Excerpts From the Notebooks

Victor Serge

Illustration by Emily S. Franklin

The Old Harbour

Marseille, winter 1940–1941—Alleys gray during the day, darkened at night, bedecked with washing hung from windows in every direction. Narrow and slimy, stone exuding poverty, lovely old town houses turned lairs with cave-like entryways (sculpted portals on the rue de la Prison). Stench. Pizza places, Greek, Russian, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants. On the rue de la Bouterie gloomy bordellos, Black Cat, Magdeleine, Lucy, doors locked against the rush of sailors, notices in several languages. At the bottom of the alley the splendid light of the port, the spindly masts, the distant Notre-Dame de la Garde on the amber-hued rock, the blue of the sky.

An Annamite or Chinese procession—funeral? festival?—passes through the rain under banners of cloth and colored paper. Trotting, thin and yellow faces of coolies, shrewd and sad.

One night, total darkness, wet streets, Algerians (Kabyles) in white turbans, khaki uniforms, wander the alleys in groups, seeking light and women, and finding nothing in the light but some sordid, stranded streetwalkers and in the dark a few worn-out, disheveled women, shimmering and pale, starving, who seem to smell of the dampness of the stones and the rot of the garbage. These great wandering devils with sunken eyes.

A harshly illuminated alley, dreadful food, fruits, nuts, crowds. Doors with bead curtains hanging. Swarming brats. Africans stagnating on the edge of the sidewalks.

A lively square, beautiful old houses, baths, the church below the hospital. We enter to see the Easter crèche, with all its tiny figures who work, saw wood, hammer at the forge, etc. For twenty sous, the crèche figures start to move.



March 24, 1941—Hotel de Rome, the room a total mess. Around 9:00 taxi. Farewell to the streets: Canebière, Cours Saint-Louis, Poste Colbert. You go downstairs and receive a letter from Labin. The harbor, long wait in front of the fence. Simone Weil, in her loden cape, hunched, long hair, her eyes gray, intelligent, and a bit mad. Daniel Bénédite, Paul Schmierer, Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, bistro with the Bretons.

Shed 7, Pinède. Enormous, filthy stable. Standing around, long wait, document controls, lines. Your presence, us, confident, sure of ourselves, unaware of the separation. Your courage.

Embarkation. You, Jean Gemähling, Dina Vierny on the dock, red flowers in their hands. How lovely, brave, gay you are. Final moments: us in the bows, standing under the wooden construction, your radiant and sad smile, Jean’s sad air. Your little blue coat with its squared shoulders that made my heart leap when I lost hope waiting for you at Lilas and you came out of the metro. I gaze through a mist, I clench my teeth. Unforgettable. Saddened. We move away from the high hull of the Florida, which separates us.

Happy that Vlady is here, tall and solid; happy for him that he’ll discover the world. I would like to stay. You.

Behind us people unwrap tinned foods and set to eating. A gentleman grooms a magnificent red cat in a basket (which in three days will throw itself into the sea).

Having left at 1:30, for a long while we watch Marseille fade into the distance, Notre-Dame de la Garde, the ferry, our memories. Evening gently gilded, thoughts of your solitude, I stifle the urge to collapse. “Be strong—be hard—I’ll carry on—but really it’s hard.”



March 25, 1941—We negotiate with the sailors for cabins; they rent theirs, 1,500 francs a head, space in a collective cabin. These seamen think only of exploiting the flood of refugees. Not a single gesture of solidarity toward a woman, an elderly person. “A bunch of bastards,” Breton says. The head baker who traffics in bread and food is a former Communist candidate for the Chamber of Deputies. Among the passengers quite a few skilled intellectuals, a ninety-year-old Viennese urologist, a small, intelligent man (but when he falls asleep on his chaise longue, his mouth hanging open, he looks dead). A sharp mind, interested in everything.

7:00 a.m., mild sun, we leave the cloudy and snow-covered Pyrenees behind us. The green plain of Figueras: so many dead beneath that grass. Figueras of defeat, a gentle, peaceful landscape, green hills. Small Catalonian cities on the water’s edge. The coast flies by like a dream, real and unreal. High, verdant hills, castles on the summits. A large, square castle of red brick, flanked by a gray surrounding wall spreading down the slope, Castelldefels. A former POUM militiaman, nothing left but bone and nerve, with the hard face of a diseased miner (concentration camps in Germany, then front lines in Spain, prisons, and camps again in Spain and France), explains to me that this was the prison and the torture center of the International Brigades. Probably a Francoist prison now.

Waiting for Barcelona, landscapes flying past. Around 2:00, Barcelona. The four smokestacks of the electric plant visible first. The whole city gradually emerges under a light, bright mist, stretched across the length of the gulf. The gray towers of the Sagrada Familia; I remember them as phallic from close up, but from this distance they put one in mind of grieving hands raised in the air. The Christopher Columbus column can be seen clearly, the Customs Palace and the Gobernación near the port, the cathedral, the San Jaime tower. Montjuic in the foreground. The flat lines of the pink brick citadel; the rock, steep when viewed from the coast, appears to be composed of gentle slopes when viewed from the sea. Fog over the background of the city. I believe I can make out the Rambla de Flores, broad and gray, probably trees whose leaves have fallen. The Spaniards look on, tense. Thought of defeated men. Mental prayer. It’s here that I must say farewell to Europe while making the commitment to return. Not adieu, but au revoir. I attempt to write a poem, can’t make it work. Too much feeling, too many thoughts; all deaths appear contemptible. Inspiration missing, I feel hard and lucid, confident as well, all of this clear, neither fever nor joy. (Perhaps a secret joy is needed to write a poem, even in the depths of suffering?)

As night falls we reach the mouth of the Ebro. Somewhere on the heights, in the sierra, a huge blaze—probably a forest fire. Calm sea, twilight despondency, absences. Thought of defeat.

March 26, 1941—Morning, the coast near Valencia. Steep, craggy coastline, mountains in the background. Little towns in the valleys and inlets. A rare fishing boat. No ships. No activity on the coast until this point, neither cars nor trains. In a precipitous valley, hard against the sea, a dreary factory hard at work. No men can be seen, and it’s better that way. The tall, gray chimneys spit out their dense smoke in the solitude between the rocks, the sky, and the sea. Glorious solitudes, arid red rocks of Cap de la Nau.

Landscape of ruins, a vast enclosure, half-destroyed towers on the heights overlooking the sea. Below is a fishing village. Here stood Sagonte. Valencia, vast gray agglomeration.

Increasingly rare signs of life, bare rocks, sheer, dry slopes cut up into harsh ridges, mountains in the background. Desertlike Spain infinitely sad. This must make men hard.

(Yesterday, the gigantic rocks of Montserrat glowing red in the distance, in the heart of Catalonia.)

(Yesterday at 1:15, in front of Cap de la Nau, a citadel on the edge of the sea, a forgotten little town, feeling of oblivion, solitude all around. Ship alongside the little jetty. The cape is an upright spur of rocks with a flat profile jutting out into the sea. An enormous block surmounts it, massive as the back of a beast, and these gray rocks suddenly display orangish tones.)

We lean forward, Vlady and I, over the bow slicing through the sea. The wind takes our breath away. To the right, mountains fall abruptly, peaks sharp as knives. The earth’s motionless violence. We see the sun’s rays penetrate the waters, perpendicular, pearly, and they seem to have a kind of shadow.



March 27, 1941—Oran. Smooth sea, liquid silk. These Algerian coasts less savage, less harsh. In spots the sea as green as the Danube and the line ending the blue waters is visible a few hundred meters from the shore.

Oran: pile of modern buildings of no interest. Our civilization, mighty and impoverished. Heaps of people in heaps of masonry busying themselves with what? With holding on or with making money. The essential concern with the salvation of the soul (Christian Middle Ages) has been lost, the grandeur of the world and of life has not been discovered en masse. A barbaric castle drawn all in straight lines looks down on the port from a pyramid-shaped mountain. Gardens, dull suburbs spread out like an amphitheater. Small harbor. Kabyles and Arabs in rags slaving away; Frenchmen, uniformed and civilian, strolling by. Beautiful rags, beautiful heads, beautiful brown musculature, much savagery underneath. These men, driven to savagery by semi-slavery. Up close much violent ugliness.

Only the French go ashore; we are prisoners on board. Reflections on the absurdity of xenophobia in a people with a low birth rate, bled by two wars, which has more than a million of its people in various foreign countries, and at home is dependent on foreign labor. A people of heterogeneous origins and that certainly owes the richness of its temperament, the varied aspects of its intelligence, to this composite origin. Reactionary nationalism, the reflexive reaction of decrepitude.

The Sidi-Mabrouk is being loaded. Ant-men coming and going beneath their burdens. The Gouverneur-Général Cambon pulls out, assisted by two tugs.

André [Breton]’s impressions: Mediocre French provincial city. Crushing poverty of the Arabs. They hold out their hands, show you the six sous they have, look at you with severity . . . Dignified. We add two sous. On a street downtown, twenty or so Arabs, among them veiled women in white, gathered around a garbage pail. The women beautiful behind their veils. A triangle-shaped cutout for the eyes. Many are streetwalkers. Little merchandise in the stores. They refuse to change French 500-franc bills.

Arabs come to unload the merchandise. Very expressive faces with a variety of deformities, but a few pure types, surprising in their nobility. Extreme hideousness, large mouths with crushed lips revealing yellow teeth, flat noses, husky and guttural voices. Miserable beings. Simian hands, long, spindly, flexible, and black, are excellent prehensile tools. The white man’s hand has lost its strength: degenerated. The docker’s gesture of two raised hands takes on extraordinary significance. But, what?—To think that the French live with these men almost without seeing them. Inhuman, this, and very dangerous.

A lovely sunset, the sky aflame above the castle, a gentle blaze. It is as impossible to write this as to remember it correctly or to see it well. One sees, one lives intensely, but not everything, for the poem changes from moment to moment and it is so immense that it can’t all be taken in. Across from us, a rocky coast, all red. The water gray silk, pink, with hints of blue. Background light blue under the flame. An absolute sadness grows through this vision and it is the approach of night.

Night. The spears of the searchlights hunt the skies for a little silver fish that’s said to be a plane, perhaps British. Someone is playing a harmonica in the dormitory. Beneath a weak bulb I read Leon Davidovich [Trotsky]. Some men are playing cards next door, swearing and spitting. Suddenly the memory: window on the Cours Saint-Louis; tea, the evening, and you came and sat at my knees, your eyes. What are you doing now? Heartbreaking awareness of being carried along by a wind. Yet available and confident. That dust in the wind smells strongly.

The Big Dipper at the zenith in the shape of a question mark. The Northern Lights shine softly.

Barcelona and all the dead, the poem won’t come. It’s there in my head, but it feels itself so stunted, it struggles so weakly to find itself that . . . Deliberated: despite everything the solutions of courage are the best. Feeling of captivity on this floating concentration camp, with its stinking hold. Absurdity of a motionless boat in the shelter of a harbor. To be outbound, launched onto the sea, justifies all.

March 29, 1941—Did I do the right thing in agreeing to this separation from Laurette and Jeannine? The distance grows with every turn of the propeller. Can we ever know what a separation is, what a separation will be? The comfort of thinking of Laurette’s eyes when she was encouraging me to leave. Temptation of the petty, submissive life with its guaranteed warmth—which we believe to be guaranteed but isn’t, or which evaporates. One drowns oneself in it. Forge ahead.

The coasts of Spanish Morocco are bare. Jagged contours, not completely arid. From afar the delicate vegetation gives the impression of moss on stones at our feet. Uninhabited, not desertlike. Elongated lines, delicate as African musculature. Coastal erosions with hints of richly colored sand sketch the forms of veiled women. We admire them along with André.

The long, supple, and craggy lines of the countryside put me in mind of slender blacks, full of the life force they aren’t aware of, with smooth and scorched skin. Style of the land and man. Illusion? I gaze on the land, I consider this, and it seems to me that it’s true.

March 30, 1941—Mist on the sea, gray seas in the evening, it could be the Baltic, which I’ve seen sunnier. The Rif coast. A country made for fighting with fierceness, with love, an elevated way of feeling oneself to be alive.

Melilla, city of no interest, on a bay. Franco set out from here. Farther on, the bare heights of the coast are sprinkled with bushes and they have animal-like shapes. Mountain with panther skin.

We are in a convoy of five ships. The one escorting the other four is a comical tub of the “wartime navy,” a filthy trawler covered in rust and armed with a few small cannon. Long wait off the coast not far from Melilla. Signals. The war tub circles around us. Toward evening, in the rain, we pull out again in the opposite direction. It’s said that difficulties have arisen in Gibraltar.

The night having fallen I contemplate the lights of the ships sailing parallel to us. Stars, my familiar sky already turned upside down. Taurus draws a perpendicular V below the zenith. The Pleiades clearly visible. They served as my guide on snowy nights when returning from Orenpossad. I pointed them out to Laurette on the road to Air-Bel. Saturn and Jupiter are visible above the crescent moon. These visages of the heavens are totally indefinable. I hope there will be a time when men will have a deeper, more consistently intimate relationship with them. I’ve not yet seen the nebulae, all I know is that they exist, and I can barely guess at that of Orion. Most men today live without seeing the universe above their heads and which they could see. The gentle sea, ever in movement and moving. One is so full of thoughts that they are no longer thoughts, but rather waves and winds of the spirit. It rains off and on. Neither sad nor fearful, tense, and of your presence.

We pass by small, bare granitic isles, the Chafarines, Spanish Morocco, where there is a lighthouse, and behind the lighthouse a cottage with an illuminated window.



March 31, 1941—The Wirtschaftsemigranten [economic refugees], on the lookout for the best places, have installed themselves between the central deck and the boiler, Jews with money. They rent the cabins of the crew, stuff themselves, hang out with the staff, mingle only with each other, distrust everyone, play cards, read Clochemerle. We call this corner the Champs-Elysées and invade it in part because it is sheltered from the wind and the sun. They give us dirty looks. Shit.

The forward section is more densely populated but maintains a chic tone because of a group of filmmakers and well-dressed emigrants with cash who put on airs as if they were at a café on the Left Bank. (There are no banks anywhere.)

The upper deck, which is not really a deck but a kind of roof encumbered by lifeboats, is occupied by the Lams, the Bretons, and Vlady. Jacqueline sunbathes almost completely nude and scorns the universe which, by ignoring her, vexes her. Hélène Lam takes care of Wilfredo, who is ill, the ganglia of his throat swollen; he’s sad, stretched out on a blanket with his head in his wife’s lap. His eyes of an aged Sino-Negro child are full of animal desolation. But he’s doing better. I sometimes climb up, and from there you can see the whole ship, the whole sea. It’s Montparnasse.

At the stern of the ship, unplaned wooden tables under tarps, above the gangways that descend into the hold. Washbasins where René Schickele’s daughter does her laundry while telling me about Walter Benjamin’s suicide in Cerbère in October 1940 after a failed attempt to cross the border without a visa. Several friends had succeeded, he failed, and his nerves went. He sent his last manuscripts to Switzerland. On board ship we have a remarkable essay he wrote on Baudelaire. On one side, deck chairs, a kind of stable; on the other, horrible collective toilets of unpainted wood erected on the deck. Ropes, tools, brats, laundry, half-naked men at the rail shaving, ladies stretched out on their deck chairs in the sun, our German group of the IRA studies English and discusses Marxism. The Stalinists, in small secret meetings around Kantorowicz and his wife, both of them thin, with sharp profiles, wrinkled faces, and gazes both harsh and fleeting. Noisy and gay Spaniards. It’s like Belleville.

In the bow, our German friends and their kids are going to set up a kindergarten, it’ll be like a little corner of a square in Wedding that we will call Rosa Luxemburg Square.

The apolitical refugees are afraid of the politicals, whom they respect as dangerous people and scorn as people without money. The castoffs of Europe on a drifting wreck. Not much politeness, instead boorishness, battles over places at meals, battles over tables in the fresh air amid the congestion on the deck, where we eat. Every man for himself. André, always noble and impassive looking—though he finds all this horrific—repeats: “We’re quite a bunch of bastards,” and doesn’t hide that he’d be much happier at Les Deux Magots. I rescued a touching old bourgeois couple from the crush of people. The man, with a round head and glasses, chubby and steeped in various forms of respect—for self and others—explains to me that he is an Austrian Catholic banker protected by the Vatican who emigrated to Brazil. “And you?” What should I say to him? “I’m a friend of Mr. Trotsky’s?” His eyes widen: “Ah!” But he’ll continue to be polite and to ask me for advice, for he is traveling with two passports and wants to know which one he should use in this or that circumstance. Another couple just like them, but less chubby, showing signs of exhaustion, German shopkeepers, personal friends of Einstein . . .

In the women’s hold, children’s games, shouts, chamber pots, the odors of a human herd. The men’s hold in the evening, dimly lighted, has the appearance of a barracks in a concentration camp. We drag this atmosphere around with us, for it is part of our era. Two decks of plank beds. Women and their husbands isolate themselves behind a curtain of blankets. Men play cards and curse in Flemish. A young urbane Jew who knows all the world’s brothels and casinos, from Shanghai to Moscow, and who says that he’s “not interested in politics,” takes a magnificent roulette wheel from his valise and starts up a game. Cautious, the emigrants only want to gamble matches and the game doesn’t last long. I think of the swindlers with their marked cards who would visit the yurts of Samoyed hunters in the Russian north and Siberia at the end of the fur-selling season. The sharp little swindler on the raft of the shipwrecked. The Chinese cook with his smooth, thin face watches the ball roll between the red and the black. I say to André:

“What if the Zaporog Cossacks were to write to the Grand Turk?”

Rotten fish of Salonika . . . ”

But who is the Grand Turk of today? There are too many—and André doesn’t know which way to turn. He promenades his noble head through this crowd with an ironic and serious air. A young man sets to playing a beautiful, all-white harmonica. I go to bed with your shadow.


Nemours, Algeria

April 1, 1941—Will we get through Gibraltar? Rumors, hopes, fears. The sea and the sky give me confidence, and seeing everyone else so alarmed, I would be so ashamed to be alarmed plus I’m full of optimism.

The sea and the sky blend the blues and grays of liquid silk, but all realities are made of light. Boats in the distance on this calm, rippling sea that doesn’t shimmer. Marquet accurately rendered this bottomless clarity in his painting of the Bay of Naples, which is in the Morozov Gallery in Moscow, I believe.

At sea, coastline of Spanish Morocco

April 2, 1941—The coast is low and mountainous, gullied in all directions by the rains, in places well cultivated. Reddish rocks and green slopes, sandy banks to the sea, the backdrop rounded like the backs of beasts. The land is violet and blue in the morning mist. Around noon it’s illuminated, even though the sky is cloudy, and it gathers together a mass of pink, rust, ochre, dark green, light green tones, somber touches of distant rocks, all of it full of life, almost carnal, sculpted by the waters. One can see that the earth is alive. It’s astonishing that men haven’t sufficiently realized this obvious fact and constructed a religion out of it.

André complains to the captain about the insufficient food. The well-to-do passengers, who are fed by the Chinese cook, disapprove. Indignation of the ship’s crew (very well fed) who threaten certain passengers with imprisonment in Casablanca and announce they’re going to close the storeroom and stop selling bread. These seamen are xenophobic, mercenary, boorish. No working-class spirit, not a sliver of human solidarity.

André’s impressions of Nemours: an administrative stage set made out of papier-mâché. Banks three stories tall, overwhelming. No Arabs, or almost none. Squalid boredom, a corner of dead France in a killed Africa. Bistros of the suburbs of Nowheresville. All of this baking under a horrific sun. Officers, an air force colonel. Feeling of uninhabitability, uselessness, torrid tedium. Dirty postcards and five books in the window of the stationery-bookstore: Monna Vanna, Ubu Chained, and a Treatise on Flagellation. They must have taken Jarry for a specialist in perversions.

Two days ago, in the morning, while we were navigating in this area, a British warship pursuing a French convoy was fired on from the fortress and fired on it in return. Up there, in the fort on the edge of the green fields, a few men were killed: men who certainly had no idea of what was going on and who’ll never again play belotte or make love with the moukères . . . Consequently, this halt in our voyage.

April 3, 1941—Morning, eleventh day out, we pass the Straits of Gibraltar. The Rock silhouetted in light gray in the distance. The lovely land of Spain, white Algeciras in a green inlet. Silhouettes of English cruisers, an aircraft carrier. The Moroccan coast is wild, bristling with red rocks.

(In Nemours the red jacket of a young woman glimpsed in town. You. An unknown woman.)

Around 11:00 we pass Tangiers, a white, well-constructed city; opulent, buildings and villas on the edge of the sea, verdant hills. An airy spot, fertile fields. Great trading post of mercantile civilization, now collapsing. Comfortable.

Wind, sun, clouds; we’re cold, we’re burned. The Atlantic greets us with placid waves that cause the ship to rock so much that we can’t walk or write. This rocking of the world brings on reveries. A reverie almost without an object, profound and poignant. Difficult to concentrate. I’m face to face with an immense “Why?”

At sea, opposite the Rif, a fishing boat with a strange black sail, a poor boat for hard work. Aboard, men in blue overalls. They wave at us and give us the clenched fist salute. We answer back. I don’t like this salute, but I give it with immense joy.

Stormy sea, clouds, milky light over the Atlantic. The Moroccan coast fades away and becomes flat. One would think one was in the Bay of Bothnia in the off season.

How hard it is to think and remember in this tête-à-tête with the sea. (The discomfort has much to do with this, since on a comfortable boat one escapes this tête-à-tête.)

April 4–5, 1941—Early in the morning, Casablanca. Huge harbor, flat city, modern buildings. The formidable, unfinished Jean Bart, painted ochre yellow, resembles a bizarre feudal castle. Square tower, smokestack at a right angle, massive steel construction.

Blacks and Arabs, quite a few handsome subjects under their rags, wander along the docks, offering themselves to shop for us and rob us. Some steal shamelessly, others are honest. Perhaps the same ones, after all. They earn ten sous on a hundred sous of merchandise, but when given a fifty-franc bill they don’t return, and the naive lady who trusted them with the bill is saddened by the thought of human wickedness, as if the black man wasn’t right to hold on to the treasure that fell into his hands. Encounter with a young naval officer, braided, chic, 100 percent reactionary, polished as a prison gate. All the foreigners remain captive on board. “Gentlemen, we are at war.” Him and us, to be sure.

The little we see of the city from the ship reveals it to be large, wealthy, modern. Constructed in thirty years. City of a plutocracy. Breton walked through the whole town: “Nonexistent,” he says. “So bourgeois it makes you want to vomit.”

Visits from friends: a young Italian socialist, a Freemason, a French socialist. Immediate warmth and mutual understanding—let’s talk frankly, eh? and quickly . . . We speak of possible perspectives. They are waiting. People are spineless but are beginning to understand.

Received two telegrams and one letter from Laurette. I won’t read the letter for a few hours in order to have the joy of waiting for that joy.

As we pull out, the city covered in light, laid out on flat and fertile lands, is gilded by the setting sun. Cruisers, submarines . . . Our exaltation. Finally, the real departure: a whole ocean to cross.

April 6, 1941—The letters received, those provisions for the journey. We are going along the Moroccan coast, low sand dunes. Edge of the desert. In the distance the white peaks, jagged and tormented, of the Atlas. And then the coastline rises, we follow the heights beyond which the Atlas floats, pure, inaccessible, tragically pure in the void.

The weather is lovely, the ship moves forward into the dazzle on a sea of wide, green waves. In fifteen hours only one small town on the coast, two or three church or mosque towers on the edge of the sea, amid the aridity, Mogador. A halo of sun envelops us. Africa is barren, blazing.

Toward evening, bluffs spotted with bushes like leopard skins. Africa has both its own style of landscape and its own style of life. Above these hills the sky is of two superimposed tones, turquoise blue and translucent pink. The stars pierce through. Squatting on the coils of rope we listen to a Viennese militant talk about the underground movement in Austria under the dictatorship.

Conversation with Claude Lévi-Strauss, who draws me the portrait of the police chiefs of São Paolo, Brazil. “They are two madmen. One takes himself for a noble of old lineage and collects princely tableware, autographs of important people, or, lacking that, of their secretaries, as long as there is a coat of arms on the paper (a safe). The other has invented a classification of criminals based on types of animals: dog-men, cat-men, lizard-men, parrot-men! All of this with ultramodern laboratory material . . . ” We concur that this may not be as mad as all that, at least on a plane other than that of criminology.

Calm sea. Germany and Italy declare war on Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs declare they’re going on the offensive.

April 7, 1941—The entire day we followed the coast of the Moroccan Sahara and the Rio d’Oro from a distance of eight hundred or a thousand meters. I find this name quite lovely: in these deserts it perfectly expresses the total sterility of gold and its luminous splendor. For hours, into the infinite distance, there’s an unchanging landscape which I never grow tired of, which intoxicates me. Absolute solitude. One sees the world without beings. A sandy coast, steep then flat, assailed by white wavelets. Above, bare crests in the desert seem to form long, flat islands, their rims abruptly broken off by abrupt slopes. Nothing but the rust color of petrified sand with wrinkles and cracks. Not a bush, not a sign of life for hundreds of kilometers. No altitude: these entablatures of sandy stones can’t be more than a hundred meters high. Some of them resemble cones cut off above the base. All these lines of the universe are horizontal and nearly straight. The sea, spread out with barely a ripple, a liquid mirror beneath which pass broad, gentle movements. Tatters of elongated clouds fade into the desert sky, whose emptiness they disturb. The ship advances through a ceaseless glare. At dusk the Saharan dunes take on tones of pastel, gold, pink, light gray, mauve.

Nightfall. A few feeble lights on the coast: Cape Juby. Off the coast, motionless, a mysterious black vessel. Run aground? Ally? Enemy? Phantom? Orion’s trapeze sways toward the mildness in the middle of the heavens, exactly as I saw it glimmer in the deep diamond-studded cold of certain nights in Central Asia.

April 8, 1941—Two kilometers away all day, the coasts of the Sahara. The flat desert, the naked earth anterior to the creation of life. Until now, in the face of these landscapes, I’ve felt that the earth is alive and that our life is nothing but a fragment of its life. Not here: this is the cosmic world, more foreign than the firmament to any life.

Fringed sea. Sun at the zenith; it’s burning hot; in the shade it’s cold. The ship has become a universe. The eyes grow tired of these emptied sights, it’s as if one had been delivered up to the inhuman.

Onboard: the cooks kill a steer and bleed it on the deck, in the middle of a circle of children, between the stinking men’s and women’s toilets (which are obviously no longer either gentlemen’s or ladies’). A mother takes her little girl to see this. A sailor drinks the animal’s hot blood and wipes his face with the back of his hand. “It makes you strong.” He has a small head and a large mouth. His eyes are as dark as nail heads. The steer’s hide remains on the deck, a strange sight: the skin, its head emptied of its contents, alongside a small heap of viscera of strange, dark colors. In the evening the gutted animal is hung among the stars in the moonlight.

Thought about the remains of men on battlefields and that prayers for the dead were a generous, exalting invention.

Bustle at mealtime. A gentleman strolls about more or less naked, fat, porcine, hairy, with flabby breasts tanned by the sun. He’s wearing only a third of a pair of striped dress slacks, cut off above the knees. Around his neck a thin silver chain with a medal of the Virgin hangs into his chest hairs. He’s a Spanish or Austrian Catholic.

André waxes indignant: “Grotesque meat,” he says. And he takes refuge on the uppermost deck to read The Laws of Chance.

In the evening, sudden case of the blues. Should I have left? Shouldn’t I have tried to hold out at whatever cost? It’s in Europe that life will begin again with unimaginable explosions. I write to Laurette. Difficulty, impossibility of saying.

The Nazis attack Yugoslavia, Marburg, Privalie, bomb Belgrade. I recall the Yugoslav border in Carinthia where I wandered with my backpack, spied on in the mountains by intelligent birds who, in order to observe me, flew past me with tiny wing beats and seemed to be asking: What are you doing among our thickets? At the summit of the Karawanken Mountains appeared green fields and villages, aerial cities that were perhaps happy. I wrote:

Calmed by a smile
of inaccessible glory
the fierce firs’ attack
on the mountaintops
is nothing but immobility
Nothing more than life.

Motorized columns are now passing through these sites, rolling toward towns similar to our Russian towns . . .

April 9, 1941—At the latitude of Villa Cisneros we head in the direction of America. Region of trade winds, foggy weather.

Encountered onboard Doctor S., member of the Tunisian Grand Council. We talk of the war, and he takes me to his corner cabin, obtained at great cost. “I promise you’re going to see something marvelous!” He unveils a small painting, in fact quite lovely, a recumbent woman dressed in warm blues: it’s a Manet, the portrait of the painter’s wife, dated 1873, bought in Algiers secondhand for “five hundred francs, can you imagine!” Five hundred francs, five thousand, or five million, I don’t give a damn, but to buy, to save a painting, to take joy in this, to save a moment of its soul at the moment when the great ship “Civilization” risks sinking straight to the bottom with all its Sistines and its Curie laboratories is good, Doctor, is splendid! We drink a glass of cognac—almost friends.

Nothing but ocean. A Spanish fishing boat, bare, sails smoky gray . . . For long instants it is difficult to tear oneself away from the absorbing, even intoxicating, contemplation of the movement of the waves, movement without a goal, movement for itself, the rhythm that is perhaps the origin of everything. But this is nothing but the feeble outline of an idea, and contemplation is stronger, for it doesn’t contain an idea. Simply the direct contact between a being and rhythm.

Seagulls at times settle on these waves and let themselves be carried by them. The waters are heavy, massive, shimmering, and of an awesome consistency. Mineral. They put me in mind of lava. André came over to me and marvelously found the mot juste: “Isn’t it unbelievable?”

The marvel of the ship that follows its course surrounded by uniform, endless horizons. I came to realize that the ship officers hardly know the stars; they don’t give a damn. One of them said, “If only you knew how sick of them you get.” Strange feeling of the safeness of the ship, this insignificant machinery that carries us across the eternal rhythms and depths. Unreality of all that isn’t the vast sea. Captivity. This could easily become demoralizing.

With Lévi-Strauss and Dr. S. we discuss homelands (I have several and feel that I am tearing myself away from all of them) and the goal of the voyage. We’re going “somewhere in the other hemisphere.” L.-S. says softly, “Nowhere.” He doesn’t expect to return. Return where? And why? He has no attachments anywhere. I want to quote him a poem I wrote: “The whole earth is man’s tomb,” but this wouldn’t be a response. We say that for our civilization the Atlantic is what the Mediterranean was for antiquity, an inner sea, and that we shouldn’t talk about Europe but rather of Euramerica and Eurasia, notions that are still beyond us because men have for too long lived rooted in their birthplaces. The era of immense uprootings has arrived, as happened in the past during the great migrations of peoples.

Urge to look at the portraits I have with me, but I resist it, as if I were afraid to confront them. I’ll look at them tomorrow, calmly, when the urge is weaker . . . Thoughts of time’s vast expanse, of what we are in this vast expanse, we, floating on the crest of equally unimaginable waves, ceaselessly making and unmaking themselves.

Bombardment of Kiel, docks ablaze, thirty thousand incendiary bombs.

April 10, 1941—In the middle of the ocean, somewhere off the coast of Cape Verde, our route to the Caribbean a nearly straight line. The hour changes almost every day at noon (a siren sounds) fifteen or twenty minutes earlier. The sea a deep blue, the dense blue of melted stone. Average depth of 4,500 meters. Orion dominates our sky. New stars appear above the horizon, Argo Navis.

Under the full moon a sumptuous path of sparkling, moving white light streams over the waves, leading nowhere but following us. Vlady compares the waves cleaved by the ship leaving a wide side-wash of white froth to marble in fusion.

I feel entirely on the fringes of my life. Hard to think and even read. The bustle of the deck irritating, deck chairs, chatter, shady deals with the Chinese cook, people gobbling conversations mysteriously picked up in a famished Marseille. A few travelers have cocktails made for them. The true end of the world will be the day there are no more cocktails.

In the (abominable) toilets a passenger in a cotton cap, gold-framed glasses, doll-like face, a good man, told me he was protected by the Jesuits and was expected in Brazil, an extremely ecclesiastical air, assures me that all is well in Yugoslavia. “You’ll see in two or three days . . . ” I stagger away because the rocking of the boat has gotten worse. Yes, all is well: dead bodies piled on dead bodies, blood on blood, and old rifles against tanks.

Lévi-Strauss, an ethnologist at the Musée de l’Homme, talks to me at length of the Indios of Brazil he lived among and who are intelligent, believers—Catholic and Protestant—dedicated, honest . . . In the process of disappearing. The crimes of the whites, voluntary and involuntary. In the past, in order to get rid of them, they hung up clothing of people who died in the hospitals of contagious diseases on trees in the forests. The Indios were extremely vulnerable to diseases transmitted by whites and blacks; epidemics lasted for years among them, reaching, moving to the Mato Grosso from São Paolo. The Brazilian Positivists tried to protect these races, but through simple contact with them the whites gave them exterminating diseases like the flu. In 1900 there were between twenty-five thousand and fifty thousand Indios in the state of São Paolo who today have vanished. Solution? Reservations, fencing them in, economic measures . . . When it comes to the brown man, the white man has become civilized: he no longer wants to exterminate him, but it is perhaps too late. Weakened races of diminutive stature and primitive culture. Lévi-Strauss hypothesizes about the natural fate that seems to weigh on all of South America. “Nothing but the hypotheses of an essayist, you know, these are such big subjects . . . .” In summary, a continent inappropriate for the higher forms of life—up till now.

1. Diminished animal types (size, species). Disappearance of the horses brought over by the Europeans. No great herds of mammals in the wild state. No great predators. On the other hand, an opulent fauna of birds and insects.
2. Disappearance of the ancient civilizations, none of which managed to survive. The causes of the collapse and extinction of the Maya civilization are unknown. Large-scale epidemics? Conquests? Cortés stumbled upon a civilization in a state of crisis and his success was strictly due to this.
3. Contrast between North and South America as relates to the success of European settlement and modern civilization, which has until now only nibbled at the fringes of the southern continent and the Mexican high plateau.

I object that the Indian civilizations perhaps died of their barbarian organization and that one shouldn’t divert social causes toward geographical hypotheses . . . Also that the Nahuas of Mexico, like the Incas of Peru, didn’t die a natural death: they were purely and simply killed, the way people are being killed in Poland today. “Incorrigible Marxist,” Lévi-Strauss says with a smile. “Who knows?”

translated from the French by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman

Victor Serge’s Notebooks, 1934–1947, from which this text is excerpted, are forthcoming from New York Review of Books Classics on March 26, 2019.