Unforgiving Years

Unforgiving Years

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by Victor Serge

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Unforgiving Years is a thrilling and terrifying journey into the disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century. Victor Serge’s final novel, here translated into English for the first time, is at once the most ambitious, bleakest, and most lyrical of this neglected major writer’s works.
The book is arranged into four sections,…  See more details below


Unforgiving Years is a thrilling and terrifying journey into the disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century. Victor Serge’s final novel, here translated into English for the first time, is at once the most ambitious, bleakest, and most lyrical of this neglected major writer’s works.
The book is arranged into four sections, like the panels of an immense mural or the movements of a symphony. In the first, D, a lifelong revolutionary who has broken with the Communist Party and expects retribution at any moment, flees through the streets of prewar Paris, haunted by the ghosts of his past and his fears for the future. Part two finds D’s friend and fellow revolutionary Daria caught up in the defense of a besieged Leningrad, the horrors and heroism of which Serge brings to terrifying life. The third part is set in Germany. On a dangerous assignment behind the lines, Daria finds herself in a city destroyed by both Allied bombing and Nazism, where the populace now confronts the prospect of total defeat. The novel closes in Mexico, in a remote and prodigiously beautiful part of the New World where D and Daria are reunited, hoping that they may at last have escaped the grim reckonings of their modern era.
A visionary novel, a political novel, a novel of adventure, passion, and ideas, of despair and, against all odds, of hope, Unforgiving Years is a rediscovered masterpiece by the author of The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Born in Brussels of Russian revolutionary exiles, Serge (1890-1947) has long had a reputation as polemicist and journalist, but this powerful novel of the descent into WWII makes a strong case for his political fiction. In the pressured atmosphere just preceding the outbreak of war, a secret agent, D., breaks with the "Organization"-Stalin's spy network-and escapes from Paris with his lover, Nadine. With extreme paranoia that he cloaks in exquisite manners, D. tells only one person where they are going: an old comrade named Daria. In the next, flash-forward section, Daria, having been arrested, is released from exile in a Soviet backwater and thrust into the siege of Leningrad. The third section opens in 1945 Berlin, where Daria witnesses a host of Germans, injured and half crazy, try to survive aerial bombardment-a moment that, as W.G. Sebald noted, has been deeply underserved by literature. In the final section, Daria escapes Europe and follows D. and Nadine to Mexico, escaping (she thinks) the long reach of Stalin's agents. Serge remains sophisticated even during the book's more noirish moments, and action sequences form an inseparable part of his hypnotic, prophetic vision. (Nov.)

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Library Journal

In pre-World War II Paris, Secret Agent D. and his lover and protégée, Nadine, attempt to escape from the Soviet intelligence service, fearing constantly that they are being followed. D.'s colleague, Daria, arrives in Leningrad during the siege and tries to care for those around her. She then continues her espionage assignment in Berlin, where she works as a military camp nurse. Daria soon recognizes that everyone-soldiers and civilians alike-is scarred from the war. When she decides to escape, she follows a trail of clues to D. and Nadine's location in Mexico. Even here, after the war, violence follows her. Serge (1890-1947; The Case of Comrade Tulayev) was a devoted revolutionary who participated in the Russian Revolution and spent time in French prisons and a Soviet labor camp before escaping to Europe and later, Mexico. His 1971 classic explores how the "noble" causes of war can lead to very real massacre. Greemen, who translates this work for the first time into English, writes the introduction. The tension is constant and dizzying; recommended for academic collections.
—Heather Wright

From the Publisher
"Unforgiving Years, published in France in 1971 and translated into English this year, is a visionary literary work rooted in the political tragedy of a Soviet secret agent who tries to take back his existence from the Party. The settings are prewar Paris, the siege of Leningrad, the fall of Berlin, and a postwar refuge in Mexico. This is the ultimate farewell to Communism." —The Boston Globe

"The Unforgiving Years...has now at last been translated into electric English by the indefatigable Richard Greeman...It's a seething, hallucinatory novel..." —Harper's

"Born in Brussels of Russian revolutionary exiles, Serge (1890-1947) has long had a reputation as polemicist and journalist, but this powerful novel of the descent into WWII makes a strong case for his political fiction...Serge remains sophisticated even during the book's more noirish moments, and action sequences form an inseparable part of his hypnotic, prophetic vision." —Publisher's Weekly (Starred Reveiw)

“The work of the writer Victor Serge faultlessly captures the labyrinth of bureaucratic incrimination into which the Soviet Union descended.” –The Atlantic

“A witness to revolution and reaction in Europe between the wars, Serge searingly evoked the epochal hopes and shattering setbacks of a generation of leftists…Yet under the bleakest of conditions, Serge’s optimism, his humane sympathies and generous spirit, never waned. A radical misfit, no faction, no sect could contain him; he inhabited a lonely no-man’s-land all his own. These qualities are precisely what make him such an inspiring, even moving figure.” –Bookforum

"Both Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev in 2003 have been wonderfully translated by Richard Greeman, who has spent his academic and post-academic life bringing to prominence Serge’s writings as literature in the first ranks of modernism and in the mainstream of Russian and French literature. His foreword to Unforgiving Years is worth the price of the book, which deserves attention as well for reminding us that the political novel was once a prominent genre and fulfilled a need hard to meet in this self-absorbed literary period. It also gives us a clear-eyed picture of Serge’s sad last years when hope, if it existed at all, was mostly the frail hope of inmates in prisons and concentration camps." -World Socialist Web Site

“A worker, a militant, an intellectual, an internationalist by experience and conviction, an inveterate optimist, and always poor…He took part in three revolutions, spent a decade in captivity, published more than thirty books and left behind thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts, correspondence and articles. He was born into one political exile, died in another, and was politically active in seven countries. His life was spent in permanent political opposition…His refusal to surrender to either the Soviet state or the capitalist West assured his marginality and consigned him to a life of persecution and poverty. Despite living in the shadows, Serge’s work and his life amount to a corrective to Stalinism, and an alternative to the market.” –Susan Weissman, Victor Serge

“I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be very usefully compared. The essence of the man and his books is to be found in his attitude to the truth. There have of course been many scrupulously honest writers. But for Serge the value of the truth extended far beyond the simple (or complex) telling of it.” –John Berger

"Serge, who has been championed by Susan Sontag and many others, was born in Brussels in 1899 to emigre Russians who'd fled the Czar. He became a political activist, was jailed and arrived in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. He rose high in the Comintern before falling foul of Stalin and finding himself in jail and then exile. He was steamrolled by history, and out of this experience he crafted a series of extraordinary memoirs and novels. "Unforgiving Years," here translated into English for the first time by Richard Greeman, tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. This is downbeat and dangerous mise-en-scene...written for real by a man who was there." —Los Angeles Times

"Serge can recognize the range of experience and responses that make up the texture of life in even the most nightmarishly repressive system." —Scott McLemee

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Copyright © 1971

The Victor Serge Foundation
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59017-247-6

Chapter One The Secret Agent

Do I still have enough space for an intelligent death? He who had no idea discovered the central fire.

Around seven in the morning, D personally loaded his two suitcases into the taxi. The street was still slumbering, tinged by the bleak whiteness of a Paris awakening. No one was about except for a milkman. Morning purity of cobbles and asphalt. The garbage cans were empty. D felt no suspicions. He had himself driven to the Gare du Nord, grew irritable at the station buffet because they made him wait for a tasteless cup of coffee, and piled his luggage into another cab which dropped him off in the place d'Iéna. Sure of not being followed, he took in the vast square, a stage set empty of actors, bathed in a dappled light under which one would wish to live for a long while, meditating. Before eight in the morning Paris, in her wealthier neighborhoods, seems delivered from herself; pacified, she is nothing more than a work of human wisdom. D found a chauffeurs' bar where he was served a good, unpretentious coffee and two hot croissants, reminding him of that young condemned man whose sole last request was for croissants, which he could not have, because it was too early. "Just my luck!" said the pale young man, and he was right, for in fact the only thing he ever succeeded in was his own death by decapitation ... Before boarding a third cab, which he had to call for, D reflected that all these complex precautions, reasonable as they might appear, were actually a semi-lunatic's game. They left the path of danger studded with small markers, perhaps even with milestones. How easily he might have been seen, quite by chance, without realizing, at the Gare du Nord or in the vicinity of the place d'Iéna. Someone could have jotted down a license plate. The business of changing from one taxi to another might attract attention itself. If you took all these possibilities into account, you'd go right over the edge. This time he had himself driven directly to the hotel in the rue de Rochechouart. It was a middle-class establishment of the sort frequented by traveling salesmen, tourists on a modest budget, sedately adulterous couples, and well-behaved musicians with nightclub contracts. "Ah, Monsieur Lamberti," the porter greeted him. D corrected him firmly, the better to steep himself in his new persona: "It's Battisti, Bruno Battisti." "Room 17, wasn't it?" inquired the porter, who knew perfectly well. Inside the room, D checked the locks on the suitcases even though he knew he'd closed them securely. By nine, he was back "home." The concierge met him with a "Morning, Monsieur Malinesco! And me thinking you were gone on a trip!" (So you saw me with my luggage, you old witch!) "Quite so, Madame, I shall be away for six weeks." (For all eternity, Madame!) "Well, it's nice weather for you anyway, Monsieur Malinesco," said the concierge, because you should always say something pleasant.

Mademoiselle Armande turned up promptly at ten, being an odiously punctual person who had been known to loiter in the street with an eye on her wristwatch, or stand for thirty seconds on the landing before knocking. She entered the study through the door left half open and murmured, "Monsieur Malinesco," the words more snuffled than pronounced, accompanied by a deferential bob of the head. She was an insipid woman, rather on the homely side, pink-complexioned and dressed in neutral colors, who wore large shiny spectacles over the face of a wizened, calculating child. D watched her with concealed attention. What did she know about him? That he was rich (he who had never owned anything), and she respected rich people. A philatelist, a bibliophile, a lover of ancient art, liable to jump on a train or into a car and scour Brittany in winter just to bring back an antique dresser ... Friendly with artists. Her job was to answer the telephone, write the occasional letter, visit the bank, and receive Monsieur Soga, the embassy attaché, a nervous little man who reeked of cologne; Monsieur Sixte Mougin, the antiques dealer; Monsieur Kehl from the Philatelist Society; and, more rarely, Monsieur Alain, who didn't much look like a painter. She was becoming a connoisseur of postage stamps and even did a little collecting herself, only the French colonies, not to be extravagant. It's a highly regarded hobby; they say the King of England has built up a remarkable collection. D had Mademoiselle Armande periodically tailed by a detective. She stepped out on Saturday nights with Monsieur Dupois, a civil servant at the Ministry of Education; they went to the pictures; Dupois's concierge referred to Mademoiselle Armande as "the lady engaged to that nice gentleman who has been so unfortunate ..." D, who distrusted other people's misfortunes even more than his own, set the detective onto Monsieur Evariste Dupois, age forty-seven, owner of a property at Ivry, divorced ... A gentleman who bet judiciously on the horses, bought a weekly lottery ticket, read the right-wing press, and visited a brothel in the rue Saint-Sauveur every Friday evening. An innocent man.

"Are you engaged, then?" inquired D of Mademoiselle Armande.

She did not flinch, being no doubt incapable of such a lively reaction, but her fingers twitched a little.

"Dear me, Monsieur Malinesco ... However did you know?"

He saw that her complexion was improved by embarrassment.

"Just a coincidence, Mademoiselle. I happened to see you one Saturday on the arm of your fiancé."

"It has not been completely decided yet," she said reticently.

Innocent, innocent! (But that was not a wholly rational conclusion ...)

"I intend to go away for six weeks. You will please pass on the mail to Monsieur Mougin."

If anybody was going to look miserable as a drowned rat in a bucket three days from now, it was definitely Monsieur Sixte Mougin! D regretted the atrophied state of his sense of humor; it would have cheered him up no end to dwell on the troubles of that quavering, servile bastard Monsieur Sixte Mougin.

"When Monsieur Soga calls, tell him I'm in Strasbourg."

Strasbourg was code for "unforeseen complications."

Mademoiselle Armande did not turn a hair. No one suspected anything. Unbelievable that They hadn't moved to place me under internal surveillance months ago! But if the unbelievable were not sometimes a reality, there would be no possibility of struggle. In cramped italics, the secretary was scratching into her diary: "Monsieur Soga. Say Strasbourg ..." D, who disliked things to be written down, forced a smile.

"You don't have much faith in your memory. I see!"

"Oh I do, but it's funny, I always mix up the names of towns like Edinburgh, Hamburg, Strasbourg, Mulhouse ..."

He hadn't expected that. His throat went instantly dry. In the same code, known to just five people, Mulhouse meant "watch out."

"And why is that?"

"I've no idea, for the life of me! Look, I nearly wrote Mulhouse just now, I can't help it."

"I might go to Mulhouse as well," D said moodily.

He was fixing her with the cold, hard, stony-eyed glare she seldom caught from him-not the look of an art lover. Mademoiselle Armande put on a falsely bright smile, while D rapidly weighed the pros and cons.

"Here's the key to the bottom right-hand drawer of the small cabinet in the hall. Fetch me the Zürich folder, Monsieur Feuvre, you know, the Swiss collection ... The files are not in order, you'll have to rummage."

"Yes, Monsieur."

Naturally, she left her handbag sitting next to the typewriter. D opened it with an unhurried dexterity acquired in the mail-interception department of the Secret Service. He scanned a note signed "Your fondly affectionate, Evariste." Leafed through the address book. Saw-sickeningly-a telephone number: X 11-47. The number to fear was 11-74. Numeric inversion! Inside his head suspicion exploded into certainty. The returning Mademoiselle Armande glanced at her bag-ah, so we understand each other! D selected a letter from Monsieur Feuvre and put it in his pocket. "Will you kindly put the folder back in the file ..." But he took back the keys to the cabinet, and she didn't ask for them ... Right, then; we thoroughly understand each other, thought D. This changed everything. He remembered finding his first taxicab parked and available only a few steps from the house, and how the driver had leaned toward him in a peculiarly obsequious manner ... Soon as I leave here, she'll call 11-74-or another number, just around the corner perhaps, or in this very building ... Mademoiselle Armande, clearly flustered, was struggling to surmount some hesitation or inhibition.

"What's the matter?" D demanded unceremoniously.

She explained that in Monsieur Malinesco's absence she would dearly like to take three days off, if that were at all possible, in order to ... A matter of an aunt, a small property in the country, Monsieur Dupois. A notary's letter fluttered out of the handbag.

"But of course," he stopped her.

The worst of it was the need to distrust himself, to suspect his own suspicions. D saw the number 11-47 printed on the legal letterhead. Reassured, he stopped fretting over Mulhouse. "In addition, you must allow me to offer you a bonus of 500 francs for the last quarter ..." You can assess the degree of corruptibility, by the way a person accepts money. The sparkle in the young woman's spectacles was one of innocence.

Just as a magician believes in his little tricks, so D believed in secrets, ciphers, stratagems, silence, masks, and in playing the game impeccably; at the same time he knew very well that secrets are sold, codes deciphered, stratagems outwitted, and silences broken; that masks are easier to read than faces, that the carbon copies of dispatches lie in ministerial wastepaper baskets for the taking, and that the perfect game does not exist. He believed the Organization to be infallible by virtue of its stability, its ramifications, its resources, its power, its single-minded commitment-even by the complicity of its opponents, who feed it, sometimes involuntarily, sometimes as a deliberate ploy. But from the day he had begun to pull away from the Organization, he felt himself rejected by it; and its power behind him, within him, became stifling.

His inner break with the Organization dated back to when the Crime had been revealed. The Crime had burst into view after a long, stealthy approach, like a sinister squadron on the ocean suddenly lighted by searchlights. D had cried out silently to himself, one night, over the newspapers scattered across the rug: "I can't go on! This is the end of everything!" And nothing meant anything to him any longer in this stupidly snug apartment, where the play-acting only let up after hours-when he could hunch forward in the armchair with the chessboard set up and solve problems, which he inevitably did, since problems are given away in advance, you just have to keep looking, all problems are hollow in the end. Or at night, cozily in bed under cozy lamplight, a glass of lemon water by his elbow, reading a work of physics, since the structure of the atom is probably the only problem left in the universe and they will solve it; then the age of despair will begin. Such mental exercises calmed him but failed to relax him. There is no real peace for those who understand the mechanics of a world moving toward cataclysms, lurching from one cataclysm to the next.

He bid a discreet farewell to the secretary. "Have a nice trip, Monsieur Malinesco ... Count on me ... They say Strasbourg is a beautiful city ..." The ghost of a smile curled the man's wrinkled face as he teased, circumspect even in laughter, "What's a beautiful city, Mulhouse?" Mademoiselle Armande was mortified. "Oh, you must think me a child ..." "Never that!" he said, and meant it. "I trust that when 1 return, you'll be announcing the publication of the banns." "I might indeed, Monsieur ..." she said, with such a glow in her eyes that D felt a twinge of pity. ("When I return-meaning never ...")

How many times have I closed a door behind me, never to return! This time ... On the landing, he took a deep breath. The salt sea air could not have been more bracing than this first breath on stepping into the unknown, a relief without joy, indeed mixed with foreboding ... Once the unendurable burden has been shed, the back straightens. Glad to have proven equal to the task so far, D reckoned he had at least a forty-eight-hour start on his pursuers. The elevator was moving. He ran down a few steps and stopped short, listening. Someone was mounting the stairs with a heavy, spongy, tread he thought he recognized ...

This someone was in too much of a hurry to wait for the elevator to come back down. D leaned cautiously out over the stairwell and saw, two floors below, Monsieur Sixte Mougin's plump gray hand alighting on the banister. Fugitives have instant reflex. D raced up to the fifth floor on tiptoe while his mind rattled off calculations like a crack marksman. The mind can come alive intensely in a few seconds when it engages life without emotion, while the heart beats calmly on, accustomed to the unexpected. A forty-eight-hour start on danger, eh? Not even one, my friend. You're more like twelve to fourteen hours behind. Old Mougin's here because they sent him. My message, left yesterday, wasn't supposed to be delivered in Amsterdam until the morning of the day after tomorrow. I hadn't foreseen that disinformation could work against me too, that 1 could forfeit the leadership's confidence, that the special envoy could have been lying about that invitation to a meeting in Holland-or that he could have given someone else leave to open letters in his absence, those letters no one can open on pain of death ... Monsieur Mougin was pressing the doorbell one floor below. Such was the silence around the mechanical hiss of the elevator, D could hear the useful rogue wheezing. The door opened, and clicked shut behind him. The street outside might already be one long trip wire, invisibly hooked up to a dozen traps. D moved the Browning from his trouser pocket to that of his coat: a laughable precaution. He entered the elevator. Inside the mahogany cabin, he deliberately turned his back on the mirror, haunted by the image of a double agent he had once escorted in the elevator of the secret prison: a handsome man with a seducer's mustache, undone, who was promptly shot. The image of this banal face, cremated into nothing years ago, gave way to a sardonic but highly disquieting idea. What if the mad finger of suspicion had lit on Krantz, the special envoy? In that case a new man, a super-special envoy, would be opening his mail ... We live in lunatic times, I shall cut through the lunacy! With this thought D leaped into the street, taking it in in both directions with one glance.

A gray Citröen stood parked and unoccupied in front of number 15. A young cyclist was starting off slowly, with a small yellow parcel dangling from the handlebars-maybe a signal. If he looks at me, that would mean ... He doesn't look, but then perhaps he's already spotted me and he's too well trained ... A woman slackened her pace, opposite, fumbling in her handbag for something: a good way to survey the street in a pocket mirror. A green van rounded the corner of the rue de Sèvres and made a three-point turn, as though the driver wished to save himself the bother of a slight detour ... Everything seemed at once unremarkable and suspect. D opted to make his way past the empty Citröen.

Nobody followed him down into the Métro. Nobody caught his attention in the first-class carriage. The warren of passages in the Saint-Lazare station lend themselves to dodging and doubling back, to abrupt corrections of deliberate mistakes ... D changed direction several times. A brassy blonde wheeled around, flashing a pink-gummed grin in his face. "Do you mind!" D said irritably. It was just afterward that he realized how comical he looked, with his collar up and his overcoat grotesquely buttoned up crooked. He lit a cigarette and strolled into the railway station. Not a good idea: stations make for unexpected encounters. Sure enough here came Alain through the crowd, as though rushing out from behind a newspaper-stall display.

"It's you!" Alain exclaimed, full of joyful surprise.

His face was frank, his eyes more alert than intelligent, his movements vigorous like those of someone used to success; D liked him, to whatever atrophied extent he was still capable of friendship. Alain was an exemplary agent, enterprising, prudent, and selfless, who owed to D his initiation into the job, that is, into the devotion that fills to the brim the cup of existence. So far, D had trusted him with only moderately risky missions, such as meeting minor functionaries or party militants who were embedded in arsenals and shipyards. In the old days, before the nightmare that had made a taciturn man out of him, D used to enjoy inviting Alain and his wife to dinner at a good restaurant. They discussed painting, theory, the news. Alain didn't mind asking questions and D enjoyed teaching him without appearing to do so. It probably did him more good than it did to that cultivated but still rudimentary young mind.


Excerpted from UNFORGIVING YEARS by VICTOR SERGE Copyright © 1971 by The Victor Serge Foundation. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Victor Serge (1890—1947) was born in Brussels, the son of Russian political exiles. Enduring five years of prison in Paris for his anarchist beliefs, in 1919 he went to Russia to support the Bolshevik Revolution. Serge served as the editor of the journal Communist International, but was expelled from the Communist Party and imprisoned for his condemnation of Stalin's growing power. Released but arrested again, his deportation to Central Asia spurred international protests from eminent figures such as Andre Gide, who succeeded in securing Serge's freedom and exile in France. He wrote fiction and aided Trotsky until the German occupation of France, after which he fled to Mexico.

Richard Greeman is based in Montpellier, France, where he is Secretary of the International Victor Serge Foundation. He is a member of Praxis Center (Moscow). He has been a professor at Columbia, Wesleyan and the University of Hartford, and an activist since the 1950s.

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