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Irving Howe

Books in Review

Serge’s Novel

(January 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 1, January–February 1951, pp. 56–59.
Transcribed & marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Case of Comrade Tulayev
by Victor Serge
Doubleday, 306 pp. $3.00.

The first thing that needs to be said, and perhaps the most important thing, is that Victor Serge’s novel conveys atmospheric authenticity: he knows Russia, he knows Stalinism, he knows the revolutionary movement. This authenticity is not necessarily the result of Serge’s long political experience, for it does not at all follow that because a man knows something intimately in life he can write about it satisfactorily in a book. The “reality” encountered in experience is not the “reality” achieved in literature: witness the fact that Henry James wrote a superb group-portrait of radicalism in The Princess Casamassima yet knew nothing at first-hand about the radical movements. In fact, it is interesting that of the three 19th century novelists who have given us the greatest political novels yet written – Dostoievsky, Conrad and James – only the Russian had any sort of political experience, and that in a brief traumatic brush with a utopian group. No greater testimony can be offered to the power of the imagination than the fact that Henry James, a conservative 19th century gentleman, could write more accurately and perceptively about radicals than John Dos Passos, who had come into close relations with the radical movement.

No, the authenticity of Serge’s novel is an imaginative achievement. A journalist by instinct and training, he has intermittently taken the imaginative leap, the imaginative risk by asking himself: what is the interior experience of a Russian capitulator? what is the interior experience of a deposed bureaucrat? About half the time this leap is successfully completed.

The central trait of Serge’s previous writing has been its romantic quality. He has produced a certain kind of loose journalism: the impressionistic memoir, the nostalgic reminiscence, the indignant pamphlet. His strength: a touching sort of warmth, a genuine humaneness, a Jacobin fraternalism. His weakness: a “softness” of touch, a blurring of effects, an inclination to schwärmerei, a lack of discipline. These characteristic traits can all be found in Comrade Tulayev, but what distinguishes the book is Serge’s conscious effort to surmount his journalistic self and write like a genuine novelist. A rather mechanical division suggests itself: whenever he is writing narrative, filling in the background of his story by brief synoptic passages, he writes as a journalist while his scenes, in which the characters take over and replace his customary rhetoric, have the novelistic quality, not always successful but still the quality.

In a certain sense, the radical reader has especially to be on his guard while reading Comrade Tulayev. The material is so close to us, the point of view so congenial, the pathos so unbearable (the pathos in life, prior to our reading) that we are emotionally defenseless against the entire impact of the book. Now I do not say that the point of view is wrong or the pathos unjustified; I say rather that the emotion which we bring to Comrade Tulayev or which it can elicit almost immediately by the very announcement of its subject is not yet, at least not necessarily the emotion which comes from a genuine esthetic experience. Let me offer a simple example of what I mean. During the Hitler period the most sleazy sloganized book or play about anti-Semitism could greatly stir a Jewish audience, the book or play serving as a button to release the anguish already present in the audience. But this was not the same thing as the anguish which might have been released through a genuine work of art on the same theme. Now, as it happens, Comrade Tulayev is a mixed affair: partly a fine novel, partly a second-hand pastiche of the conventional novel, and partly stirring journalism. Let us try to distinguish.

There are two superb scenes in Comrade Tulayev, neither directly political yet both greatly tinged with political colors. In one of them the brilliant capitulator, Rublev, who expects momentarily to be arrested, arranges a meeting with some of his old comrades in the woods. Three men, old veterans and comrades of the revolution, meet by stealth: they know their days are coming to an end. They discuss what can be done in desultory terms, they disagree, they quarrel a bit. So far it is a fairly routine, though effective scene. But now Serge shows a touch of genius. The spontaneous life-force of these men is stirred – stirred by the coldness and purity of the snow in the woods, by the warmth and pathos of this, probably their last meeting – and they begin ... what? Not to talk about programs, politics, ideas; it is too late for that; they are doomed. They begin throwing snowballs at each other laughing like children, for an unbearably pathetic moment innocent and carefree and forgetful.

“They leaped, laughed, sank into snow up to their waists, hid behind trees to make their ammunition and take aim before they let fly. Something of the nimbleness of their boyhood came back to them, they shouted joyous ‘ughs,’ shielded their faces with their elbows, gasped for breath. Wladek stood where he was, firmly planted, methodically making snowballs to catch Rublev from the flank, laughing until the tears came to his eyes, showering him with abuse: ‘Take that you theoretician, you moralist, to hell with you,’ and never once hitting him ...”

This is the work of a real novelist: it is spontaneous, fresh; it tells us more about these men than any number of abstractions could; and yet it would be impossible without an intimate foreknowledge of their politics, impossible without a foreknowledge of the moral stature and quality of the Bolshevik old guard. Now take as a contrary example a scene in which a young Trotskyist, Stefan Stern,

“suddenly put his arm around her waist [his secretary], drew her close, and simply said: ‘You’ll stay with me, Annie? I get so bored at night.’ ... She looked at him out of the corner of her eyes, divided between annoyance and a sort of joy, wanted to answer him angrily: ‘Go get yourself a whore, Stefan – like me to lend you ten pesetas?’...” etc, etc.

Maybe some young Trotskyists – or young anything else – talk this way, but if so I have never met them, and hope I never shall. This sort of stagey dialogue is simply embarrassing. And there are plenty of other examples: A bureaucrat reprimands his wife, asking her if she wants a divorce. “She said furiously: ‘Yes.’ And at the same time, more softly, her long eyelashes lowered: ‘No.’” Really!

* * *

Comrade Tulayev is written in the conventional form of the European social novel, what might be called the revolving- stage or multiple-strand novel. A series of simultaneous actions are initiated, characters move in foreboding proximity or ironic dissonance and then somehow the several strands of action are brought together into climax. This is the sort of book prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and not without reason: it assumes an essentially stable society, in which the matters most worth observation are the relations of conflicting groups and the gradations of social manners. Today this approach is almost unavoidably stale, if only because it ignores those indispensable revolutions in technique of the past several decades which were themselves the consequence of the break-down of modern society. The “slice of life” novel cannot cope with the vertiginous extremities of modern experience; it is too slow, too stately, too rationalistic; it is designed essentially to depict an orderly, competitive, many- leveled bourgeois world.

The multiple-strand novel is particularly inappropriate for a portrayal of modern Russian life, for no novelist could possibly know enough about the social gradations such a novel requires. And for Serge, not a trained novelist but a journalist writing a novel, it is a most dangerous form: it requires too much from him in terms of craft, particularly in transitional passages; it exposes him too greatly to the temptation to fill in the holes of his narrative with the putty of rhetoric. One consequence, therefore, is that the novel has an excessively schematic quality: each character is meant to illustrate a type and you get the famous “gallery of characters” about which middle-brow critics like to babble but which does not produce the kind of dramatic action or the moral presentment which is necessary for a first-rate novel.

A comparison with Darkness at Noon has a certain value here. In some respects, to be mentioned later, Serge’s novel is quite superior to Koestler’s, but precisely because of its cumbersome, cluttered form it is unable to achieve the dramatic concentration of Darkness at Noon. Koestler shrewdly realized his literary (if not his intellectual) limitations and narrowed the range of his book to one locale, one dominating character and one uninterrupted action, thus accumulating drive and power. Serge’s novel, by comparison, is structurally diffuse.

Still, I should not like to give the impression that Comrade Tulayev is a failure; it has many successful things in it. There are qualities of observation and occasional novelistic achievements which are as good as anything done by the major European political novelists of this century, though not of the 19th century.

The two major achievements of the book are Serge’s characterizations of Rublev the capitulator and Ryzhik the intransigent oppositionist. Viewed esthetically, Rublev is more convincingly done than his counterpart, Rubashov of Darkness at Noon. Koestler drew his character primarily in terms of moral abstraction: Rubashov capitulates because of a faulty conception of morality, an inadequate understanding of the relation of means to ends, and his ratiocinations become a significant but dubious dimension of the book, a heavy load carried only by its swift action. As a projected human being, Rubashov is soon dissolved in the mental gymnastics Koestler assigns him. By comparison, Serge’s Rublev is established with less didactic stringency, more humane tolerance: his reasoning is essentially the same as Rubashov’s, though Serge is more gifted than Koestler at suggesting the particular inflections of an Old Bolshevik’s thinking, but he exists as a man rather than a shadow of a writer’s intellect. I cannot understand myself, however, why some reviewers counterpose Serge to Koestler in the portrayal of a capitulator, for Rublev thinks much like Rubashov, if less abstractly; both capitulate to Stalin on the false and somewhat incredible theory that it is necessary to subordinate opposition because of the threat of external capitalism. If it be replied that Serge is superior, not because Rublev is different from Rubashov, but because he also shows Old Bolsheviks who do not capitulate, then one has moved to the preposterous position of attacking a novelist for not having written about something. This may be a valid criterion for an encyclopedia, but not for a novel.

Serge is at his best in his portrait of Ryzhik, the old Trotskyist, and here he does not make any false steps, he does not romanticize at all. It is a brilliant stroke to show Rublev as, in a certain sense, more political, more intellectual than Ryzhik: the capitulator must engage in a far more ingenious set of mental processes than the oppositionist who stands firm and irrevocably committed. And Serge is also very shrewd to have Ryzhik not appear until almost half way in the novel; after all the bureaucratic filth and capitulationist feebleness, the shock of this old, grizzled veteran revolutionary is profoundly liberating. This is Serge’s main achievement: he has shown what a real revolutionist is, an old rebel hard and strong and simple, not really an intellectual, but the best kind of militant. Ryzhik is, in a sense, beyond politics: he is in the more perilous arena of commitment. His way is clear to him: he lives faithful to the original passion of the revolution: he hardly cares whether anyone heeds him, whether he himself will live. When asked for a message to Moscow, he magnificently replies, “Write them that I shit on the bureaucratic revolution.” When a Stalinist bureaucrat tries to pump him, he tells her, “Look at yourself in a mirror tonight – I am sure you will vomit. If it were possible to die of vomiting, you would die ...” This is a revolutionary hero, yet in no way overdrawn or fanciful: one can think immediately of some of the Old Bolsheviks who would fit Ryzhik’s measure, some of the fighters who were with Trotsky during the Civil War.

Here, at last, Serge does not dissipate his passion in rhetoric, he realizes it in character. Ryzhik is the living tissue of revolutionary passion. Yet – there is something still better. As he is being brought back to Moscow for a confession he will not make, Ryzhik encounters in a cell another old man, Makarenko, also an oppositionist. They embrace in an ecstasy of excitement, talk for a while. What Ryzhik says is acutely disappointing, the old pap about “our state remains a factor of progress in the world because it constitutes an economic organism which is superior to the old capitalist states” – which sounds simply grotesque in a Stalinist prison. Makarenko listens, he has heard all this before; he agrees ... yet …

“Our meeting is extraordinary ... An inconceivable piece of negligence on the part of the services ... We are living through an apocalypse of Socialism, Comrade Ryzhik ... Why are you alive, why am I – I ask you! ... I wish I might live for a century so that I could understand ...”

“I understand,” says Ryzhik.

“The Left theses, of course ... I am a Marxist, too. But shut your eyes for a minute, listen to the earth, listen to your nerves ...”

And then, later:

“Ryzhik, I give you my word of honor that I shall never forget you ... See here, you must try to get a few hours’ sleep ...”

An extraordinary meeting, two extraordinary men. Makarenko knows the theses; “on the whole” he agrees, but he hardly cares now, for what concerns him is the “earth,” the “nerves,” the living trembling quality of the life which he sees transcendent in Ryzhik.

Ryzhik is the personification of revolutionary passion; Makarenko transvalues it into something higher, revolutionary compassion. And these are the two great scenes of the book: the capitulators, brilliant dialecticians, throwing snowballs; the oppositionists, beyond formulae of politics, in the embrace of comradeship.

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