Have you ever been cheated on? Or suspected it, at least? I don’t mean that your partner got pissed and slept with someone and ‘fessed up; no, I’m talking about an Othello or Dom Casmurro or Swann’s Way type situation where you’re convinced that your significant other is being unfaithful, but have no concrete evidence. I’ve been in this situation myself. My [now ex] girlfriend was, in pretty much all areas, unreliable; her word, her behaviour, was frequently suspect; she was, even by her own admission, an inveterate liar and, generally speaking, morally dubious. At the time she was working at a restaurant and she’d come home late, hours after it closed; she would shower at odd times; she’d take calls or send text messages when she thought I was asleep, and so on. I’m not a paranoid person generally, and I’m not one to succumb to jealousy either, and yet I found myself questioning everything about the relationship. I don’t doubt that on occasions she was capable of being sincere, or truthful; I am sure that there were times when I was seeing things that weren’t there, creating narratives out of nothing. Paranoia is a very strange state of mind; all of your senses become heightened, every small and possibly insignificant gesture or action is poured over, evaluated; you become trapped within your own mental processes, your obsession with detail and logic.
I mention this because it is probably the closest any of us come to the experience of D and Nadine in the first part of Victor Serge’s novel Unforgiving Years. The focus is not, of course, on fidelity [not sexual fidelity, anyway]; D is a Russian secret agent living in Paris, and he is trying to quit the service. He knows that this is essentially an act of suicide, that resigning is impossible, but he can no longer control his conscience, can no longer emotionally deal with what he was being asked to do, with the full weight of the acts and atrocities committed in the name of The Party. From this unpromising set-up Serge paints a brilliant portrait of mind-fuckery. D is convinced that he is a hunted man, despite there being a chance that there are, in fact, no hunters at all. He sees signals and code in nods and looks and random phrases; he sees actors and plants, enemies and denouncers, on the streets, in hotels, on the metro and even amongst his friends and acquaintances. He is scared, highly suspicious and running, or so he thinks, for his life.
“He scanned a note signed “Yours affectionately, Evariste.” Leafed through the address book. Saw – sickeningly – a telephone number: X 11-47. The number to fear was 11-74. Numeric inversion! Inside his head suspicion exploded into certainty.”
All of this is fabulously exciting stuff. The Secret Agent, which [perhaps as a nod to Conrad] is what Serge called the first part of his novel, is top-of-the-line noir [albeit a more frantic and experimental kind of noir]; but, more than that, it is the best evocation of dread and paranoia I have ever read. Unfortunately, part two of the book is less impressive; it features Daria, who briefly appeared in part one, as she and a soldier enter a war-ruined Leningrad. Initially, the set-up is something like what you find in post-apocalyptic dystopian literature: darkness, harsh weather, crumbling buildings, deserted streets, dead bodies lying on the ground. There is an atmosphere of unreality, of dreaminess almost.
However, when Daria takes up her duties in the war effort I was less engaged; we see a return to the sardonic tone of part one, and a return of the ranting internal monologues and long philosophical passages. None of that is a problem, in fact it’s very enjoyable; the issue is that Daria, as the focus of the story, is not particularly interesting; she essentially acts a foil, as something for, firstly, the spectacle of a collapsing Leningrad and then, secondly, her superior officers to bounce off. While D is not exactly a well-developed character either, his story is at least involving and part one is very tightly plotted. Part two is the opposite, it is far less focused, although you could argue perhaps that, as it deals with chaotic war conditions, it is deliberately so.
“Each corpse was firmly tied to a sled pulled on a string by its next of kin; a new breed of resourceful specialists earned their food by sowing discarded sheets or squares of sackcloth around the remains: There, look, isn’t that nice, almost as snug as a coffin! Daria passed several such mummies on the street, rigid pods floating just above the trodden snow.”
Part three, which is, I think, the longest, is similarly unfocussed. I must admit that even though I enjoy philosophical novels, and even though the writing is still passionate and moving and intelligent, I started to lose my enthusiasm for the book at this point. Part three is set in a Berlin being razed to the ground; it mirrors, I’m sure intentionally, part two, giving you the experience of the enemy during WW2. I guess the idea is to show how war and death and suffering are not discriminating, that they can and will visit anyone. However, aside from all three parts dealing with the horror of war and wartime conditions and the horrendous behaviour of men towards other men, I’m not sure how they fit together. Part one – which might give you a misleading sense of what to expect from the book – seems to exist too independently of parts two and three and that makes reading them back to back a largely uninvolving, sometimes frustrating experience. Of course, all four parts of Unforgiving Years [yes, there’s a fourth part – but I won’t linger over that one] do connect historically, by which I mean the years and incidents they focus on or describe follow each other temporally-sequentially, but that wasn’t enough for me to feel like I was reading a novel; I felt instead as though I was reading one truly great novella followed by a series of loosely related incidents.
As with Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev [which is undoubtedly a masterpiece], Unforgiving Years is, stylistically, almost unassumingly, a modernist novel. It is easy to miss the tricks and games he plays because of the subject matter, because of the searing intelligence and passion. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness; the structure, as noted, is fractured, messy. Indeed, while one could compare the work to great Russian writers like Dostoevsky or Grossman, it most reminded me of an American: Thomas Pynchon [especially Gravity’s Rainbow]. The similarities between Unforgiving Years and Gravity’s Rainbow are numerous; both, of course, deal with war, but both are episodic, dispensing with plot and narrative and character in favour of scenes; moreover, both writers switch between these scenes abruptly, with seemingly no interest in continuity. Both, also, switch between cynical and sentimental, without batting an eyelid. Having said all that, there is something about Unforgiving Years that is unique, certainly in terms of my reading: it is, without a doubt, the most hopeless, the most pessimistic and heartbroken novel I have ever read. Everywhere Serge sees death, destruction, the collapse of civilisation. Unforgiving Years is a dreadful, despairing wail; it is Virgil’s Dido beating her breast and tearing at her face and hair.