Review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary – by Victor Serge

memoirs of a revolutionary

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a first witness account of some of the most important world events of the first half of the twentieth century, a rich period for revolutionary events and the author, Victor Serge, a Belgian born Russian, is perfectly poised to give detailed personal encounters with many of the key protagonists. Serge is a revolutionary, who participates in the Russian Revolution from 1919 as a core Bolshevik. He meets and works with Lenin and Trotsky and his European roots make him critical to the emerging infrastructure of Soviet Russia. Serge writes often with a critical frankness of the core movements of which he is part, a fact that later endangers him as (correctly identified by the author) the Revolution seeps into Totalitarianism, culminating in the great Stalinist Purges of the 1930s. Initially the book flirts with the rising tide of working class socialism in Western Europe. Paris is a hotbed for leading international figures of the Left. Later, in Barcelona, Serge makes key contacts that will come into fruition for his analyses of the Spanish Civil War. From there he embarks for his never seen before motherland (his family were anti-Tsarist exiles). The post 1917 revolution is enduring its honeymoon, yet the whole survival of the Bolsheviks comes within a blink of an eye as the Civil War almost leads to their destruction in Petrograd as the Whites make gains. Serge, as he moves up the ranks, rapidly becomes disillusioned with the turn that the Revolution is taking. He warns against the Cheka and GPU. He is a peaceful man and holds onto the non-violent tenets of socialism. Later, when the party splits – Serge is a key figure in the alliance against the Party Centre and Politburo, which culminates in his expulsion from the Party and exile in Orenburg. His suffering in prison shows how lucky he was to retain his life, in a period where the executioner’s bullet was only ever a step away and was freely used. Serge’s fame as an author, especially in France, managed, through international outcry, to keep him and his young family away from the true harshness of life as an exile and ultimately secured his freedom back to Western Europe. The outbreak of world war was predicted by this great political visionary. His tracts against Stalinism often made him an enemy of his comrades and left him few publishing opportunities during his lifetime. As Nazi Germany ultimately rose up and invaded France, Serge fled Paris for one final time and luckily managed to secure a final exit from the continent as he became a war refugee in Mexico where he ultimately died peacefully a couple of years after the cessation of hostilities. I love this book for its detailed insight. The frankness of the author is inviting and his ideology and awareness are truly inspiring on both a political and personal level. For any student of world history in the twentieth century this book is a must read and for any aspiring revolutionaries I cannot think of a better book to read (with the possible exception of the Guevarist diaries) in order to quench your revolutionary zeal.

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Review: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises – by Ernest Hemingway

Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My love affair with Hemingway continues and Fiesta is the latest work of his that I have thrown myself into and conveniently it is all about a love affair. The tension of the love between Jake and the wild aristocratic Brett builds up in the city of Paris. We see a high life throughout this book. The chief protagonists certainly understand how best to enjoy their time. Washing machines and home cooked dinners are not on the agenda. We flit from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant and the mouthwatering selection of food and drink is so succulently described that by the time Jake hit San Sebastian towards the end of the book I could actually savor the taste of his drinks. Hemingway is rich on description and all of his writing very cleverly conjures up mental images describing in detail the environment his characters inhabit. Fiesta is no different and if anything the landscape described in this book is perhaps richer. We can see that the author knows his terrain well. He is passionate about France and Spain and nowhere does this passion manifest itself more than at the Festival of San Fermin at Pamplona. From ‘Death In The Afternoon’ I know that Hemingway deeply admires bullfighting. The sejour at San Fermin allows this knowledge and love of La Corrida to manifest itself in fiction. Jake, an American, is rare as a foreigner, in that he is an initiate of this cultural sport. The relationship with Montoya, in whose hotel they reside, is poignant in the way Jake and Montoya interact as they discuss the intricacies of the weeks long activities centered upon the bulls. The wild partying of the week long fiesta culminates in an anarchic breakup of the group of friends. the boxer loses his temper, there is an excess of alcohol and Brett, who is the center of attention for all the men, decides to run off with the festival’s leading young bullfighter. They split away and head off in their own directions and it is Jake who comes to the rescue of Brett as she winds up in Madrid. It is obvious throughout that they deeply care for each other but their very lifestyle doesn’t allow them to be together. As the book ends with them travelling down a Madrid street in a cab, the accidental bump in the road brings them together at last? But it is only chance, the tension is never resolved and Hemingway leaves it to our own imagination as to where the story continues. The conclusion wasn’t quite as dramatic as I know Hemingway can be. there was no real heavy twist and the book just nicely wound down. I like Fiesta as it describes regions of the world I am familiar with and love. It is a happy book which leaves the reader content and satisfied and feeling as though he has been on the same journey as this group of wild party people.

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Review: Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although this book was written over a decade ago, it is a great study of the French people that is still relevant today. It is an anthropological assessment and takes a broad stance in how it assesses France. The authors are a Canadian couple so many of the ideas and comparisons are taken from a North American standpoint. A two year study of the French yields many quaint anecdotes as to how and why the French are as they are. In my own experience of France, the French, French language, culture and cuisine, I felt that I was already a true Francophile and knowledgeable about this great country. This book takes my understanding to a deeper level. It points out the reason for many intricacies of French behaviour that I had previously not properly understood. The tendency of French people to be over-correcting about language use is something I have noticed and although, I personally enjoy my linguistic skills being polished, I appreciate that the French do this in a seemingly pedantic way which some foreigners may find offensive. When you get to see the importance of l’Académie française and how it has affected the French language you can understand the pride the French take in their use of words and it is no surprise to learn that literary standards are on average a great deal higher in France than in other developed nations. The book does focus very heavily on the nature of French government. I now understand exactly what Jacobin is: the centralist tendency of French government, with power totally focused on Paris. It is interesting to see how the whole political system has developed, from early autocracy with supreme leaders to a well-balanced modern democracy. There were good explanations and descriptions of the French passion for food and their natural links to the peasants who work the land. I hadn’t realised about the French education system and the way they foster elites, in particular to train to work for their huge civil service. I had thought it was a university system similar to that of Britain or the USA but it quite apparently isn’t. I felt that the book overall gave me a great deal of insight into different aspects of France and opened the door for future study. The book was definitely worth reading as it improved my knowledge. It is a vital text for French studies.

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Review: On Paris

On Paris
On Paris by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This very brief work is a collection of Hemingway’s writings as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. The author’s bright prose lights up what I believe to be the most fantastic city on earth, during the turbulent times of the 1920s. Paris was in a post-Versailles dilemma, the politicians fighting for German reparations and dangerously questing into the Ruhr valley. Hemingway vibrantly details the glamorous life in the French capital. The post-absinthe hedonism, the cafe culture, the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge. He contrasts the French joie de vivre with that of other European capitals and with a flamboyant passion for Paris, he brings to life this exotic city for all his readers.

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