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Victor Serge’s Heartache

In 1941, the Russian revolutionary Victor Serge fled Europe for Mexico — leaving his companion Laurette Séjourné behind. His private notebooks recount months of lovesick anguish, as he watched the war progress and waited for Laurette’s escape.

A lot of people wanted desperately to leave Europe in 1941. The Russian revolutionary and writer Victor Serge was one of them. Serge had lived in  Belgium and France since fleeing Stalinist persecution in 1936. While in exile, Serge maintained correspondence with the radical dissidents who had previously coalesced around the Left Opposition — including Leon Trotsky and his son Lev Sedov.

After the Nazi invasion of France, Serge hurriedly prepared to flee the continent, ultimately finding a spot aboard a ship headed to Mexico. Among his traveling companions were the pioneering anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Surrealist Andre Bréton, who booked passage on the same ship. Serge ultimately made it to his new country in 1942.

In Mexico, he threw himself into organizing against the Stalinization of the international socialist movement. But he was distracted. Serge’s partner Laurette Séjourné, as well as his daughter Jeannine, had stayed behind in Europe.

Month after breathless month first on board the ship, passing dusty Iberia, the open ocean, the green shores of Martinique; then finally at home in a Mexico alive with revolutionary activity Serge awaited her arrival. His private notebooks, soon to be published for the first time in English, recount his internal struggle in the midst of epochal change.

The Miracle of Your Arrival

March 24, 1941 — Shed 7, Pinède [the Cape Pinède basin on the port of Marseille].  Enormous, filthy stable. Standing around, long wait, document controls, lines. Your presence, us, confident, sure of ourselves, unaware of the separation. Your courage.

Embarkation. How lovely, brave, gay you are. Final moments: us in the bows, standing under the wooden construction, your radiant and sad smile. Your little blue coat with its squared shoulders that made my heart leap when I lost hope waiting for you at Lilas and you came out of the metro. I gaze through a mist, I clench my teeth. Unforgettable. Saddened. We move away from the high hull of the Florida, which separates us.

Happy that Vlady [Vladimir Kibalchich, Serge’s son] is here, tall and solid; happy for him that he’ll discover the world. I would like to stay. You.

For a long while we watch Marseille fade into the distance, Notre-Dame de la Garde, the ferry, our memories. Evening gently gilded, thoughts of your solitude, I stifle the urge to collapse. “Be strong—be hard—I’ll carry on—but really it’s hard.”

March 21, 1941 — Night. The spears of the searchlights hunt the skies for a little silver fish that’s said to be a plane, perhaps British. Someone is playing a harmonica in the dormitory. Beneath a weak bulb I read Leon Davidovich [Trotsky]. Some men are playing cards next door, swearing and spitting.

Suddenly the memory: window on the Cours Saint-Louis; tea, the evening, and you came and sat at my knees, your eyes. What are you doing now? Heartbreaking awareness of being carried along by a wind. Yet available and confident. That dust in the wind smells strongly.

The poem won’t come. It’s there in my head, but it feels itself so stunted, it struggles so weakly to find itself. Feeling of captivity on this floating concentration camp, with its stinking hold. Absurdity of a motionless boat in the shelter of a harbor. To be outbound, launched onto the sea, justifies all.

March 29, 1941 — Did I do the right thing in agreeing to this separation from Laurette and Jeannine [Serge’s daughter]? The distance grows with every turn of the propeller. Can we ever know what a separation is, what a separation will be? The comfort of thinking of Laurette’s eyes when she was encouraging me to leave. Temptation of the petty, submissive life with its guaranteed warmth — which we believe to be guaranteed but isn’t, or which evaporates. One drowns oneself in it. Forge ahead.

April 13, 1941 — Twenty-first day at sea. We see dramatic cities and mountains burst forth between the zenith and the horizon, and our freighter stubbornly carries its cargo of scrap iron, merchandise, and men across a prodigious flow of unreal metals.

The ship ploughs the ocean into the night. Sky overcast, clouds that in places appear phosphorescent, but it’s only an effect of the hidden moon. Warmth, space, the sound of the waves, slight rocking, the depths white and green like melted marble under the side lamps. I had a moment of intense solitude, a feeling not in the least painful, as if the sea and the future wouldn’t allow me to truly suffer. It seemed to me that I was quietly calling you in the night, as if this weren’t senseless. How wonderful it would be if you were here.

April 20, 1941— Twenty-eighth day of navigation. Went out onto the deck at 7:00 a.m. The morning light is milky yet transparent. An enchantment you breathe in, that penetrates you through the eyes and every pore of your skin — and touches your soul. The brain vibrates with a joy of being for which there are no words. We can see the island. A green isle, bathed in misty colors whose summits are like stones set in rings. It rests on the ocean; light seems to emanate from it.

The captain says: “The pearl of the Antilles . . . and the dishonor of France.” He explains: “Business dealings, crooked deals, abandonment . . .The sugar fields, the rum distilleries, etc.”

The island stands out more clearly. We watch it rise over the ocean, it emerges from it, a marvel. Vegetation streams down the slopes. In the distance the sugarcane fields are clear emerald patches. There’s nothing but sun. The mountain stands out against the background, its conical peaks a purplish blue. Green life spurts from the rock on contact with the sky. One could easily dream pantheistic dreams. What is the sun if not love?

Let’s not wander too far, even in this widening wonder. Clouds of tiny flying fish, like dragonflies, swarm out of the pearly-blue sea. One can see them stretching their fins underwater getting ready to leap. A group of porpoises, either panicked or pleased by the opportunity provided them by the passage of this freighter, swims alongside the bow and frolics in the waves. They are more than a meter long, brown and blue, with slender, gracious heads — intelligent, I believe. They leap so high their entire body leaves the water.

June 17, 1941— I shall not go mad. I have walked along the borderline of madness often enough to have become convinced of the impossibility, for me, of crossing it.

But I return to that borderline with an odd regularity, especially when you’re not here. I would suddenly find myself there when you used to go way for an hour or when you were a little late coming home. I’d be angry with you for plunging me into that state of despair, you whom I love, you who are my salvation, for your mere presence drives away the darkness. I’ve been thinking of this for two days, struggling unsuccessfully, depressed and feverish.

You know all this, you who are so sensible and honest, and I don’t always succeed in pushing away from you the cloud that passes over your face and your being and makes you turn a bit nasty, separates you from me, overwhelms you with faults and unhealthy sorrows.

“Cloud” is the right word for this, for it’s like a heavy cloud that suddenly blocks the sun, and the color of the landscape changes, the joy of living is converted to sorrow, and one can see the despair in the movements of the tree branches.

Beloved, what clouds are passing over you at this moment?

November 2, 1941— The Day of the Dead. On the street they sold little skeletons, white or golden, skillfully made; death’s heads made of sugar with green or red eyes and names written in sparkling colors across the forehead; buns in the shape of skulls or bones. Evocation of death in sugar and charms.

Went to visit the small cemetery and church of San Fernando right nearby. The tombs in the garden are overwhelming and lacking in style. Strange need to suffocate the dead beneath such heavy and pitifully proud stones. [Mexican revolutionary Benito] Juárez’s tomb, with no inscription, massive and simple. An arm perfectly expresses immobility, the end of strength. The head is noble and true, amazingly simple, one sees the fallen man, a powerful and serious man. Juárez has many profound similarities with Lenin: I find that the Lenin of Mexican independence is fully revealed by this marble statue.

I was alone. Thought about how over the course of our lives there are successes, and as I contemplated Juárez recalled one of our successes, our visit to the Wall of the Hostages on the rue Haxo [where the Paris Commune executed its most important hostages during its final days, including the archbishop of Paris].

Do you remember that gray afternoon? We were good together, intimately so, neither exalted nor jubilant, and Paris was gray, the Pré [Pré Saint-Gervais, where Serge lived upon his arrival in France in 1937] was gray. We went out shortly before twilight, walking the dull streets on the heights of Belleville, which always put me in mind of the barricades of the Commune. Rue Haxo, the small new church of white stone with brick walls and well-tended gardens, a passing cassock. A young and almost merry priest showed us the spot where the hostages fell. We entered an inquisitor’s office where another priest, emaciated and curious, asked us if we knew anyone who had recollections of the event.

You, his gaze fell on you. He thought we were father and daughter, doubtless with a slight suspicion. This bare office, papers and crucifix, severity, dryness, intelligence, sharp and cold. We so carnal together and so different from this corner of the world and completely on the other side. We returned via the Avenue Gambetta. I certainly kissed and caressed you when we got home, as we spoke of that world of organized faith that was closed to us, perhaps emptied of real faith.

Juárez, Lenin, Mexico, let this not be a mere descriptive phrase: man carved out of a single block; life, thought, and action all one; powerfully rooted in the soil, his own, his race; educated and intelligent, not an “intellectual” or a scholar at his desk nor a manipulator of ideas for the pleasure of it: knowledge in the service of life. Not a philosopher, a surgeon operating on a nation.

November 18, 1941 — Your Cuban transit visas have been confirmed. A ship arrives in Vera Cruz tomorrow, another is leaving Lisbon, a third will leave Casa in December . . . Is it possible, is it real that you are finally going to come? I am strangely unable to imagine what I most desire; I’m like I was during the last hours of my imprisonment, when I couldn’t believe in freedom yet I was telling myself that if I didn’t know I was going to be free in a few hours there would nothing left to do but kill myself. A black spot, at moments a great worry, your exit visa.

December 22, 1941 — I write these notes in light of the cable announcing that your trip is confirmed for early January. Would this be the end of the great anxiety? I think of your joy and don’t know how to measure mine.

I recognize everywhere the landscapes of another continent. The Popo [Mount Popocatépetl, near Cuautla] puts me in mind of the Kazbek; the reddish glow over on the plains at the foot of the mountains of the valleys of Georgia. But tall, upright cacti suddenly appear, from which the peasants make hedgerows. Others spread their large, oval, spiky leaves of a pure green in all directions. There are explosions of magueys, bouquets of gigantic grass.

Why do they seem so beautiful to me? It’s because they harmoniously, victoriously display vegetal energy; powerful, but not immoderate, on a human scale and in a way intelligible, since they are like a prodigious grass — while the cacti are disconcerting, strange.

I’m observing a beautiful orange cat. He toys with a lizard the way he’d toy with a mouse, allowing it to flee, hiding under a wad of crumpled paper, patiently watching as the lizard, playing dead, starts breathing again and feeling reassured. He snatches it carefully between his beautiful little white teeth to carry it to a convenient spot where he can play with it. He ultimately devours it slowly, swallowing it whole.

I made a movement, the cat grumbled, with a mistrustful look in his black-slitted yellow pupils. Does this creature in dark black glasses want to take his lizard — to eat it, obviously? The first signs of intelligence, carnivorous intelligence.

In the sky only one star shines, white. Here a darkened garden is in front of the church, tall crosses tilting to the right over old graves. Silence, star, mountain, spaces, three small bells high up in the pink-hued stone hold your gaze. I’d like to return here with you at this same time of day so I can, at a moment like this, feel your shoulder close and see this corner of the world reflected in your eyes. (All along the road the sturdy plants and the new flowers made me think of the happiness you’ll feel discovering them… )

Perhaps the ultimate function of intelligence: to contemplate, that is, feel the world becoming conscious of itself (Élisée Reclus). Surpassing carnivorous intelligence.

February 25, 1942 — Fourth day that I have been waiting for you in Veracruz. The latest worries don’t succeed in troubling my joy. At times the idea of the epidemic on board torments me. How many storms you traverse accompanied by our Jeannine with a smile on your face, my love. It seems to me that they must shun you, like darkness, the light.

February 27–28, 1942 — Veracruz, waiting for you.  I love you, I’m waiting for you, and you’ll help keep a fierce desire to work and fight. That’s far better, no matter the times. Ever onward is the best solution, as long as it’s available. The days of this extraordinary wait grow longer, as if fate wanted me to develop a taste for it. I feel strong and ethereal.

We visited Boca del Río by car, a fishing hamlet with palm trees, a restaurant (El Mago). Waves’ foam, dunes, thought of you… Ballet of fireflies at twilight. In the distance a boat, all lit up, entered the harbor. Briefly thought it was the Nyassa [the vessel carrying Laurette], rushed by car to the quay . . . It was a sorry little coastal tub.

March 2, 1942 — Yesterday, Sunday, Boca del Río, beautiful beach, palm trees. Evening, the wind picks up. Is this the final day of my wait? This morning, 8:30, ran to the dock: violent wind, difficult to walk. Packets of froth, blinding mist. Through my binoculars I try to examine a large trawler that has entered the port. Disappointed. A passing sailor says to me, “The other ship’s coming in,” and gestures toward the port. Through the gusts of spume I glimpse, behind Wenner-Green’s [Swedish millionaire, inventor of the home vacuum cleaner] yacht,, the outline of the Nyassa, tall and gray.

The Nyassa passes close to the dock in order to face the wind. In the stern a few people. Not you. Marceau is also fighting the wind in order to see. We question each other. No one? The Nyassa seems empty.

Ran onto the old dock with its waterlogged planks; terrible wind, people, handkerchiefs. Irritating to not be able to see the faces on board. Marceau is finally able to recognize his family, I seek you in vain, alarmed. There’s talk of epidemics on board.

Suddenly, glimpsed, all alone at the front of the ship, your silhouette, amazingly the same as always: orange sweater, your hair. Exactly like our first meetings near the Eiffel Tower. Motionless, you don’t wave, you look sad — alone. When you finally respond to my signs, I think I see you smile.

All of this is amazingly simple. Passed the day wandering around the city in the wind, returning hourly to the quay. Difficult to realize the immense joy. It’s so simply beyond me and renews me. You haven’t changed. Will you still be mine? I feel a bit of fear. A bit. Almost certain that our love has deepened, been sealed with a confidence, a will, and a tenderness touching on the absolute. Saddened not to see Jeannine, but you immediately understood my appeal and showed her to me.

Evening, went to see the Nyassa at anchor in the basin, completely illuminated. Thought of the long voyage, the risks, the miracle of your arrival. Love you.