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Reading the World 2008: Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

This is the eighteenth (almost 3/4 of the way to the end) Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

Unforgiving Years“http://readingtheworld.org/nyrb.html is the second book New York Review Books has published, the first being a reprint of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Richard Greeman translated this, and wrote a very interesting preface that begins:

Unforgiving Years is at once the most bitter, the most cerebral, and the most poetic of Victor Serge’s seven novels. It was first published in France in 1971—twenty-five years after the author’s death—and has never appeared before in English. The setting is World War II, and Serge pushes realism to the modernist limits of hallucination, presenting extravagant, terrifying, poetic visions of men and women prowling the debris of a self-destructing mechanical civilization.

The novel is broken up into four section or “symphonic ‘movements’” each of which is quite distinct in terms of time and place. The first takes place in Paris, where D has just broken with the Communist Party and is expecting retribution. The second is in Leningrad, where D helps defend the city. Part Three is set in Germany, and the final section takes place in Mexico.

Edwin Frank wrote a nice piece about Serge for the NYRB newsletter a while back, closing with a few lines that convinced me that I had to read this book:

The book has an epic scope—it is a picture of a planet in convulsion—without foregoing the detail of everyday life or a sense of the moment. It is a spy story and a war story and (several) love stories, gripping and terrifying, passionate and thoughtful, while the men and women in it—they include secret agents, true believers, philosophers, artists, and assassins—are at once larger than life and powerfully alive.



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