‘Transit’ by Anna Seghers (Review)

After a short trip to Chicago, German Literature Month moves on again, this time taking us to the south of France.  It’s 1940, and France has surrendered to the invading Germans; however, with half of France still nominally ‘free’, for those able to cross the Loire there’s still a chance of escape.  The real problem though is not bullets, but paperwork…

Anna Seghers’ Transit is the tale of a young man in a German labour camp, who escapes to Paris when he hears that the Wehrmacht is on the march.  Once there, he meets up with a fellow escapee and is asked to deliver a letter to a certain Weidel, a writer.  However, once our friend tracks down Weidel’s most recent abode, a problem occurs – according to a woman he speaks to, the writer committed suicide a few days before the visit.

Still clutching the letter, and the dead man’s briefcase, the narrator flees south with many other refugees, narrowly managing to avoid falling into the hands of the occupying forces.  Eventually, he succeeds in reaching Marseilles, where thousands of miserable souls from across the continent are waiting for a passage on a ship to the new world.  Unlike the others, our hero has no desire to leave the city; until, that is, he encounters a beautiful woman desperate to cross the ocean.  She also happens to be the writer’s widow…

This is not your usual WW2 setting, with no murders, brutality or Jew bashing, and this makes Transit a fascinating read, a different look at the war.  In its way, though, it portrays a situation just as desperate as most other war novels.  Seghers describes (from her own experiences) a town at the end of the world, the last refuge of people terrified of being caught up in the forthcoming conflict.  Everyone is desperate to leave – well, *nearly* everyone.

Our laconic narrator is a man on the run (who much prefers to walk), a calm character unwilling to leave a place of relative calm.  The novel is told in a frame narrative, so the reader is aware from the first page that he’s still in Marseilles.  He’s sitting in his favourite café, telling a visitor (the reader) his story:

“Ich möchte gern einmal alles erzählen, von Anfang an bis zu Ende.  Wenn ich mich nur nicht fürchten müßte, den andern zu langweilen.”
p.6 (aufbau taschenbuch, 2013)

“I’d like to tell the whole story, just once, from start to finish.  That is, if I can do so without boring my listener.” *** (my translation)

It’s certainly an intriguing tale that he spins over pizza and rosé,

Transit is a descriptive tale of Marseilles at the end of 1940, a place which is less a city than a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare.  For those wanting to flee to the new world, it’s not just a case of obtaining a ticket for one of the infrequent, quasi-mythical passages across the Atlantic.  There are many other documents required for the passage, including a visa for the end destination, a document giving you permission to leave, and (of course) the transit visa of the title, allowing you to travel through intermediate ports.

While it may sound fairly straight-forward, it’s anything but, with many would-be travellers experiencing frustration.  Often, one piece of paper arrives just as another has expired, making it all worthless.  Boats fail to appear, others are commandeered by the military, a seemingly-valid visa turns out to have a crucial stamp missing.  For most of the book, it appears that the refugees are trapped in a twisted, hellish purgatory.

Which, in a way, they are.  Marseilles is the waiting room of the promised land beyond the ocean, the last obstacle to overcome before setting sail for a better life:

“Ich hatte mich in den letzten Monaten immer gefragt, wohin denn das alles münden sollte, das ganze Rinnsal, der Abfluß aus allen Konzentrationslagern, versprengte Soldaten, die Söldner aller Heere, die Schänder aller Rassen, die Fahnenflüchtigen aller Fahnen.  Hier also floß alles ab, in diese Rinne, die Cannebière, und durch diese Rinne ins Meer, wo endlich für alle wieder Raum war und Friede.” (p.41)

“I had repeatedly wondered over the previous months where this would all end up, this whole stream, the flow from all the labour camps, scattered soldiers, mercenaries from all armies, criminals of all races, deserters of all flags.  Here, then, everything flowed to its end, into this channel, the Cannebière, and down this channel into the sea, where there was finally space and peace enough for all.” ***

While most of this stream of people is desperate to get out of Marseilles as quickly as possible, the narrator takes it all a little more calmly.  On several occasions, he likens the period of ‘transit’ to life itself, with people desperate to move on to ‘a better place’.  If only they’d just enjoy themselves here and now…

Transit is an interesting story, but I did feel that the pace was a little slow at times.  The writing wasn’t always amazing, and it dragged in parts.  However, for the most part, it was a good read, and there were great touches of humour breaking up the tension.  One I particularly enjoyed was the awkward meeting with the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, one he handled nicely:

“Ich war von Kopf bis Fuß nicht auf Liebe eingestellt.” (p.14)

I’m afraid that’s not a line that translates easily into English – it’s much easier to point you here instead 🙂

I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I’d expected from the many positive reviews, but it is an interesting tale of life in a difficult time.  As an East German take on the war, it’s also of particular interest, and anyone who likes reading about this period of history will probably enjoy it.  There’s enough here to make me give Seghers another go, but I’m afraid Transit won’t be getting my monthly prize 😉

Transit is available in English from NYRB Classics, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo.


5 thoughts on “‘Transit’ by Anna Seghers (Review)

  1. I read Transit years ago; I was volunteering in France and Transit was the only book available where I was staying that wasn't in French (I only ventured into French reading towards the end of my three-month stay 😉 ). I don't remember much, but I remember the Kafkaesque setting and it being slow at times. But isn't that partially the point? At the time I thought it was a device Seghers used to capture the slow-moving way of life in Marseille for those who were waiting to leave. But, if you want a more fast-paced Seghers, The Seventh Cross might suit if memory serves.


  2. Bettina – That's the other one I've heard of (probably because of a recent translation into English), so I might try that. Re: the pace – I agree that it's partially deliberate, but sometimes it's a little annoying 😉 Also, I wasn't convinced by the wriitng at times, it was fairly plain, a little too plain for me.


  3. I must admit I got totally caught up in Transit, so it's interesting to read a different take on the novel. It does feel very Kafkaesque in the way it conveys the never-ending chase for official documents and stamps. A little like Bettina, I wonder if the pace and circular nature of the narrative is a conscious attempt to reflect the refugees' experience. If anything, this structure made the novel all the more powerful for me, but I can understand why you found it frustrating.


  4. Jacqui – As I mentioned above, I think you can only get away with that kind of pacing if your writing is excellent, and I didn't feel that here. Mostly enjoyable, but not one of the better books I've read this month…


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