Saturday, September 6, 2008

Masks are easier to read than faces

Yesterday I got a moment of peace from doing a good thing: passing an important and obscure writer along to a hungry mind.

I was lunching, per usual, at The Tap Room, eating at the old bar. Also as per usual, I was dividing atention between victuals, a trade paperback, and necessary phone work. At some juncture, I must have left unattended and face-up my trade paperback.

I am reading Unforgiving Years, the most recent novel by Victor Serge to appear in English. It caught the eye of a young woman waiting tables. I don't know her, but I'm well known at the old bar so she felt comfortable approaching me, or maybe she's just like that.

Hey eyes were very alive as she asked what I was reading. She said her eyes had been drawn to the book cover - dominated by the image of a giant human figure, constructed from trash, burning through with fire - and the imprint, New York Review Books.

She said, "I've read some amazing books published by them," and indeed they do have a list that looks terrific: Robert Walser, Selected Stories; They Burn the Thistles, by Yashar Kemal; a book of letters exchanged between Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

I carried on like the lunatic asked about his daydream, raving about Victor Serge and how you can't go wrong with any of his books. I could feel a slight tension between her instincts to keep the kitchen and front of the house moving along, and the urge to listen to the Victor Serge fanboy. She listened to the fanboy.

"He was the son of Russian revolutionaries, really proto-Bolsheviks. They fled for their lives, and their son was born in Belgium. He was already a serious revolutionary, an organized anarcho-syndicalist, as a teen in Paris. Did time in prison for that. Then he joined the original Bolsheviks who had led the Russian revolution. He ended up left of Trotsky in all of the tangles for leadership and got sent up the river, literally, up the Ural River - he was sent to Siberia. Ended up running for his life after he got back on the Continent and living and dying penniless in exile in Mexico. Everything he wrote is amazing, everything that survived, but he couldn't get published very easily in the capitalist world because he scorned it and because he was a dangerous revolutionary, and he couldn't get published in the institutionalized Communist world because he had been branded as a dangerous subversive there as well, for opposing Stalin and all his butchery. So he just wrote his books and put them away, and they have been gradually appearing in print. Unforgiving Years just appeared for English for the first time this year, 2008. He died in 1947."

I think that's mostly correct. Anyway, I was raving at a bar over white chile chicken chili. The lively eyed waitress wrote down the author's name, Victor Serge - I saw her do it. Victor Serge has another reader, thanks to little old me.

Victor Serge and his translators, that is, mostly Richard Greeman, who got Unforgiving Years and three other Serge novel out of French and who has done as much as anybody to keep Victor Serge's name alive. Or, really, to bring it alive.

I just finished in bed this morning the opening section of Unforgiving Years. Serge must have used the atmosphere (and, perhaps, details) of one of his escapes from a European city, since we're inside the head of a covert agent who is getting the hell out of Dodge (actually, Paris) with a web of his former colleagues in the covert action rapidly closing around him:

"Just as a magician believes in his little tricks, so D believed in secrets, ciphers, statagems, silence, masks, and in playing the game impeccably; at the same time he knew very well that secrets are sold, codes deciphered, strategems outwitted, and silences broken; that masks are easier to read than faces, that the carbon copies of dispatches lie in ministerial wastepaper baskets for the taking, and that the perfect games does not exist."

By the way, every bit of this analysis applies to St. Louis politics, right now (probably, to most political contexts in most places and times). But that's another story!

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