[This page by Douglas Irving]
Transit (1944) is, along with The Seventh Cross, considered one of the greatest works of exile literature in German. Begun in France, the story was finished in Mexico and contains many biographical details from Seghers’s own experience of exile, in particular repeated reference to the ‘promised land’ destination of Mexico. Like The Seventh Cross previously, Seghers uses the mundanity of everyday existence as a backdrop to an epic story of human struggle for survival, only this time the narrative is in the first person – a nameless man who has escaped from an internment camp and is now facing the immediate future with no plan, no specific goal or destination, cast adrift in a continent that is closing down. Along with all the other exiles, escapees, refugees and migrants he gravitates towards Marseille from where there are boats leaving across the Atlantic. Like Ilha Ehrenburg before, who in ‘Sommer 1925’ tells his own story through a first person narrator, Seghers is fashioning her own migratory experiences into a story as she flees Nazi Germany. The telling of stories as a form of oral history is vividly present in Transit, as the nameless main protagonist tells the reader of his repeated encounters with other migrants in the surreal, repetitive, labyrinthine world of local bureaucracy, forcing individuals to battle for various visas and paperwork to enable them to attain passage aboard a ship to America.
The Transit of the title refers directly to the attaining of the obligatory transit visa, giving the refugee the right to temporary residence in Marseille. Only then is a person able to apply for an exit visa and a berth on a ship out of this last-post town which, similarly to Lisbon, was a route out of war-threatened Europe. Erich Maria Remarque’s 1962 novel The Night in Lisbon also describes in vivid terms the practical experience of the refugee through the act of realistic story-telling.
Seghers’s writing is here at its most modernist and experimental, with existentialist overtones reminiscent of Camus’s The Outsider, as well as a knowing nod to Kafka in its portrayal of individuals caught in the wheels of bureaucracy. At the same time, Seghers delivers an intensely human perspective, as Transit pays homage to storytelling: the storytelling of individual narratives.
The text highlights the transitory quality of the many encounters the protagonist has, but at the same time elevates this to an epic level, as he is constantly reminded of the weight of time and history upon him and his fellow asylum seekers. It is a desperate attempt to find permanence in the face of a shared experience of uprootedness, which ultimately leads to the unlikely outcome of the novel: the main character’s choosing to stay on European soil, despite having gained the necessary exit visa. But the selflessness with which he has acted, motivated by love for another human being, is catastrophically undermined, as the reader is reminded of the novel’s opening sentence, reporting the sinking of a ship. Thus Seghers has constructed a perfectly rounded, cyclical narrative.
This modernist novel again shows Seghers’s great skill in using her own lived experiences, and those of others, to create a narrative that is universal in application. Her story, its depiction of the refugee’s plight, is no less relevant in the 21st century as it was on the eve of the outbreak of war in the 20th. A new translation, recently published by New York Review of Books, contains an introduction which contextualises Seghers’s descriptions of refugees in France fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s with modern day issues of migration on a global scale.
Anna Seghers, Transit, trans. by Margot Bettauer Dembo, NYRB Classics (New York: NYRB, 2013)
Johannes F. Evelein, ‘Männergedanken? Anna Seghers’ Transit and the Portrayal of Gender’, Selecta: Journal of the Pacific Northwest Council on Foreign Languages 19 (1998), 12-23
Weijia Li, ‘Braveness in Non-Action: The Taoist Strategy of Survival in Bertolt Brecht’s Schweyk and Anna Seghers’ Transit’, Brecht Yearbook/Das Brecht-Jahrbuch 36 (2011), 107-112
J.K.A. Thomaneck, ‘Tenochtitlán, Time, Transit: Anna Seghers’s Novel of Exile’, German Life and Letters 45:3 (1992), 261-64
Anthony Waine, ‘Anna Seghers’s Transit: A Late Modern Thriller-without Thrills’, Neophilologus 89:3 (2005), 403-18
Jennifer Marston William, Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010), Chapter 3 on Seghers, Transit, pp. 96-121
Guy Savage reviews Transit