Poetry News

The Mexican Notebooks of Victor Serge at New Left Review

By Harriet Staff


Even a glance at this piece (just keep in mind that a glance is "the opposite of seeing," as is writ in Revolution: A Reader) is completely worth it. Just up at the New Left Review, the Mexican Notebooks of Victor Serge, Russian revolutionary and writer. Composed from 1940 to 1947 (as the introduction points out, Serge died in November of that year, after joining the exodus from Marseille in 1941 and remaining behind after the War), the notebooks include writing caustic reflections on André Breton (a "[r]emarkably decadent character"), journalistic details (some from newspaper clippings) about World War II ("Calm sea. Germany and Italy declare war on Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs declare that they are going to take the offensive."); thinking on Walter Benjamin's 1940 suicide ("He left us a remarkable essay on Baudelaire"); conversations with Surrealists like Benjamin Péret and Leonora Carrington; vigorous insights on Marxism and minutes from political meetings; and much more. Here's a small excerpt; it's a sober account of Stefan Zweig's double suicide--with wife Lotte Altmann--and Serge's thoughts on his writing:

4 April 1942. Stephan Zweig committed suicide in Rio at the end of March. I was in Veracruz, waiting for the Nyassa about whose fate grim rumours were circulating which I didn’t take seriously (and yet it seemed inconceivable that [my wife] Laurette was arriving). I read about it in a newspaper. Aged sixty; with his wife, some thirty years younger. Barbiturates. A magazine photo shows them lying in bed, asleep beside each other. On the bedside table, a glass, a bottle of mineral water, a box of matches; life’s last trifling objects, practical, of no interest, of the kind we no longer see.

His latest book has just been published: Brazil, Land of the Future . . . I have no doubt he is sincere. Not the same future, a land, a man, a couple. His suicide note says he can no longer live like this, amid the collapse of a culture and a world, in reality a foreigner, as he must have felt in the Americas. Vaguely thought, more felt, Zweig was never a fighter, nothing but a great, refined intellectual, an artist—and ultimately feeble, feeble through being accustomed to comfort, through his idea of culture as something definitively acquired and of unique value, through being accustomed to literary success and the good life. I remember his home; it was the home of a hugely privileged patrician, on one of Salzburg’s hills, in a most serene, romantic place, most beautiful to look at, one of the most civilized in the world . . .

I understood a lot about the nature of the man in admiring his house; he felt he was read in the name of Art. At the time fairly good on the psychology of emotions in the novel, easy success, but of good quality all the same. It all lacked fundamental vigour, humanism that was only skin deep and intellectually shallow, based on a superficial vision of the tragedy of today’s world. Repression in the face of this tragedy; let me live with my noble thoughts, the psychologist and poet is entitled to this delightful house on the peaceful hillside, entitled to music, entitled to a privileged life, for his nobility enriches the world.

That intelligentsia is being torn up and crushed by the hurricane, it will only be able to rediscover its purpose in life by understanding the hurricane and flinging itself into it heart and soul. True, for a social category, impossible for most of those who comprise it. His end seems logical and courageous. Nothing more natural than the dignified refusal to live in conditions that are unacceptable. Being uprooted, the void, age too with its declining faculties, the fear that one is not sufficiently alive to attain moments that are worth living for, the fear of physical deterioration. Above all the torpor of a mind that has lost its source of sustenance, the exchanges that stimulated it. Under the harsh Rio sun, it must have been particularly palpable: unbearable.

According to Wikipedia, Zweig's final note read: "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth."

On a sufficiently living note, here's a good clip from A Letter from an Unknown Woman, the film adaptation by Max Ophüls from Stefan Zweig's novella of the same name. Perfect, fast disharmony: "Tell me: When you climb up a mountain, what then?" "Well you come down again."