Überfahrt; Crossing

[This page by Douglas Irving]

Überfahrt. Eine Liebesgeschichte; Crossing: A Love Story (1971)

This long novella is set aboard a cargo ship returning from Brazil to Rostock in the 1950s, and concerns the meeting of two men and their subsequent conversations during the three-week long Atlantic crossing. The narrator of the story is Franz Hammer, an engineer from the German Democratic Republic, returning home after being sent out to repair some agricultural machinery. The novella opens with him retelling the words of fellow GDR citizen Ernst Triebel, a young doctor who has been in Bahia at a medical conference. During the course of the narrative Triebel tells Hammer what amounts to his life story, from when, as a boy, he was exiled to Brazil along with his parents just before the outbreak of the Second World War, up to this return journey home in the mid 1950s. The love story of the subtitle refers to Triebel’s encounter as a young boy with Maria Luisa, a fellow German also living in exile in Brazil, from whom he is separated when he returns to Germany as a young medical student.

Seghers first started work on the story in 1964, but due to many other commitments only managed to finally complete it in 1970. It was published the following year. Partly a celebration of Brazil, its people and culture, Crossing may also be a fond homage to Seghers’s great friend Jorge Amado, from the state of Bahia, where a section of the story is set. It may be that Amado’s 1966 novel Dona Flor and her two Husbands influenced Seghers’s story.

Seghers’s skilfully structured narrative abounds in literary allusion, and with a complex narrative framing structure and use of theme, motif and foreshadowing, it is a paean to the art of story-telling. The lack of definite article in the German title suggests the story is as much about a metaphorical crossing: a search for identity and home, and for closure on pressing personal issues as experienced by the character of Triebel. It may be the case that Seghers was influenced by Christa Wolf’s Der geteilte Himmel; They Divided the Sky, in terms of using a title as a metaphor.

Like Transit before, an individual’s search for resolution becomes elevated to the universal through the act of retelling their story.

Crossing is at heart a simple story of unrequited childhood love, a cathartic tale which it has been suggested represents ‘the culmination of her life’s work’. It may be an early example of a GDR writer re-embracing German romanticism under a loosening of the GDR’s dogmatic cultural outlook under Erich Honecker in the 1970s. It is an excellent example of the novella form, a superbly-structured story told with consummate control in Seghers’s characteristically succinct prose style. On another level altogether, it is an important example of Seghers’s use of writing as a carefully critical tool, with which she offers constructive criticism of GDR cultural policy of the time. It is also clear that Seghers has woven biographical threads of her own life into this late work of hers, as she reflects back on her own experiences as an older woman.

English Translation

Crossing: A Love Story, translation by Douglas Irving 2014; published extract in: Exchanges: A Journal of Literary Translation, Winter 2015

Further Reading

Lowell A. Bangerter, ‘Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf’, The Germanic Review 68:3 (1993), 127-32

Marike Janzen, ‘Between the Pedagogical and the Performative: Personal Stories, Public Narratives and Social Critique in Anna Seghers’s Überfahrt’, The German Quarterly 79:2 (2006), 175-91

J.K.A. Thomaneck, ‘The Iceberg in Anna Seghers’s Novel Überfahrt’, German Life and Letters 28:1 (1974), 36-45