The weather remains amazingly mild here – registering 14 on the short motorway over the Balkans on Sunday as I drove down to Sofia although the city itself was 9 at 14.00.
For the past week I have been gripped by powerful descriptions of Europe in the first part of the century through the eyes of two writers who, in very different ways, brought the freshness of an outsider’s perspective to the various worlds they found themselves in
First the amazing Viktor Serge, born in Brussels at the end of the 19th century, knew grinding poverty as an unschooled (and imprisoned) anarchist and was allowed to join the Bolsheviks in 1917 and paints a memorable picture in Memoirs of a Revolutionary of life in those years. As one of the few individuals with western networks he played an important administrative role in the organisation of the various Communist International Conferences in the early 1920s but was too critical ever to be accepted and experienced various imprisonments and exiles.
With his literary gifts, psychological insight and proximity to key players, Serge is one of the greatest chroniclers of Europe’s socialist revolutions, and he offers a unique perspective. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he combined political conviction with a willingness to face the contradictions and failures of the Russian Revolution. Of the mid-1920s, he writes, “None of us had, in the bourgeois sense of the word, any personal existence: we changed our names, our postings, and our work at the Party’s need…we were not interested in making money, or following a career, or producing a literary heritage, or leaving a name behind us; we were interested solely in the difficult business of reaching Socialism.” But he also writes of his horror when, having escaped to Belgium in 1936 and seen the shop windows full of ham, chocolate and fresh fruit, he understood that socialism had failed to provide for the most basic material needs of the people. When his hopes were disappointed, he didn’t deny reality; he described it.Though Serge believed that individual existences were of interest only as part of the “great ensemble of life,” he placed considerable importance on personality, observing that “the character, and even in certain cases the direction, of historical facts depends to a very large extent on the calibre of individual human beings.” His memoirs are full of incisive sketches of important figures. Of Trotsky in the early 1920s, for instance, Serge wrote, “No one ever wore a great destiny with more style.” The people Serge describes are not bronze icons, but flesh and blood.
His writings are only now coming available - eg here and here; and his role in the wider anarchist movement set out here; and here.
The second, completely different, author is Christabel Bielenberg who came from a very privileged Anglo-Irish family but found herself as a young woman married to a German living in Nazi Germany for almost 15 years. The Past is Myself gives a very unusual outsider’s take on Germany of that time.
And then, by way of contrast, a third book on contemporary Siberia - Silverland; a journey beyond the Urals by the remarkable traveller Dervla Murphy. Vastly underrated as a writer, this 2007 book gives us great vignettes of people met on her train and bus journeys in freezing Siberia in the early 2000s – and the sort of life people lead in this remote region. Also good historical background – and strong opinions about the policy nonsenses of western systems. A unique blend this octogenarian gives us - and there is a nice interview with her here.
All three books are examples of the insights good prose written by thoughtful outsiders can give us.