Posts tagged ‘Bosheviks’

Jun 17, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 5 – Men-Lizards, Serge and Men in Prison and pathetic women

Books on a shelf Week 5

Last time I left you to carry on reading H. G. Wells’ Kipps. Finished it. Life teaches Kipps some hard lessons, as might be expected of an uncultured ‘little person’ finding fortune smiling down on him, if only briefly. Mrs Kipps’ socialist brother and his wife named their child Master Walt Whitman Pornick who is

a cheerful young gentleman of one and a half, who was given a spoon to hammer on the table with to keep him quiet…

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I really don’t know the reason why but so many books on this shelf have some association with the 1940s – the majority are second-hand but that can’t explain it. Possibly there is no explanation beyond coincidence for the house is choc-a-block with books as I repeatedly explain and they surely can’t all fall into this category – I know they don’t.

First published in Prague in 1936 Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts is a satire on the ruthless exploitation of colonies by European imperial powers. As well as historical examples Čapek was living through a time when this was still very much to the fore – European countries pillaging resources of militarily weaker nations and exploiting native populations for cheap labour. Czechoslovakia was threatened by German chauvinistic nationalism and their was not dissimilar behaviour by Britain (England) and France so the author has plenty material to hand to work from. In War with the Newts he exposes and ridicules the crushing ruthlessness of colonialism and needless to say his novel fell foul of Nazi censorship.

Captain van Toch recognises the value in exploiting Sumatra’s giant newts – for they are intelligent and skilful creatures. All goes to plan for a time but the plan has a flaw – the very intelligence that attracted him to exploit the newts means they are capable of out-smarting  their human enslavers. Like all the best exploited creatures – they rise up against their tyrants.

War with the Newts has a complex and innovative structure and is divided into three books. Book one examines the ‘Strange Behaviour of Captain van Toch’ – a man who casts a cynical eye over his fellow humans – or are they human? This Dutch ship’s captain is savagely racist and xenophobic. When informed the native Bataks are devils, Toch retorts –  

Man, there aren’t any devils. And if there were, they would look like Europeans. That thing must have been some kind of fish or something.

Eventually we discover more about the Men-Lizards from the Pacific Ocean through scientific study and reports written about them which, it is claimed, will not be read by many outside the scientific elite. A case is made for exploiting the newt population similar to all justification used by imperial powers. First overpower through armed superiority then denigrate the native population to create an impression of providing benefits instead of taking advantage of them. The pseudo-science used to justify capitalising on the newts makes up the second book within the novel. The final book introduces the war of the title.

A cleverly constructed piece of fiction that is not so far-fetched as the title may suggest for it is really about European powers in the 1920s and 1930s riven by racism, social divisions and ambitious militarism.  

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Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler is short; a novella. Schnitzler died in 1931, five years before War with the Newts was published. Born in Austria in 1862, Schnitzler’s family name was Zimmermann (as in Bob Dylan’s family name.) He was an author-dramatist who gained a reputation for his openly sexual works – which impressed fellow-Austrian, the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. The explicit nature of his writing led to accusations of him being a pornographer – this was certainly the opinion of another fellow-compatriot, Adolf Hitler, who as Germany’s chancellor, dismissed Schnitzler’s books as Jewish filth (not Austrian filth) banned and had them burned.

Dream Story aka Rhapsody was written in 1926. The protagonist, Dr Fridolin, attempts to deal with his wife’s sexual fantasies about another man while he puts himself about a bit. If this sounds familiar it may be because Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, is based on the novella. I haven’t seen the film but understand that Nicole Kidman plays the doctor’s wife as a woman confident of her own sexuality unlike Albertine in the novella who is a bit of an innocent in these matters – impassive as her husband makes love to her – well, has sex with her. You can see how this ties in with Freud’s view of women; women were inferior in all ways to men and men were anatomically superior to women inducing their penis envy. In their dreams.  

At first she gently raised her hand as if to prevent him, but he seized it and held it in his own, both questioning her and pleading with her as he looked up, so she nodded her consent and he began.

She lay there quietly, her hands behind her neck, and remained silent a long time after Fridolin had finished.

It makes for uncomfortable reading for today’s women to be confronted by such obvious misogyny. Women now, as then surely, were not the vulnerable submissive creatures Schnitzler and Freud fantasised about – their women docile as a means to an end. Will I read all 98 ½ pages of the book? I doubt it.

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Victor Serge’s Conquered City is one of a trilogy of novels that includes, Men In Prison and Birth of Our Power. George Orwell described Serge’s writing as –

A special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle …

Serge’s biographer, Susan Weissman, Professor Politics at Saint Mary’s College of California wrote of him –

Victor Serge is one of the most compelling figures to have emerged from the history of the Soviet Union. A lucid observer and a great writer, his is the story of a course set on hope, a pursuit of truth, dignity and human justice set against some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

Forty years before Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR because his writing was critical of the state, Serge was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported. He travelled to Brussels (where he was born to Russian émigrés who fled Tsarist Russia) then to France. Forever hounded by the communist state he refused to stop criticising it and was constantly slandered as a result. From one persecution to another he also fled the Nazis and his final years were spent in Mexico where he died in 1947 at the age of just 56.

As Victor Livovich Kibalchich he left Brussels for France where as a youth he joined a French anarchist organisation and edited its magazine. He escaped the guillotine in 1912, unlike three of his comrades, but was jailed for five years for his political activities. Briefly in Spain on his release from jail he arrived in the newly established Soviet Union in 1919 where he became acquainted with the American journalist and communist, John Reed. Reed covered the October Revolution in Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) and wrote the book Ten Days That Shook the World. He died in 1920 of typhus, unable to get medicine because of a blockade against the Bolshevik government. He was thirty-two.

Conquered City is set during the civil war, the Terror that followed the Russian Revolution – terror inflicted by both Reds and Whites in 1919-20. Set in Petrograd in 1919 the story opens on a chilly night with frost clinging to all the familiar statuary and elegant buildings in that city, beautifully described. This is a political novel – how could it not be? – set when and where it is but it is no dour piece of writing. Far from it.  

A little girl in a red beret still went every morning to the ballet school to learn the arts of toe dancing and leaping. The hurricane will pass, no? but the dance will remain; and the child has talent. When the weather permitted, she would read Anderson’s fairy tales on the way, wondering why no magic carpet ever appeared over the bleak house tops. She also read, and carefully repeated when she got home, the penciled notices posted at the Communal Store; “The Third Category will receive two herrings for coupon No. 23 on the ration card …” How sad life is without flying carpets!

There is a lecturer whose monotone voice “fell like a fine rain” and who “was afraid of himself and searched the audience for some enemy face in order to surrender to it.”

I am now reading the entire novel.

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Our copy of Birth of Our Power has the feel of a book never opened, far less read, though my other half assures me he has read all three. Let’s take a peek at book two.

As with Conquered City, Birth of Our Power is set during revolutionary upheaval not only in Russia but also in France and Spain and not during the better-known Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 but the brutal period of the barbarous Great War when revolution broke out in Russia and Spain.

Spain entered the twentieth century, after its stunning defeat by the United States in 1898, as a backward, corrupt, priest – and soldier -ridden monarchy.

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

Recent events in Catalonia have demonstrated Spain continues in that tradition of cruel repression of its citizens which can be traced as far back as the Inquisitions that began in the 15th century. Serge’s hope was that eventually Spaniards might be freed from the iron clad fists of governments that tortured and murdered so many of them, if not in the period in which the novel was set then in the near future. I feel he would be sorely disappointed with how that country has turned out.  

The guardia civilis went forth on horseback, in rectangular formations, black on black horses, shoulders square under their black capes, towering over the crowd with their tricornered hats and their stiff heads, as impassable as painted wooden figures. Their vigilant eyes searched into the corners of alleys, into dark doorways, into tightly pressed groups, into anything that might hide deadly aggression, bullet or bomb, the sudden great stride of death over frightened heads towards the tense horsemen riding towards their fate. Theirs, ours!

The Spanish revolt of 1917 ran out of steam but in Russia revolution succeeded, though at a terrible price.

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Finally, Men in Prison – it is 1914 – a political activist has been sentenced to a term in prison where brutality mirrors the savagery of outside society.

I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be usefully compared … The truth for Serge was something to be undergone.

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

Though he shared many of their aims, Serge was always wary of the Bolsheviks – of their authoritarianism and openly criticised their abuses. He had friends who suffered terribly under the pitiless hand of the Cheka (the Bolsheviks’ political police) while Serge, himself, was imprisoned, deported and constantly slandered by the Soviet state.

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

Chapters come thick and fast: The Lockup —Yet Life Goes On —Capital Punishment —The Will To Live —The Years —Dying — Surviving —More Deaths —About To Be Discharged —

Three gray straw mattresses on crude cots – gray with filth, spattered with all sorts of stains, stinking of dust, old straw, sleeping animality –The mattresses and the drinking cup are apparently never cleaned. After the first hour, I wanted a drink. I was clumsy enough to shake the jug, and a greenish slime rose to the surface where wisps of straw, odd leaves, hair, bits of threat, and a broken match were floating.

Serge used his own prison experiences to paint his vivid descriptions of life in Soviet jails. He writes so well but the material is by its nature harrowing to read.

This blog post should have been up days ago but one or two passages from Serge’s books stuck in my head though unfortunately not sufficiently to quote him and, of course, I didn’t write them down at the time of reading. There was a comment about hope which struck me as the sort of clever statement I fancied pinching to use on social media. Again, I failed and now am doubting the remark was Serge’s at all. Note to self – always write down references and don’t chuck the scrap of paper into the recycling before reading it again.

Finally on Serge a word about his translator, the American Marxist, Richard Greeman, now 81, whose whole life has been spent in left politics as a writer, lecturer and, of course, translator. He was befriended by Serge’s son, the painter Vlady, an encounter that led to him translating Serge’s novels, including this trilogy.

Finally, finally – I’ve become so fascinated with Serge during this preliminary encounter with him and a his writings that once I finish Conquered City I intend reading Susan Weissman’s biography of the man. People who are brave enough to stand up to rotten regimes deserve attention.

Till next time, stay safe.