The Case of Comrade Tulayev.
Translated by Willard R. Trask, introduction by Susan Sontag.
New York Review Books, 368 pp., $14.95.
Victor Serge was, and remains, unique: the only novelist to describe successfully, from the inside, the now long-lost milieu of the socialist movement in Europe, its Soviet product, and its destruction by Stalinism. He has been described by myself and others as a political Ishmael, comparable to the lone survivor of the wrecked vessel Pequod in Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Born in 1890 in Belgium, to a family of Russian exiles, he died in 1947 in a Mexico City taxicab. He was very likely murdered by Soviet agents. He had been associated both with Trotsky and, after the latter’s assassination in 1940, with Trotsky’s widow Natalya Sedova – with whom Serge coauthored a biography of her husband. The US government’s release, in July 1995, of the decrypted Soviet secret message traffic known as "Venona" revealed that there indeed was a cell of Mexico City cab drivers under Soviet discipline, who specialized in liquidations.
Serge perished at 57, too young, and a year short of an event about which his commentary might have been quite significant: the Stalin-Tito break. As it happened, Serge knew quite a bit about the Serbian radical circles that brought about the Sarajevo assassination of 1914, and therefore the first world war.
As with the other Communist opposition intellectuals done to death by Moscow, the chief loss to humanity in their destruction may have been that they were prevented from sharing, with the generations that followed, their reactions to events they never anticipated – the birth of the state of Israel, the maturation of American consumer society, the Korean War, the proletarian rebellions against Communism in Berlin in 1953 and Poland and Hungary in 1956, and, of course, Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in the latter year. Trotsky, whose visceral horror of Nazism led him, at the end of his life, to accept a need for a Jewish national home, would have been no older than 68 when Israel declared its independence. His widow was driven by North Korean aggression against its southern neighbor to break with the Trotskyist movement altogether.
Serge’s novels have never been widely read in English, and it’s a pity. His fiction emulated the now-also-defunct French genre of the roman-fleuve or literary river, once exemplified by the work of Jules Romains, in which a group of characters is followed through the passage of decades. In his series, Serge traced the revolutionary events of the 20th century from the anarchist movement and disasters of the "Great War" (Men in Prison), through the revolutionary dawn in Barcelona and Petrograd in 1917 (Birth of Our Power), to the inner life of Soviet secret police agents in besieged Petrograd in 1919 (Conquered City).
These three volumes were published in France in 1930-32, after their author, a former functionary of the Communist International, had been barred from political work in the Russia where he had chosen to live. In 1933, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police, and in 1936 a campaign in his favor, which gained the support of André Gide, secured his release from house arrest in Orenburg, a town on the border of Kazakhstan (where his former residence is now a museum dedicated to him). He was sent to live in the West, probably thanks to his birth there and claim on Belgian citizenship.
He then issued a series of fiery pamphlets exposing the fate of the Bolshevik revolution and the truth about the Moscow Trials; he also added three more novels to his stream of fiction: Midnight in the Century, describing the life of Stalin’s political prisoners, published in France in 1939; The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which did not appear until after his death, and The Long Dusk, set during the fall of France, and which came out in 1946.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev – ironically enough, Serge’s best-known novel – has now been reissued in a series published by The New York Review of Books, with a perfunctory introduction by Susan Sontag. The panoramic, plotless action in Tulayev takes place in 1939, and includes a horrific evocation of Soviet criminality in Spain, as the war there approached its end. But its central event, the assassination of a high Soviet official by an anonymous member of the masses (who is never caught), is much more evocative of the 1934 slaying of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party chief, which became the pretext employed by Stalin for the great purges.
The book goes on to describe, like the ripples in a lake, the reaction of the Soviet bureaucracy to an act motivated by individual disgust. Serge himself insisted that the book should not be read as a roman a clef, and Sontag writes, "perhaps one should take Serge at his word… The arrests and trials [in Tulayev] are fictional successors to, rather than a fictional synthesis of, the actual Moscow trials of 1936, 1937, and 1938."
One might argue that Sontag is wrong here. Serge’s narrative gift derived from direct experience of events, and he knew the atmosphere of 1934 in Russia, while he did not know that of 1939. Further, the environment of Tulayev is one in which a Soviet kind of normality, although disintegrating, still exists; it is not the ambience of Russia after the purges, which was, as numerous original sources, historians, and memoirists attest, a bleak landscape of utter fear and passivity. Besides, assassinations of high Soviet officials were extremely rare; Kirov’s was the only one most Soviet subjects could remember. In Tulayev, the killing is hushed up by the state authorities; but Serge, writing in 1939, doubtless had his own reasons for altering reality as he did.
Sontag also includes in her introduction an astonishingly stupid reproach, based on her feminist loyalties. Serge, she writes, "is not charting a new road [in] his view of women… In this entirely men-centered society of challenge – and ordeal, and sacrifice – women barely exist, at least not positively, except through being the love objects, or wards, of very busy men." So the feminist commissar Sontag demands "positive" female characters from Victor Serge, echoing the Muscovite functionaries who called for "positive" proletarian figures from his peers in Soviet literature. Sontag goes on to whine that a female prosecutor in Tulayev is portrayed as sexually needy.
If Sontag really knew Serge’s books, she would find positive, even assertive females in them, including women stronger than his male protagonists. Is Serge really to be criticized for failing to imagine the personalities of Sontagesque women and for accurately depicting the society of his time, from which Sontag’s feminism was missing? Victor Serge deserves to be read and reread today, but he also deserves better, and more honest, literary defenders.