The Morals of the Market
Lecturer in Political Economy, University of Sydney

#6 Victor Serge and a Requiem for Paris: The Long Dusk

by Adam David Morton on November 21, 2019

Continuing with my series on Victor Serge and closing the second informal trilogy that comprises the ‘cycle of resistance’, as defined by Richard Greeman, The Long Dusk [1946] is the sixth novel translated into English. The book is extremely rare and hard to come across and one cannot wait for NYRB Classics to republish this in its Victor Serge CollectionThe Long Dusk is an adieu to Paris, France, and Europe from an assemblage of characters defined by Serge as a ‘family of stateless refugees’ facing Nazi occupied France in 1940. The constellation of characters based in Paris attempt to avoid the abyss of occupation by fleeing to Marseilles, some arriving on railway routes defined by the Paris Lyon Méditerranée Company (PLM), while others are carried by trucks loaded with ‘human potpourri’.

The Long Dusk is a prescient contemplation of the plight of stateless refugees as well as a requiem for Paris that offers further insight on the spatiality of state power. It delivers reflections on different landscapes of statehood and how the spatial form of the French state during the Vichy government extended across diverse zones, locations, places and regions. In The Long Dusk the reader is once again exposed to a narrative treatment of the territorial articulation of state space, the changing geography of state power, and the grip that forces acting in and through the state have on the subjects and agents of history.

At the start of the novel is the Hotel Marquise on the Rue du Roi-de-Naples, run by Anselme Flotte, a former Marine Corporal, and Alexandrine Flotte. The hotel is a location of stability and adventure in the heart of Paris offering its eighteen rooms to local neighbourhood sex-workers as well as a set of refugees from across Europe. The latter include Dr. Simon Ardatov, a former physician and Commissar that fought on the side of the Reds in Ukraine against the White army fleeing toward Novorossiysk and the Black Sea in 1920; Moritz Silber, a Lithuanian who had been imprisoned in Poland; Hilda, a revolutionary fleeing the concentration camps of Austria, Germany, and Valencia; the miner Jacob Kaarden; José Ortiga, exiled from Spain; the poet Karel Cherniak; Augustin Charras, awarded a Croix de Guerre in World War I, and father to Angèle; and Laurent Justinien an AWOL soldier who is also fleeing from committing the murder of Achille Tarte in the hotel.

The Hotel Marquise is part of a series of backstreets, that ‘giant cesspool’, in Paris where misery lurks beneath the ancient masonry linking it to similar spaces in the backstreets of Vilna, Cracow, Odessa, Saloniki. Here Ardatov is now working at the Information Scientifique (IS), an encyclopaedic agency preparing theses, documentary and statistical studies. At the prelude to Nazi occupation, he considers how fishermen on the Seine remain unaware of their resemblance to another faraway waterway central to the making of history. ‘They did not know’, Ardatov reflects, ‘that at this moment the Seine strangely resembled a broad distant river, the Neva, which had flowed beside other perils on certain days heavy with history. Its greenish waters, like those of the Seine today, had taken on a sombre tone, reflected a pale light, a vast expectancy’ (see ‘#3 Victor Serge and Red Petrograd: Conquered City’).

At this moment, the blanket of solemnity thrown on Paris by the presence of the German Wehrmacht is imparted:

At the end of the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe resembled a monument in a cemetery . . . The Place Vendôme and the Avenue de l’Opéra were almost deserted. A dull light hovered over the asphalt. No lovers waiting outside the opera, no newspaper calls, no distracted gentlemen absorbed in slyly watching the passing girls; no businessmen, with potbellies and the stooped shoulders of domesticated apes, commenting on the stock quotations. Nothing. This desert preserved a cold elegance of geometry, the nobility of a Paris despoiled of its agitated daily life, a Paris as sovereign as an exalted idea. There remained only the vertical planes of the house fronts, the horizontal planes of the street, distributed light and shadow, and the transparency of evening falling upon these lines and spaces.

Here Ardatov states, ‘“I have seen beneath this decanted light, equally naked, the Winter Palace Square in Petrograd in 1919, the Plaza de Cataluña in Barcelona in 1939. And other men will see the Schlossplatz in Berlin, the Red Square in Moscow, the Graben in Vienna, equally naked”’.

Soon thereafter, with the swastika flag flying over the Palais Bourbon, the refugee characters begin their departure from Paris to the ‘Free Zone’ and leave behind them the empty spaces of silence, the plane surfaces of the streets, the deserted and great spaces of nothingness.

At this stage the novel shifts its requiem for Paris, from the scalar articulation of space in the city, to a wider requiem for France and the scalar geography of the state. On the refugee road the characters travel across France with the novel tracing their experiences heading for the ‘Free Zone’. Here the last revolutionaries of defeated revolutions (Ardatov), the last socialists of banned parties (Hilda), and the last republicans of strangled republics (José Ortiga) meet their fellow travellers in the form of the last parliamentarians of discredited parliaments and the last idealists of an optimistic and scientific century. Across the roads of France – from wounded Champagne, to the orchards of Normandy, the plains of Bauce, the gentle and bloody banks of the Somme, the mountains of Auvergne, the tranquility of Provence, the forests of Dordogne, the deserted Landes, and the cafés of Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille, and the azure shore of the Mediterranean – the movement of human ants weaves towards an unknown escape.

Within this landscape, a number of inmates in La Saulte prison plan their escape against the backdrop of collapse and exodus more generally. The Marxist Kurt Seelig, expelled from the party, rubs shoulders with the shadowy Soviet agent Willi Bart and contemplates the course of modern capitalist development and its spatial order. The architectural creations of the early twentieth century showed semblances of hope and wonderment. But the great railway stations, the sumptuous banks, the heights of the skyscrapers, the giant factories have simply come to amplify the rationalisation and alienation of human life by machines, the market, and money. As Seelig declares:

The true style of the present era is that of the concentration camp . . . The concentration camps of Russia and Germany are masterpieces of organisation of a type hitherto unknown in history. The White Sea Camp embraces a country vaster than Belgium or Holland together, with fisheries, industries, laboratories, aerodromes, model prisons, schools, recreation and execution centres. In the Third Reich, Dachau and Oranienburg were conceived in accordance with the scientific principles governing the storage conditioning and destruction of human beings, that is to say, the strictest economy in the pursuit of these aims on a large scale . . . The torture chambers are equipped like operating rooms; the cremating oven is not far away, and urns for the ashes, of suitable size for mailing, are provided for mass production. Barbed wire of modest appearance is traversed by high-tension currents; projectors placed by geometricians surround the human herd with terrifying beams of light. Note that concentration camps are being imposed little upon little upon the whole of Europe . . . Are industrialised societies going to become immense rationalised prisons?

The fate of the refugees at the hands of the state’s spatial ordering of power and geography is highly mixed and the narrative can be strongly linked to Serge’s own departure from Europe. Staying in the tumbledown château, known as “Villa Espervisa” with notables such as Max Ernst and André Breton, and then lodging at the Hôtel de Rome in Marseille with the Gestapo and the Sûrete forces keeping watch, Serge awaited his own exit while the poets Walter Hasenclever and Walter Benjamin committed suicide. As Serge states in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary [1942/3]: ‘The Battle of the Visas . . . would stand some description: a single escape would provide material for a book of Balzacian proportions, packed with unexpected incidents and dark happenings behind the scenes’.

Serge’s own ‘hope for a visa’ was eventually fulfilled with him and his son Vladimir (Vlady) Kibalchich departing on the steamship Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, passing Spanish waters, anchoring at Casablanca harbour, and then journeying to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and lastly to their final residing destination in Mexico.

The battle of the visas in The Long Dusk unfolds in Marseille with the very word visa either bringing cures to asthma, heart trouble, neuroses, and suicidal tendencies, or wreaking devastation, disease, and distress through unknown psychoses. Moritz Silber, holding an Ecuadorian visa, is detained and jailed. José Ortiga is arrested and convicted to work on the Trans-Saharan Railroad. Kurt Seelig is captured and imprisoned in Casablanca. Karel Cherniak commits suicide at the Dent des Roches looking out across the Golfe du Lion, throwing himself into the foaming see and ‘crystalline space’ with his two arms thrust out like atrophied wings.

Simon Ardatov has to accelerate his plans to flee France following the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact in 1941 that increased the suspicion of Russian subjects in Marseille. He obtains, along with Hilda, a United States visa as a political refugee. Passing the coasts of Spain, the arid landscape of Africa, both Ardatov and Hilda are aboard a steamer heading for the Americas. ‘The enormous rock of Gibraltar opened an ocean, closed a convulsed continent. The Pillars of Hercules. It might have been a fantastic tombstone’. Yet the shadowy Soviet agent Willi Bart is also aboard the same steamship. With Ardatov at the end of the deck one evening, ‘standing at the edge of space’, watching the wake of the ship, he meets his deadly fate.

Meanwhile, Augustin Charras moves to the hamlet of Aubelac with his daughter Angèle, Jacob Kaarden, and Laurent Justinien residing in the farmhouse called Citadel One Hundred, or The Refuge. The book closes with reference to the death-like forms of the refugees departing Aubelac and Augustin Charras contemplating the cold like body of France. The requiem for Paris is concluded.

Paris appeared to him as a city of the dead, bereaved house-fronts pierced by windows that were hideous black rectangles with glacial wind blowing through them. The Seine reflected nothing, as though there were no more sky. A music of fifes and drums blew in gusts over the murdered city.

But just as this requiem for Paris is about to end, there is space and light at the end of the novel, ‘under a yellow sun that was beginning to distill a feeble warmth’. For the novel ends with the epitaph, ‘. . . but nothing is ended’. Thus closes this rumination on the flight and plight of the political refugee forged through the scalar articulations of state operations and the continuous spatial restructuring and configuration of state power.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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