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Midnight in the Century (1939)

by Victor Serge

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1401174,763 (3.86)10
In 1933, Victor Serge was arrested by Stalin's police, interrogated, and held in solitary confinement for more than eighty days. Released, he spent two years in exile in remote Orenburg. These experiences were the inspiration for Midnight in the Century, Serge's searching novel about revolutionaries living in the shadow of Stalin's betrayal of the revolution. Among the exiles-true believers in a cause that no longer exists-gathered in the town of Chenor, or Black Waters, are the granite-faced old Bolshevik Ryzhik, stoic yet gentle Varvara, and Rodion, a young, self-educated worker who is trying to make sense of the world and history. They struggle in the unlikely company of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who are also suffering for their faith. Against unbelievable odds, the young Rodion will escape captivity and find a new life in the wild. Surviving the dark winter night of the soul, he rediscovers the only real, and most radical, form of resistance- hope.… (more)
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In this novel, Serge explores the world of Soviet prisons and internal deportation in the early 1930s by painting a portrait of several characters who maintain the flame of the original revolutionary era, a flame dashed so cruelly by Stalin.

The story begins when Kostrov, a professor, is arrested (after being informed on, of course) as a "left-wing" (i.e., pro-Trotsky) dissident, and imprisoned in a Moscow prison known as Chaos. In the next chapter, the reader travels to a fictional town (Chernoe, or Black-Waters) in, presumably, Siberia, to which various other left-wingers have been internally deported. Serge brilliantly depicts not only the harsh life in the town, the eternal vigilance, the overbearing (and terrified for their jobs) "chiefs," and the natural world around them. The town to which they are all sent (and where eventually Kostrov joins them) has long been used for deportations: there are also Old Believers and Zionists and ordinary criminals, along with the peasants who have lived there all along. Serge even has a scene in which Stalin meets with some of his top deputies, as they decide on a crack-down on dissidents before an upcoming Congress at which Stalin will have to shift direction a little. This means largely trumped-up charges for the little group in Chernoe.

The strength of this novel lies not only in its portrayal of people who clung to their revolutionary beliefs in the face of Stalin's betrayal of them and the horrors of life under Stalin, but also in Serge's wonderful writing and the way he can capture ideas briefly and perceptively. Let me give some examples of his writing.

An "ambitious young careerist" reviewing whether someone should be charged.

"He therefore immediately perceived that G., a member of the party since 1907, having sponsored Comrade N., Chairman of a local Cheka, during the creation of the Red Cavalry in 1920, could hardly be extraneous to the advancement of B., Chief off Police Forces in Transcapia. He, in turn, was related by the marriage of his sister to M., Deputy-Commissioner of the Post Office and Telegraph Service and belonged for that reason to the coterie of the right. This man Fedossenko, Chief of the Service at Krasnovodsk, Turkmenistan, today accused of rape and abuse of authority, had been appointed by R., was in his confidence, and would thus compromise him in the case of an investigation. R. would compromise B. Through B., the affair would reach as far as N., still a Deputy Member of the Central Committee, and end up bespattering G., who was reputed unimpeachable." p. 109

One of the deportees in Chernoe observing the night

"Across the way he saw the roof of another low building silhouetted in black against the sky, and just above that roof, a star, on which he fixed his gaze. He noticed that its twinkling immobility was a perceptible motion. He alone saw that motion. It filled him with a grave joy, at the very bottom of which he felt a stab of anxiety. The frogs were beginning to croak. Somewhere dogs were barking at each other. There were sounds of animals moving in the darkness close by. A crowd of beings was alive in this silence and the star continued on its unimaginable course." pp. 123-124

In the meeting with Stalin.

"Everyone knows the rules of the game. No surprise is possible. But no one can prevent the mechanics in the apparatus from thinking about the things that nobody dares to talk about. . . . It is impossible to move in any direction without appearing to be turning toward the Left or toward the Right; it is impossible to sign any decision which doesn't imply a tightening, a relaxation, a change, a disavowal of yesterday's decisions. Thus everything is a trap -- an argument for the men of the Left, for the men of the Right, a threat to the reputation of the Infallible One." p. 151

One of the deported revolutionaries, now reimprisoned, advising another.

"You must cling stubbornly to life, in prison or anywhere else, whatever the cost, do you understand? Don't get carried away with stupid hunger strikes.Their job is to suppress us noiselessly, ours is to survive. p. 171

I have long been a big Victor Serge fan, since reading the first of his novels to appear in an NYRB edition, The Case of Comrade Tulayev]. His Memoirs of a Revolutionary is extraordinary. He was himself imprisoned in the 1930s (among other times) and then internally deported, and his own experiences inform his fiction.
7 vote rebeccanyc | Dec 29, 2014 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Serge, Victorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Greeman, RichardTranslation and Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nyblom, Eriksecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
VladyIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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In 1933, Victor Serge was arrested by Stalin's police, interrogated, and held in solitary confinement for more than eighty days. Released, he spent two years in exile in remote Orenburg. These experiences were the inspiration for Midnight in the Century, Serge's searching novel about revolutionaries living in the shadow of Stalin's betrayal of the revolution. Among the exiles-true believers in a cause that no longer exists-gathered in the town of Chenor, or Black Waters, are the granite-faced old Bolshevik Ryzhik, stoic yet gentle Varvara, and Rodion, a young, self-educated worker who is trying to make sense of the world and history. They struggle in the unlikely company of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who are also suffering for their faith. Against unbelievable odds, the young Rodion will escape captivity and find a new life in the wild. Surviving the dark winter night of the soul, he rediscovers the only real, and most radical, form of resistance- hope.

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