Transit by Anna Seghers

“A tireless pack of officials was on the move night and day, like dogcatchers, intent on fishing suspicious people out of the crowds as they passed through, so as to put them into city jails from which they’d be dragged off to a concentration camp if they didn’t have the money to pay the ransom or to hire a crafty lawyer who would later split the outsize reward for freeing the prisoner with the dogcatcher himself. As a result, everyone, especially the foreigners, guarded their passports and identification papers as if they were their very salvation. I was amazed to see the authorities, in the midst of this chaos, inventing ever more intricate drawn-out procedures for sorting, classifying, registering, and stamping these people over whose emotions they had lost all power. It was like trying to register every Vandal, goth, hun, and langobard during the “Barbarian invasion.”  

Earlier this year, I read Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck, and Transit from German author Anna Seghers is the perfect companion read. While Diary of a Man in Despair is non-fiction, diary entries kept by Reck during the 30s and 40s, Transit is the fictional story of a German, a former prisoner who first escapes from a Nazi concentration camp, and then escapes from a camp in Rouen. He makes it to Paris, and there, while performing a favour for a friend, he becomes caught up by fate in a life that belongs to someone else.

TransitTransit is a novel that deserves a bit of grounding. Author Anna Seghers (1900-1983) came from an upper-middle-class Jewish family. She was a communist living in France when the Nazis invaded, and she was fortunate enough to escape from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 “on a ship that included among its passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.” This cliff-hanging experience of desperate exile found its way into Transit–a novel that could only have been written by someone who experienced trying to escape from the Nazis. According to the introduction written by Peter Conrad, Seghers was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and taking the hint, after her release, she moved on to Paris. After the Germans invaded France, she went to Marseille where most of the action of Transit is set. Conrad tell us that “Marseille was one of the few ports that offered an exit from a continent that was closing down. Here Seghers joined the harried strays she describes in her novel, scuttling from one consulate to the next in an attempt to assemble the visas and permits required for their onward journey. Not for the last time, modern life had turned into the enactment of a Kafka novel.” The introduction also explains the death, by suicide, of the author’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, one of a group of Jewish refugees, was in Portbou, a Spanish border town, trying to get a transit visa that would allow him to pass through Lisbon and eventually sail to America. The Franco government cancelled all transit visas and announced that all refugees would be returned to France. Benjamin took an overdose of morphine rather than face the alternative. There is some speculation about a missing manuscript that Benjamin kept in a briefcase. It’s impossible to read Transit and not make connections between Benjamin and the character of the writer, Weidel–a dead man whose very absence  is seminal to the plot of Transit.

Transit is narrated by a young German man who goes by the name of Siedler, currently stuck in Marseille. He escaped a German concentration camp in 1937 only to end up in a work camp in Rouen. News trickles down that the Germans will shortly arrive in the region, and this sparks panic amongst the prisoners who anticipate a grisly end when the Nazis arrive. A second escape and flight to Paris ensues with a handful of other men, including Heinz, who lost a leg in Spain. It seems as though the entire country is on the road:

a silent stream of refugees was still pouring south from the northern villages. Hay wagons piled high as farmhouses with furniture and poultry cages, with children and ancient grandparents, goats and calves, trucks carrying a convent of nuns, a little girl pulling her mother in a cart, cars with pretty women wearing the furs they had salvaged, the cars pulled by cows because there were no gas stations anymore; and women carrying their dying children, even dead ones.

This early scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s chaos– “the dissolution of our world order;” People are uprooted, “a silent stream of refugees” on the road and looking for an escape from the Nazis, and there’s a sense of futility here in the very disorganization of the displaced refugees when compared to the thorough mechanized progress of the German units. Luck is with Seidler who makes it to Paris and here the Nazi presence is both jarring and a little surreal:

I walked into Paris. A swastika flag was actually flying before the Hotel de Ville. And they were actually playing the Hohenfriedberg March in front of Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe it. I walked diagonally across Paris. And everywhere there were fleets of German cars and swastikas. I felt quite hollow, as if emptied of all emotion.

Seidler runs into Paul Strobel, a writer and an old acquaintance from the work camp who is the first character to introduce the topic of visas. Strobel is heading for Marseille as he has a “danger visa” which is a “special emergency visa for especially endangered people.” Strobel argues that he wrote a “book and countless articles against Hitler” and that has left him particularly vulnerable.

I thought of Heinz who had been beaten half to death by the Nazis in 1935, who was then put in a German concentration camp, escaping to Paris, only to end up in Spain with the International Brigade where he then lost a leg, and who, one-legged was then dragged through all of France’s concentration camps, ending up in ours. Where was he now? I also thought of flocks of birds being able to fly away. The whole earth was uncomfortable, and still I quite liked this kind of life; I didn’t envy Paul for that thing he had–what was it called?

This is an interesting scene, fully of irony that is only fully understood as the novel progresses, for Seidler is saying a couple of things here–1) he doesn’t yet grasp the importance of visas, and yet his life is shortly to become consumed by them and the inability to acquire all the necessary documentation to leave France, and 2) while Strobel sees himself as “especially endangered” Seidler clearly sees Heinz as physically a much more heroic type–a man of action rather than a man of ideas. This is ironic for Seidler soon finds himself donning the identity of a dead writer.

Strobel rather shiftily asks Seidler to go to a small hotel and deliver a letter to a writer, Wiedel, who’s registered there, and through a chain of events Seidler comes into possession of Weidel’s suitcase, a “forensic object,” and an unfinished manuscript. This incident marks the shift in Seidler’s life and also the emergence of meaningless bureaucracy. Learning that Weidel has a visa and travel funds waiting at the Mexican Embassy in Marseille, Seidler, who has no papers whatsoever, decides to don Weidel’s identity.

When Seidler/Weidel arrives in Marseille, he thinks it’ll be a fairly simple matter to collected Weidel’s papers and leave, but he discovers that he’s entered a bureaucratic labyrinth of almost insurmountable complexity. You need a “safe conduct” pass to travel to Marseille, a residence permit once there (only granted if you prove that you are actually planning on not staying,) an exit visa to leave,  and a transit visa to pass through various countries. It’s a puzzle, a sort of desperate scavenger hunt in bottle-necked Marseille with those desperate to leave required to pick up various visas to fulfill bureaucratic demands, and all this to be achieved in chaos as the borders of civilization melt down. Meanwhile rumours fly about ships that may or may not be arriving or leaving.

Throughout the novel, Seidler is submerged into Weidel, and Seidler is an intriguingly opaque character who should appeal to fans of Nabokov. We know that Seidler was sent to a concentration camp, but we don’t know why–although he states that he belongs to no political parties, it’s clear that he understands the Nazis and their “dirty tricks.” He’s a displaced German who doesn’t particularly want to leave France, and even the name he uses, Seidler, belongs to someone else. His total lack of identity makes becoming Weidel the natural choice, and yet it’s a choice, a trick of fate, that leads to a great deal of trouble. Once in Marseille, Seidler merges easily with all the other dispossessed refugees, flotsam and jetsam washed up in an unfriendly Marseille by the German invasion. Identity–any identity that can be claimed–suddenly becomes of paramount importance, and the drama that ensues as various characters struggle to claim their identity (and this includes Seidler/Weidel) would be a comedy of errors if those involved weren’t facing dreadful options. One man with Polish identity papers learns that the town he was born in is now considered Lithuania, and he is required to return to his place of birth, now under Nazi occupation, in order to gather papers certifying his birth from a town that no longer exists.

Naturally since Marseille has become refugee central, it’s full of desperate people who will do anything to get a ticket on an outward bound ship. One woman who cannot escape, eats her way through whatever time and money she has left; others give up in various ways. Another woman cossets and grooms two enormous Great Danes who are her visa “guarantors“–given to her for safekeeping by two Americans in exchange for an “incontestable affidavit” of her spotless morality. A group of Legionnaires of German extraction are travelling back to Germany for repatriation–only the healthy are accepted back, and those rejected are prosecuted by the French and sent to “work in the mines in Africa.” The refugees’ pitiful fate is decided by “bureaucratic goblins” who base their decisions on an endless stream of perfectly stamped papers. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to the circular bureaucracy placed on these desperate people, but there’s also a sense that the refugees almost seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

Transit is going to make my read-of-2013 list. This really is an incredible book with its cast of hopeless, desperate refugees, mostly anonymous who melt into the masses who simply disappeared during WWII. Author Anna Seghers has a unique perspective on events, events that shaped her life, and which in turn she shapes by being the author. The various bureaucratic personnel seem almost sadistic in their demands that these refugees produce impossible slips of documentation, but that is, of course, just the perspective of those on the other side of the desk. The bureaucratic institutions  in Transit aren’t malicious; they’re simply indifferent. This NYRB issue also includes a marvelous afterword by Heinrich Böll–not to be missed.

Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Review copy

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21 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Seghers Anna

21 responses to “Transit by Anna Seghers

  1. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary Guy.

    You wrote,

    “The bureaucratic institutions in Transit aren’t malicious; they’re simply indifferent.”

    That is an accurate description of a good part of the world. Very often people either forget that or never understand it. Folks often try too hard to hang labels of good and evil or at least to describe imaginary motives on to the disinterested.

    • Judith

      I disagree with the idea that the bureaucratic institutions in Transit aren’t malicious. The problems faced by people trying to leave Europe in those years were caused by Nazi interference with the visa process in southern France.

      • Re: Nazi interference–Absolutely, no argument from me on that score. But the Nazis are practically invisible here even if they are behind the scenes. All we see are bored bureaucrats intent on having boxes checked and completely indifferent to the fate of these displaced people who are unable, in some instances, to collect the necessary documentation, even as their pitifully small funds dwindle to nothing.

        Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thanks Brian, you are always the first person to comment on my reviews.

  3. Glad you enjoyed this. I read it ages ago and remember the claustrophobic atmosphere of Marseille very vividly. Seghers describes it so well. I really like her writing and also liked “The Seventh Cross” a lot (it was actually the book that got me into reading Seghers).

  4. I have a lot of books from or on this time period but so little was translated.
    This sounds exactly as good as I pictured it.
    Benjamin’s end is particularly tragic, I think but I’m a bit surprised the foreword calls him the model for Weidel. In my sources it says that Weidel is inspired by Ernst Weiss who committed suicide in Paris. He was agreat friend of Seghers and they were together in Paris before she the feld to the South.
    I agree with Bettina, The Seventh Cross is fantastic as well and so are her short stories.

    • Benjamin is mentioned in the foreword, but I drew the conclusion that there’s a connection between Benjamin and Weidel. Walter, Weidel–both W and then there’s the mode of suicide (both poison) and the suitcase with the missing manuscript. Perhaps an amalgamation of Weiss and Walter (another W and another poisoning)?

  5. leroyhunter

    Great stuff. Straight on the wish list.

  6. Bought. You’re leading me to bankruptcy and do you know, I don’t care one jot!

  7. Thanks for the rich introduction on Seghers and the context of the book, it’s really helpful.
    I don’t remember reading a book about WWII set in Marseille and describing the nightmare of the people who wanted to emigrate.

    PS: I like the cover.

  8. Tremendous review Guy, I’m glad I kept a note of it to come back to and have now had the chance to read it. Great introduction particularly. Like with Leroy, it goes straight on the to read list.

  9. NYRB consistently produces excellent titles (who makes their selection I wonder?). This will be on my end of year list & I know you’ll really like this.

  10. Emma tipped me off about your review of this one as I’ll be posting on it tomorrow (all being well) so I’ll include a link to yours. Wonderful review and great context on Seghers herself. I thought it a truly remarkable book and it’ll make my end-of-year list, no question. Identity is one of my favourite themes in literature and this book has so much to say on the subject. I picked it up last year via the staff recommendations in Foyles bookshop, London (as I hadn’t discovered your blog at that stage).

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