world, something of his way of living. Know that in this regard I read you, not as a critic or a colleague worried about “what it’s worth,” but as a castaway (who’s in no way discouraged) washed up on a nearly deserted isle with a tiny package of books. Yours was found among the first received after various tribulations. This is perhaps why it so strongly resonated with me. And yet, it leaves an impression of vagueness. It’s not enough to be a witness, and whoever says, “I must never cease shouting until the end of the world,” knows this full well. Precisely because I understand you and love some of what you wrote I am irritated by this hint of revolt that results nether in willing it or an act. Ulysses, you did nothing but travel around one world, and the world must be begun anew, remade. Re – make yourself, Ulysses! “To be bound by ourselves is too much;” yes, exactly. But when one is of Ulysses’ race it is enough to will it to shake off these bonds. Dear comrade, in the middle of these steppes you have a very attentive and friendly reader who fraternally thanks you.

Victor Serge.

Fondane to Serge

Dear Victor Serge,

At a time when people speak so much of you in France I was quite surprised to receive from you the more than friendly card on the subject of my poem Ulysse. Of all the manifestations of sympathy that have been shown upon the appearance of this book, do I need to tell you that for a thousand reasons yours touched me the most deeply? Are you aware that in Paris you have devoted friends and great unknown admirers, and that just yesterday an important publisher spoke with great admiration of your Men in Prison?

The distance that separates us and your current state of mind are not all that favorable to a discussion of the freedoms, the limits, and the duties of poetry, not to mention the poet. Perhaps one not too far off day we will be able to speak more fully of this under the sign of freedom. But that the poem touched you as the poem of a shipwreck, that is, at a catastrophic moment when man escapes from man and perhaps from himself, is what seems to me to be far and away the most important thing. I am happy to have in you a reader and a friend, just as I am your reader and your devoted friend. More important to me than the quality of the men who abandon themselves to friendship is the quality of the moment they chose to do so. This moment, coming from you, is particularly precious. In October you'll receive a book of mine called Rimbaud le voyou. [2] I'm afraid its ideology will surprise and irritate you. But you'll read the human voice in it and will recognize it. If you then still accept to be my friend then our friendship will be assured a long future. There’s no need to say that I hope this is the case.

Benjamin Fondane

Serge to Fondane

Kavaleriskaya 33
Orenburg Feb 23, 1934

Dear Fondane,

I received your book on Rimbaud a while ago. My circumstances are such that I was unable to read it until these past few days. I'll talk to you about it again, as I counted on doing after reading it. Today I just want to thank you for sending it to me, all the more because by various detours my thoughts often turn to Rimbaud. How understandable is his flight to Harrar, his horror of words! (At present I'm writing a book infinitely different from yours, about lost men, rebels who end up bandits. Once upon a time we set off together on a life with no escape possible. [3] Since then it seems to me that through the revolution something has changed in the world, though the weight of yokes has grown ever heavier on man’s shoulders!)

Forgive me for having tarried so long in informing you of the book’s arrival, and believe me to be fraternally yours,

Victor Serge

Serge to Fondane

Place Séverine, apt 179 Pré St – Gervais
May 22, 1937

My Dear Fondane,

I thank you for Titanic,[4] thus far only leafed through but with... I won’t write pleasure, it’s not that at all, that would even be idiotic. For me there are verses that, obscurely or not, signify, and the others. For me, yours are among the former. And I haven’t forgotten that your Ulysse was the first book I received on the steppes at an hour that was difficult, but full of an intense poetry: that of resistance and an incomparable world.

Now that I'm here in Paris I would be happy to shake your hand. See you soon, I hope. Fraternally yours

Victor Serge

1. A volume of poetry published by Fondane in 1933.

2. Fondane’s influential and eccentric study of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, published in 1933.

3. This novel, Monde sans evasion possible, about Serge’s days as an individualist anarchist among the members of the Bonnot Gang, vanished into the maw of the GPU and has never been found.

4. Volume of poetry published in Brussels in 1937.