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Unforgiving Years [Paperback]

Victor Serge , Richard Greeman
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 19 2008

A New York Review Books Original

 

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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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"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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5.0 out of 5 stars "Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us March 30 2011
By Leonard Fleisig TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison." Heinrich Heine

Victor Serge did not have to invent entirely new beasts to pen his vision of the Second World War in the "Unforgiving Years". The beasts that were unleashed by the 20th century's apocalypse were not Serge's creation. However, what Serge has done so masterfully here is to craft a story that looks at this world through the eyes of a few of its participants. The result is a horrific, almost hallucinatory look, at a world gone mad.

Serge was born in Brussels in 1890 to Russian emigre parents. He returned to Russia early in 1919 in order to support the newly created Soviet Union. He served as both a writer and journalist. However, Serge was one of the first of the old-line revolutionaries to oppose Stalin's concentration of power. He was arrested, expelled from the party, released, and arrested again. Finally, in 1936 after a public campaign by leading European political and literary figures (Andre Gide was one); Serge was released and deported to France. He eventually found his way to Mexico where he died, penniless, in 1947.

"Unforgiving Years" is set in four sections and in four locations. In the first section, set in Paris in the days just before the start of WWII, "Secret Agent", we are introduced to Agent D. D is a Soviet agent who has finally had enough of the purges, paranoia, and betrayal that marked Soviet life (both at home and abroad) during the height of Stalin's purges. He has no plans to defect; he simply wants to escape to some place off the grid.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us March 13 2008
By Leonard Fleisig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison." Heinrich Heine

Victor Serge did not have to invent entirely new beasts to pen his vision of the Second World War in the "Unforgiving Years". The beasts that were unleashed by the 20th century's apocalypse were not Serge's creation. However, what Serge has done so masterfully here is to craft a story that looks at this world through the eyes of a few of its participants. The result is a horrific, almost hallucinatory look, at a world gone mad.

Serge was born in Brussels in 1890 to Russian emigre parents. He returned to Russia early in 1919 in order to support the newly created Soviet Union. He served as both a writer and journalist. However, Serge was one of the first of the old-line revolutionaries to oppose Stalin's concentration of power. He was arrested, expelled from the party, released, and arrested again. Finally, in 1936 after a public campaign by leading European political and literary figures (Andre Gide was one); Serge was released and deported to France. He eventually found his way to Mexico where he died, penniless, in 1947.

"Unforgiving Years" is set in four sections and in four locations. In the first section, set in Paris in the days just before the start of WWII, "Secret Agent", we are introduced to Agent D. D is a Soviet agent who has finally had enough of the purges, paranoia, and betrayal that marked Soviet life (both at home and abroad) during the height of Stalin's purges. He has no plans to defect; he simply wants to escape to some place off the grid. He talks to Daria (the one character to appear in all four sections of the book), another agent and former lover to join him. His preparations and their discussions about his departure form the heart of "Secret Agent". This section is filled with the sort of beautifully realized self-critical examination that marked Koestler's dialogues in "Darkness at Noon". It is a remarkable piece of writing.

The second section, "The Flame Beneath the Snow", is set in Leningrad during the worst days of the 900-day siege. Daria has returned from internal exile in Kazakhstan to assist the Red Army's (via the security forces) defense of Leningrad. This is a street-level look at a Soviet city under siege. This is not a look at the battle as much as it is an examination of the life of Daria and her conflicting feelings as she goes about her job amidst death, destruction, and slow-starvation. All feelings are cast aside, or seemingly cast aside. What is left is not love but random acts of gratification.

The third section, "Brigitte, Lighting, Lilacs", takes us two a German city in the final days of the war. Daria is operating behind the lines as an agent, doing what she can to obtain information while protecting partisans and foreign (Eastern European) refugees. What is remarkable here is Serge's treatment of the German civilian population caught in the constant bombardment and devastation of their city. Writing in 1946, when the full scope of the horror of the camps and the devastation of the war generally was still fresh in everyone's mind, Serge's considered treatment of the people of this city presaged W.G. Sebald's Natural History of Destruction by fifty years or so.

Last, Daria and Agent D are reunited at the end of the war in a remote village in Mexico. The conclusion to"Unforgiving Years"is very powerful and,in its own way, entirely fitting.

"Unforgiving Years" paints a picture of a world gone mad as seen through the eyes of Daria and the circle of people she meets along the way. Serge is brutally honest in his view of man in what has to be considered a brutish state of nature. Life is nasty, brutish, and short and people react accordingly. Serge's writing matches this mood and that is what I meant when I said his writing was almost hallucinatory. It jumps in mood and pace seemingly at whim. A character goes from thinking `big thoughts' to focusing on the minutest aspect of a random daily act. But I was engaged from the first page and had trouble putting the book down.

As noted so aptly in the introduction by translator Richard Greeman, Serge asks "how to live if history no longer has a meaning? What remains of human consciousness if society has indeed entered a regressive era of ideological repression and technological pan-destruction?" These are questions that, sad to say, seem as timely now as they were in 1946. "Unforgiving Years" was finished just before Serge's death. It is, undeniably, his masterpiece. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig

P.S. Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev (New York Review Books Classics) (fiction) and Year One of the Russian Revolution
(non-fiction) are also well worth reading.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Thing April 28 2008
By Peter Anastas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I can't say enough about this novel. Along with Victor Serge's "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," also re-issued by New York Review Books, it represents the highest level of political fiction; that is to say, both novels are also important literature. If "Tulayev" reads like Dostoevsky on "speed," "Unforgiving Years" also has a hallucinatory quality. With mesmeric power Serge dramatizes the sense of living on the edge in a world of exile, deracination, emigration and loss. And the amazing thing is that Serge not only wrote brilliantly about the Great Terror and the subsequent "purges" under Stalin, the Spanish Civil War, and uprooted lives as a result of the ensuing world conflict, he lived everything he wrote. The result is an authenticity of person, place and event that are seldom experienced except in the finest novels of the period, among which Serge's finally take their place.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars READ THIS Jan. 24 2009
By E. L. Fay - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, born in 1890 in Brussels to impoverished anti-Czarist Russian exiles. After being expelled from Belgium for anarchist activities, he became a journalist in Paris, publishing articles for radical papers before being imprisoned in 1912 on charges of terrorism. He traveled to Spain in 1917 and participated in an attempted syndicalist uprising. By the time he finally arrived in Russia in 1919, Serge had become disenchanted with anarchism and joined the Bolsheviks. At one point, he briefly withdrew to lead a commune on an abandoned estate near Petrograd. After that failed, he went on a 1922 Comintern mission to Germany, which restored his battered pride in Russia's accomplishments. Yet he still had serious issues with the Comintern, and subsequently joined Leon Trotsky's anti-Stalinist United Opposition in 1923, which resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party and imprisonment in 1928. Upon his release, he published three novels in Paris, only to be arrested again in Russia in 1933. He was allowed to leave in 1936 only after international protests from other prominent radicals. Now living in France, he corresponded with other anti-Stalinists, including Trotsky, and began publishing heated exposés on Stalin's regime. After Germany's invasion in 1940, he fled with his son to Mexico. He wrote two novels during this time, "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" and "Unforgiving Years," as well as "Memoirs of a Revolutionary." His years of imprisonment had damaged his health, however, and the several assassination attempts by Mexican Stalinists didn't exactly help. Broke and harassed Soviet agents, Victor Serge died in 1947 in Mexico City of a heart attack.

Wow.

While no author's works exist in a vacuum, it is especially vital to know who Victor Serge was before commencing his masterpiece novel, "Unforgiving Years," first published in Paris in 1971 and only finally translated to English in 2008. Seriously, I cannot praise this book enough. It is epic in every last sense of the word. Serge's sweeping story is divided into four parts, the first three, like the panels in a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, altogether composing a panoramic view of the "disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century" (publisher's copy - I couldn't have said it better myself). The overall plot centers on two Russian comrades named D and Daria, yet the true subject is the madness, destruction, and ultimate disillusionment of Europe in the 1930s and '40s.

If you read nothing else this year, please read this. Serge, lifelong revolutionary, captures both the zeal of the true believer and the hollowness of the political apostate in dark, dense prose reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Like Conrad, Serge delves deep into the human psyche, confronts head-on the brutality that lives there, and takes the reader on a corresponding physical journey through a threatening landscape that mirrors the chaos within. In other words, "Unforgiving Years" is NOT an uplifting book. It is bitter in tone and prone to lyrical flights of surrealism. Throughout, Serge emphasizes revolutionary fanaticism and world-weary disillusionment as only one who has experienced them possibly can. He writes with a fully authentic voice that effectively explores the full range of human emotions under conditions wholly foreign to the average American reader, today and yesterday: his characters persist through war, poverty, prison, undercover behind enemy lines, and on the run from Communist militants. (In his book "For the Soul of Mankind," when talking about the American home front in World War II, Melvin P. Leffler notes that never has there been so much talk about sacrifice, yet so little *actual sacrifice* when compared to everyone else.) Again, it is not a pleasant tale, but it is an important one, for it is, above all, an eloquent testimony to both the perils of political fanaticism and the dark rivers of the human heart.

So, needless to say, "Unforgiving Years" comes highly recommended. It is well-written and evocative; educational and instructive without being pedagogical. It is a work of art composed by someone who lived a turbulent life intrinsically bound to history's most tumultuous era.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A mind-numbing novel about a world gone over the precipice May 10 2010
By C.A. Martin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Unforgiving Years" was Victor Serge's final & arguably intellectually the most complex of his novels. Its scope, vision & probing, even troubling search for answers in the nihilism of the Second World War sets it apart from other works on the same wave-length & topic. "Unforgiving Years" brings together Serge's own experiences as an internationalist revolutionary (regardless of what one thinks of his politics) in the places he had operated throughout his life. The novel has four distinct sections each dealing with the lives & careers of battle-hardened Soviet or Comintern (Communist International) agents, principally "D" and Daria. Each section captures the essence a world gone over the precipice. The first section, brilliantly surreal, describes Paris time-locked awaiting the outbreak of the Nazi onslaught on Europe & the catastrophe the forces of fascist-imperialism would bring with them, while "D" and the other agents try to make sense of the Thermidorian Terror back home and what their response should be, as veterans of the Bolshevik Party. Another section examines the epic & heroic 900-Day defense of the city of Leningrad by the Soviet People against overwhelming Nazi-imperialist German forces. A third section captures the conditions of German civilians under the round-the-clock bombings by the Allies. To call the novel bleak would be an understatement. There is almost a fatalism inherent in the main characters, a seeming incomprehension that the Party to which they have sworn fealty to had betrayed the very Revolution it was supposed to have defended and championed, and yet they seem hypnotically bound to it and resigned to the consequences for questioning its actions. This was certainly Serge's view of what had actually transpired in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, the seeming inability to counter, or even question the Reaction and its bloodbath on the part of intelligent people. Victor Serge was of course one of the exceptions to this blind obedience from the very beginning of the revolution. He had shown great concern at the suppression of Kronstadt and had sided with Leon Trotsky after the death of V.I. Lenin in 1924 in the power struggle against I.V. Djugashvili. After narrowly escaping murder at the hands of Thermidorian Moscow in 1936, in no small part due to his international recognition and support, Serge had continued to criticize the Soviet Union without becoming a 'reformed' Thermidorian himself. His link with Trotsky was also broken, when the latter accused him of anarchist tendencies. So it was, that Victor Serge, true to his socialist principles, was denounced by both the political Right and the pro-Djugashvili political Left in Western Europe. An ex-Bolshevik, former Trotskyist ally, but an unrepentant internationalist revolutionary still committed to the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution meant that in the post-1945 world Serge had few friends or resources left. "Unforgiving Years" echoes Serge's own convictions, he would not repent and neither would he turn, despite the fact that it might mean defeat. "Unforgiving Years" is a profound and troubling novel, by a writer who participated in and weathered some of the heaviest political storms of the first half of the twentieth century.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book will Stick with You Jan. 30 2009
By RussianReader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Brutal" is the word that comes to mind after reading this book. If anyone has doubts about the atrocities of history they only need to read this book. The brutality of war is laid bare in Serge's masterful writing. For those interested in reading this novel I would only warn that it will stick with you for a long while.
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