“Bizness Is Bizness”: On Victor Serge’s “Last Times”
By Marcus HijkoopAugust 23, 2022
Last Times by Victor Serge
In the years that followed, countless works of art and literature were produced in tribute to each country’s resistance heroes. Those writers and artists who openly sympathized or worked with the Nazis were effectively disowned; two of Europe’s most celebrated novelists at the time, France’s Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Norway’s Knut Hamsun, were arrested and charged with treason. Ironically, being Nazi sympathizers may have only made Céline and Hamsun more famous over time — notorious for their misdeeds. One of the period’s major literary figures whose record was, by most accounts, clean during the war, but whose work has largely been forgotten, is Victor Serge.
Born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich to Russian parents in Belgium in 1890, Serge wrote in French and covered, through his journalism and novels, many of the great political conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, including the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War. A man of the dissident left, Serge was influenced by both the anarchist and Marxist traditions, and is said to have been one of the first writers to describe, from within, Stalin’s Soviet Union as “totalitarian.” Serge viewed the rise of fascism, another form of totalitarianism, as the consequence of failed communist revolutions; in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, first published in 1951 and released in an unabridged English translation by NYRB Classics in 2012, Serge writes:
This new variety of counter-revolution had taken the Russian Revolution as its schoolmaster in matters of repression and mass-manipulation through propaganda […] [and] had succeeded in recruiting a host of disillusioned, power-hungry ex-revolutionaries; consequently, its rule would last for years.
Serge was living in France when the Nazis invaded, and he published a fictionalized account of the country’s capitulation from his place of exile in Mexico shortly after the conclusion of the war. Last Times, first released as The Long Dusk in an English translation by Ralph Manheim in 1946 but long since out of print, is now available from NYRB Classics in a revised edition of Manheim’s translation, edited by Serge scholar Richard Greeman. Last Times does not lionize the French resistance or cover up the extent to which the French people were complicit in or actively aided the surrender of the Third Republic.
As Susan Sontag notes in her introduction to the 2004 NYRB Classics reissue of The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Serge’s 1950 novel about the Stalinist purges, Serge returned throughout his fiction to two distinct ideas of the novel: “the historical panorama, in which single novels have their place as episodes of a comprehensive story,” and “the novel with a city as protagonist.” Last Times finds him mobilizing both ideas at once. In the opening paragraph, Serge describes a soon-to-be-invaded Paris as an “overturned anthill,” in which the ants “imagine their universe going on as usual.” Despite several revolutions, as well as a First and now Second World War, “centuries seem to have passed with royal indifference” over the city — which, the ants believe, “has not changed and will scarcely change for some time to come.” In this unflattering portrait of Paris, it is still possible for the colony of ants “not to believe in the calamity to come, to believe in the continuity of things present,” even with warnings coming from all sides.
Serge writes of a city with a single soul: “[T]hese houses have a soul, a soul compounded of habits, nameless diseases, frustrated hopes, petty crimes, and the vain but unending search for an impossible escape.” Much of the first half of Last Times, which runs to 400 pages, depicts Paris in a state of paralysis. Repeatedly, we hear that the Germans are coming: “[T]he Fritzes are about to cross the Oise at Creil”; “the panzers are two hours away”; the hotels and bars will be “full of Boche generals by tonight.” The more we hear that the Germans are coming any minute, the more we wonder whether the Nazis will arrive by the end of the novel at all — until, of course, they do. Serge takes a considerable risk with this approach, deflating suspense: the reader is almost relieved, not horrified, when the Nazis do finally arrive. But by making the reader participate in the city’s process of fetishist disavowal — “I know very well (that the Germans are coming), and yet …” — Serge highlights how it was paradoxically possible to disbelieve that the Nazis would arrive, and how this contributed to the city’s (and country’s) unpreparedness. Conflicting rumors are heard that “the government [is] going to defend Paris to the last ditch”; “that the generals or tank drivers [have already] been guilty of treason on the Meuse, giving up the bridges”; that “the taxis [will] be mobilized”; and that the Parisians will have to take up arms themselves and resist.
Fatigue from the First World War (“Do you remember the war to end wars?” one character sneers early on) and a casual or not-so-casual anti-Semitism, dating back to the Dreyfus affair, are depicted as major obstacles to the Parisians getting behind the war effort. While the Germans are commonly referred to pejoratively, by somewhat quaint nicknames carried over from the First World War, there is little consideration of the unique threat posed by the Nazis. Some even venture to claim that “they’re no worse than anyone else”; after all, “[c]an we believe everything we read in the papers?” The papers not only run headlines warning of impending “war, war, war, war, war,” but also circulate photographs of “a Bavarian lawyer led through the streets of Munich, head shaven, feet bare, on his chest, a sign: I AM AN UNCLEAN JEW.” In the Paris metro, one hears “whispered remarks about the Jews and the foreigners”; in the bars, laments about “the immense plot of Jewish finance, Bolshevism, popular fronts, the disintegration of morals, the falling birth rate.” In short, there are rumblings that “all this […] is the fault of the circumcised.” Occasionally, one hears a true outburst — true in tone and form to one of Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets:
This international rabble, this nest of Jews, if I was running things, Monsieur, I’ll tell you what I’d do, I’d put the lot of them on board some leaky old tub. […] And one fine moonlight night I’d sink the lot of them in the middle of the ocean, like plague-ridden rats, yes, friend, like rats!
These sentiments, while varying in degree (often in direct correlation to blood alcohol content), are by no means portrayed as exceptions to the norm, and Serge is unafraid to attribute them to many of the characters in his densely populated novel.
Like ants, these characters are left largely undifferentiated, except for when they stray from the colony. Serge’s cast is an ensemble: we follow one character for a chapter, until he (it’s usually a man: at one point, a “desirable” young woman is described as being “unfortunately gifted with speech”) runs into another character and passes the baton; occasionally, the baton is smashed into one or the other of the characters’ skulls. On one such occasion, a French soldier returns from the front — the “furnace” — to pawn a sack of jewelry stolen from the corpses of dead comrades and civilians. He visits the private residence of a pawnbroker, comments on how “funny” it is that “nothing has changed” in Paris, and proudly displays the jewelry, boasting that it has “not a drop of blood” on it. The pawnbroker, after initially offering 30,000 francs for the haul, considers that the soldier is likely a deserter and lowers his offer to 25,000 — deciding not that he shouldn’t do business with such a man, but that he can get a better deal. Aware of the situation, the soldier agrees, but as the pawnbroker bends down to open his safe and count the money, the soldier picks up an inkstand, which then descends “on [the man’s] skull with the deadly force of a bomb exploding.”
On another occasion, a policeman discovers that his lover, the widow of a recently fallen French soldier (after his death, we are told, she “didn’t go with anyone else for four whole weeks”), has agreed to remarry — to a German soldier. Like the barkeepers who reason that “scoundrels pay the same price for an aperitif,” the widow (gifted apparently with speech but not proper diction) has concluded that “bizness is bizness.” The policeman appears to accept her decision — until, one night, the body of the German soldier is found lying in the street, “arms outstretched […] eyes open, on a flat cushion of red-black blood.” The policeman is first on — and first to depart — the scene.
On a third occasion, a plainclothes police officer — and card-carrying member of the fascist French Popular Party — confronts a man he suspects of being Jewish and brings him back to the station. Unsatisfied by the man’s forged papers, the officer instructs him: “Take down your pants, if you please.” Horrified, and indignant, the man refuses to debase himself, declaring, “I have the honor … the im-mense honor … to b-be a Jew, a Jew,” before launching himself headfirst at the officer, “like a battering ram,” and knocking him unconscious. The other officers in the station swarm the man and dump him in prison, the last place he is seen. (Sometimes we are spared the bloody details, made to understand that a character has moved on in the chapter break — disappeared into white space.) In almost all cases, these individual explosions of violence are shown to be driven by personal humiliation, wounded honor.
The acts of resistance that are depicted are few and far between, and too little too late. “There’s no resistance except in the newspapers,” one character, a writer, observes ironically. “We have been collecting catastrophes for twenty years now; we have been warning and prophesying, and writing articles of an irreproachable dialectic in our little papers that nobody reads.” Journalists and intellectuals are portrayed throughout the novel as hopelessly out of touch with the people, and before long “every idea capable of providing the subject for a magazine article [begins] to repel” even the writers, some of whom come to believe that they “have debased everything by thinking in terms of printed matter and newspaper clippings.” It is clear that these intellectuals are engaged not in “resistance” but in punditry. Soon, the writers sink into “philosophic resignation,” wax poetic about the “clamor [that arises] from the depths of forgotten ages,” and paraphrase Heraclitus and Nietzsche about the “continuity in all things.” Some make the calculated decision to collaborate, aware that they will be “translated immediately into German, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, Czech, Romanian, Turkish, perhaps into Russian.” Defeated ex-revolutionaries concede that they “had no good reason to imitate revolutions that turn into dictatorships and grind out trials and firing squads,” that there were indeed similarities between “an anti-socialist national socialism” and “a Bolshevism that exterminated the Bolsheviks,” that the Nazis embodied “the ruthless […] despair of a people whose revolution was drowned in blood and intrigue.” Some wonder wistfully whether Europe would have been so susceptible to destruction if it had only “established a just society.” In short, the intellectuals and ex-revolutionaries, like the rest of the ant colony, now see the situation as “natural and even irrevocable.”
The only remaining hope, once Vichy France has been well and truly established, appears to be foreign intervention. Cue the “Big Three.” The British? “Nobody’s seen them except in the newspapers” — which, in case it needs restating, “are no longer even good enough to wipe your ass.” The Americans? Forget about it. There would first have to be an attack on US soil. Ironically, it is the Soviet Union, that other totalitarian state and former ally of Nazi Germany, willing to sacrifice as many lives as necessary (in the end, over 20 million), that offers hope of bringing about “the beginning of the end” of the war. Before the war has ended, or properly begun, those Parisians who can afford to do so abandon their homes and businesses and make the exodus south to the unoccupied zone, telling themselves, “When a man lacks the spirit of a fighter, the spirit of a fugitive is the next best thing.” Many attempt to secure passage to the New World, reassuring themselves that “there is courage and revolt in flight.” Visas are prohibitively expensive for most (refugees are unwelcome everywhere), and of those who do manage to secure passage (like Serge himself did), it is said that “at least half […] would be with Hitler if Hitler had wanted them” — a damning final judgment.
Even though Serge lived through many of the events the novel depicts, no character in Last Times is an obvious stand-in for the author. As Sontag notes in her introduction to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Serge “disdained novels of private life, most of all autobiographical novels.” In what he called, ironically, his Memoirs, Serge remarks, “Individual existences were of no interest to me — particularly my own.” Perhaps he felt that the literature of private lives was too bourgeois. In any case, Sontag is probably correct in her assessment that Serge’s portrayal of totalitarian terror hasn’t enjoyed the same legacy as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), in part “because those novels have a single protagonist and tell a single story.” “[T]he fact that both novels stay with their protagonists from beginning to end forces the reader’s identification,” Sontag explains, while Serge, in The Case of Comrade Tulayev, prefers to choose an entire city as his protagonist, to paint a historical panorama, with no single character to latch onto. The same might be said of Last Times, especially in relation to the profusion of novels about the occupation of France during the Second World War. But perhaps Serge had also gone a step too far in developing his major theme of political disillusionment: yes, the Russian Revolution; sure, the Spanish Civil War; but the French Resistance?
As a historical panorama of Paris at the time of the Nazi invasion, Last Times paints an ugly picture. In its scope and ambition, the novel ranks alongside Marcel Ophuls’s 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity as a corrective to the persistent myth that the French were, like the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes, and the Norwegians, uniquely committed to resistance. Serge effectively died stateless in Mexico (“a political exile since […] birth,” in his own words), shortly after Last Times was first published, and so had no country to disown him. In what is (no mean feat) perhaps his bleakest novel, Serge holds a mirror up to French society, and Western democracies in general; the neglect of his work, and the patronage of countless more flattering portraits, suggests, like René Magritte’s 1937 painting of the poet Edward James, that what they saw was behind them: Not to Be Reproduced.
Marcus Hijkoop is a writer and editor based in New York.
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