In Middlemarch the desiccated pedant Casaubon wastes his life, and the life of another, in a futile search for "the Key to all Mythologies." In Bleak House the wearisome and convoluted case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce eventually exhausts all the resources of the contending parties in the sheer costs of the suit. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev a random political murder becomes the excuse for a gigantic, hysterical, all-enveloping bureaucratic investigation, and also the talisman for an ideological witch-hunt that intends to lay bare the most imposing of all conspiracies and convinces the last doubter of the existence of a grand design.
After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.
For many years Serge was almost lost to view. He was one of those intellectual misfits (I intend no disrespect by the term) who were ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler. One of his novels was aptly titled Midnight in the Century (1939)—the phrase used by old "Left" oppositionists to sum up the nightmare years that culminated in the Hitler-Stalin Pact. He died in penurious exile in Mexico, in 1947. His scattered works were later reassembled and translated and kept alive by a small group of radical devotees, most notably Peter Sedgwick and Richard Greeman, whose work is both summarized and exceeded in Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope, a tough-minded and well-written biography produced by Susan Weissman in 2001. Otherwise, Serge studies have been confined somewhere on the margins delineated by Dissent magazine and the now defunct Partisan Review. Not even Trotskyist sects were always willing to give this veteran revolutionary the respect that was his due: Serge had quarreled with "The Old Man," on matters of principle, several times.