Victor Serge

From The New Left Review:

31 March 1941. People on the Ship. In search of a comfortable corner, the ‘economic emigrants’ have installed themselves between the central deck and the boiler room. Jews with money. Rent the crew’s cabins, stuff themselves, do deals with the personnel, keep to themselves, are suspicious of everyone, play cards, read Clochemerle. We call that corner ‘the Champs-Élysées’ and we invade it partly because it’s sheltered from the wind and the sun. They glare at us.

The foredeck is more crowded but has a slightly chic atmosphere because of a group of filmmakers and wealthy, well-dressed emigrants who behave as if they’re on the terrace of a café on the Left Bank.

The upper deck, which isn’t a deck strictly speaking but a sort of roof, cluttered with the lifeboats, is occupied by the Lams, the Bretons and Vlady. Jacqueline [Breton] sunbathes almost naked and scorns the world which couldn’t care less, and that irks her. Hélène Lam nurses Wifredo, who is ill, with swollen glands, sad, lying under a blanket, his head in his wife’s lap. His eyes like those of an ancient Sino-African child are full of an animal misery. Even though he’s getting better. I sometimes go up, from there you can see the entire ship and the entire ocean. It’s Montparnasse.

In the stern, rough wood tables under the tarpaulins, above the stairs to the hold. Tubs in which René Schickele’s daughter does her washing while telling me about Walter Benjamin’s suicide in Cerbère, in October 1940, after a fruitless attempt to cross the border without a visa; several friends had just made it to the other side, he failed, he lost his nerve. He sent his last manuscripts to Switzerland. He left us a remarkable essay on Baudelaire. Deck chairs, a sort of cowshed on one side, and on the other, the vile shared toilets made of plywood, erected on the deck. Rigging, tools, hordes of kids, washing, bare-chested characters shaving, ladies lying on their deckchairs in the sun. Our German International Relief Association group studies English and debates Marxism. The Stalinists in discreet little confabs around Kantorowicz and his wife, both thin, with sharp profiles, furrowed faces and a gaze that is both hard and evasive. Raucous, cheerful Spaniards. It’s Belleville.

Towards the bow, our German friends and their kids are setting up a kindergarten; it’ll be a little corner of a square in Wedding, which we’ll call Rosa Luxemburg Platz.

The apolitical refugees are afraid of the political ones, whom they respect as dangerous people and despise as people without money. The castaways of Europe on a wrecked ship. A war of manners, or rather of boorishness, fighting over a place at the table at mealtimes, fighting over tables outdoors on the cluttered deck, where we eat. People have to fend for themselves. André [Breton], always noble and appearing impassive—but appalled by all this—repeats: ‘Bastards!’ and makes no secret of the fact that he’d be much happier at the Deux Magots. I rescued an elderly bourgeois couple from a scrum. The man, domed head, wearing glasses, fat and puffed up with respect, for himself and others, tells me he is an Austrian Catholic banker, protected by the Vatican and emigrating to Brazil. ‘What about you?’ What can I tell him? ‘I’m a friend of Mr Trotsky . . .’ Wide-eyed: ‘Oh!’ But he does not stop being polite to me and asking my advice: he’s travelling with two different passports, which one should he use in such-and-such a situation?

“Mexican Notebooks”, Victor Serge, New Left Review