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The Century’s Midnight

Dissenting European and American Writers in the Era of the Second World War

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Clive Bush

The Century’s Midnight is an exploration of the literary and political relationships between a number of ideologically sophisticated American and European writers during a mid-twentieth century dominated by the Second World War. Clive Bush offers an account of an intelligent and diverse community of people of good will, transcending national, ideological and cultural barriers. Although structured around five central figures – the novelist Victor Serge, the editors Dwight Macdonald and Dorothy Norman, the cultural critic Lewis Mumford and the poet Muriel Rukeyser – the book examines a wealth of European and American writers including Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Walter Benjamin, John Dos Passos, André Gide, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, George Orwell, Boris Pilniak, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ignacio Silone and Richard Wright.
The book’s central theme relates politics and literature to time and narrative. The author argues that knowledge of the writers of this period is of inestimable value in attempting to understand our contemporary world.

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Part 1: ‘It is Dead and it is Not Dead’: Time and Testimony in Victor Serge 21

Extract

1 ‘It is Dead and it is Not Dead’: Time and Testimony in Victor Serge1 The unconsumed stern was the last to sink; but the paint had gone, had cracked, had peeled off, and there were no letters, there was no word, no stubborn device that was like her soul to flash at the rising sun her creed and her name. — Joseph Conrad2 Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked – and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people. Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. An image became a record of how X had seen Y. This was the result of an increasing consciousness of individuality, accompanying an increasing awareness of history. — John Berger3 Since History cannot save the sufferings of the children of Oradour, even if it has a direction, it does not have a meaning. Always the illusion of one history. But not just the Anabaptists at their stake are not saved by the dictatorship of the proletariat: brought back to life, they would condemn it as impious. Thus History is lost without recuperation. It is not necessary to seek an ethical collectivity to save History but to realize ethics. — Jean-Paul Sartre4 In the attic of some Moscow house or in a barn on...

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