Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo)

Anna Seghers, born in Germany in 1900 to a Jewish family, fled from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Seghers (a Communist) and her family sailed from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 and she began to write Transit, a novel inspired by her experiences as a refugee, shortly after her arrival. The novel was first published in English in 1944 but did not appear in German until 1948.

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As Transit opens, our unnamed narrator, a young German man sitting in a pizzeria in Marseille, invites us to listen to his story, the whole story from start to finish. As we join him for a slice of pizza and a glass of rosé, he begins his tale. Having escaped first from a concentration camp in Germany and then from a work camp near Rouen, our narrator makes his way to Paris. Whilst in the capital, he is asked by an old friend to deliver a letter to a man named Weidel, but when he arrives at the man’s hotel, he encounters a puzzle. Weidel, a writer, has committed suicide leaving a suitcase containing a manuscript and some letters. One letter is from the Mexican Consulate in Marseille claiming that a visa and travel funds await Weidel there; the other is from Weidel’s estranged wife urging him to come to Marseille. Our narrator takes the suitcase and ultimately decides to travel to the city with the intention of handing the contents over to the Consulate. Moreover, he hopes to evade the Nazis by losing himself in the strange and unknown city of Marseille, a place on the edge of Europe:

The last few months I’d been wondering where all this was going to end up – the trickles, the streams of people from the camps, the dispersed soldiers, the army mercenaries, the defilers of all races, the deserters of from all nations. This, then, was where the detritus was flowing, along this channel, this gutter, the Canebière, and via this gutter into the sea, where there would at last be room for all, and peace. (pg. 35, NYRB Classics)

Whilst en route to Marseille, our narrator acquires refugee papers in the name of Siedler. When he tries to hand Weidel’s case to the Mexican Consulate, the officials assume Weidel is Siedler’s pen name and that the two men are one and the same person. In an effort to secure some breathing space, our narrator goes along with this assumption and begins to look for Weidel’s wife.

Our narrator, however, soon realises that Marseille is a place of departure; no one asks where you have come from, only where you are going to. In fact, the Marseille Prefect will only allow visitors to stay in the city if they can prove they are making arrangements to obtain all the necessary documentation for departure. In order to leave, a refugee requires a visa to enter the country of their destination, transit visas for all countries he/she will pass through on the journey, and an exit visa granting permission to leave France. Moreover, one or more of these visas may be dependent on other documentation: a birth certificate, lack of convictions or black marks on the traveller’s character, medical certificates…the list is endless. And each visa is valid only for a discrete period of time; if any one of these documents expires while others are being processed, the traveller must start the application sequence all over again.

One of the most compelling (and frightening) aspects of this novel is just how effectively it conveys the maze of bureaucracy and red tape refugees must navigate in order to secure a passage from Marseille. New requirements and regulations can be introduced at any time dashing the hopes of many refugees. In this passage, our narrator listens to the experience of just one of the many refugees he encounters, a man hoping to travel to Brazil:

“I had everything; I even had the eye doctor’s certificate. And eventually the consulate did open. I even reached the room of the consul, but they said they had just received a telegram, and now they were asking for proof of Aryan ancestry. And so, in accordance with the laws of this country, I have to go back to my department of origin…” (pg. 219)

Transit pulls the reader into a Kafkaesque nightmare, a ghostly world populated with grotesque and detached officials passing judgement of the future of humanity without a care for the plight of individuals. The futility of this never-ending paper chase is vividly realised:

Of course, you’re also familiar with the cavernous Prefecture and the horde of frizzy-haired bureaucratic goblins that work there, digging out dossiers from the walls of shelves with their little paws and red-lacquered claws. And then, depending on whether you’ve hit a well-disposed goblin or a malicious one, you leave the cave either happy or gnashing your teeth. They gave me a magic paper, a new invitation to appear at a later date. They indicated that a general proof of departure wasn’t enough, and that I would only receive a limited-residence permit if I brought along specific proof that I had booked passage on a ship, the date when my ship would leave, and a transit visa, giving me permission to pass through the United States. (pgs. 100-101)

As our protagonist wanders the streets of Marseille, he encounters a variety of characters, each one memorably realised even if we glimpse them for just the briefest of moments. Marseille is a city of lost and frenzied souls forever waiting in line at various Consulates and Offices, streaming in and out of the bars and cafés. There is an almost ghostly quality to their existence; trapped in limbo they long for a chance to touch the elusive horizon which remains tantalisingly out of reach. And our narrator himself is torn; should he stay and try to establish a life in the South of France, or join the others in a desperate quest for a place on a ship? His thoughts and mood change as quickly as the Marseille weather.

Finally, our protagonist spots a woman desperately searching the cafés for someone, and he is drawn towards her:

She searched through the entire café, going from table to table. She came back to my section, pale with despair. But then she immediately began the search all over again. She was alone and helpless in this herd of escaped demons. She came close to my table. Her gaze now rested on me. I thought: She’s looking for me, who else? But already her eyes had moved elsewhere. She made her way out. (pg. 83-84)

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, save to say that our narrator believes his future is inextricably linked to that of this woman, and he continues to pursue her.

At the heart of this novel lie questions of identity and destiny. Before our narrator arrives in Marseille he feels lost; he has lost something so fundamental that he doesn’t know who he is any more. And this feeling is only heightened by the shifting sense of identity he experiences on being sucked into the Marseille transit process. If only he really were Weidel, perhaps then he would feel anchored by a sense of reality:

The web of questions was so dense, so cleverly thought out, so unavoidable, that no detail of my life could have escaped the consul, if only it had been my life. I’m sure they’d never had a questionnaire so blank and empty on which they tried to capture a life that had already escaped this world and where there was no danger of getting tripped up by contradictions. All the details were in order. What did it matter that the entire thing wasn’t true? All the subtleties were there, giving a clear picture of the man who was to be given permission to leave. Only the man himself wasn’t there. (pgs. 181-182)

I found Transit to be an utterly absorbing and haunting novel, one that burrowed its way into my mind where it feels set to remain for some time. Siedler/Weidel’s story is a little like a spiral. Once in Marseille, he gets caught up in the circuit of bureaucracy that governs his status in the city. He continues to encounter the same characters again and again. He revolves around from one café to another, and several glasses of rosé and slices of pizza are consumed during a sequence of visits to the pizzeria. The narrative might sound a little repetitive – and to some extent it is – but I wonder if Seghers is deliberately using this circular structure to emphasise the seemingly never-ending chase and exasperating nature of life as a refugee.

On a deeper level, this novel also contains references to mythology and to biblical themes. And with a nod to Weidel’s unfinished fable-like manuscript, the one he left in the suitcase, Transit’s story could be seen as possessing an existential and allegorical quality. Life is an impenetrable forest, ‘a forest for adults.’  Whichever way you look at it, Transit is a truly remarkable book, one that draws you into its unforgettable world.

German Lit Month

I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. I bought Transit last year on the recommendation of a bookseller, and I’ve just discovered that a few other bloggers have reviewed it too. Here are some links to other reviews from Guy, Kaggsy and Tony Malone.

Transit is published in the UK by NYRB Classics, tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo. Source: personal copy.

49 thoughts on “Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I’ve always thought about this novel as a description of Dante’s Limbo – somewhere you are stuck through no fault of your own – the guiltless damned, as Dante describes it. And what worse punishment than to lose your identity without finding a new one?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I haven’t read Dante’s Inferno, but from what I know of it, your description sounds spot-on. Transit really captures how terrible it must have been for these refugees to be trapped in a never-ending paperchase through now fault of their own, as you say. The other thing that struck me was just how quickly the rules of the game could change without a thought or care for the plight of these people – how a new regulation or requirement could be introduced at the drop of a hat. It must have been a truly heartbreaking experience.

      Reply
  2. hastanton

    Heart rending read by the sound of it . I wiuld be interested to hear about the after forward written by Heinrich Böll , a fave GERMAN writer of mine who’s is in my sights this month !!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Very much so, Helen. I think you’d appreciate this book, and it strikes me as being right up your street. Heinrich Böll’s afterword is very interesting, and his sympathies are definitely aligned with the refugees. He’s quite scathing about the authorities (consulate officials and travel bureau employees for example): having ‘tasted a bit of power with his tongue’ the official ‘liked the taste of it.’ I think Böll is quoting Seghers’ text here, but he’s on board with the theme. There’s a brief discussion of the politics and how it took too long for Seghers’ books to appear in the West. Plus a bit of analysis on the novel of course – you’d like this one for sure. If you’re interested in discovering more, Guy’s review contains some important context on Seghers herself, and it’s well worth reading.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is a trip into a bureaucratic nightmare, and there’s so much to say about this book I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface here. You’d like this one, Stu, and I’m sure you’d be able to put it into a broader context by drawing connections with other works.

      Reply
            1. jacquiwine Post author

              Ah yes, Kafka is the obvious one. In fact, in his introduction to Transit, Peter Conrad draws a comparison with Josef K as he tries to get the officials in the castle to recognise his credentials as a surveyor. I definitely want to read more by Claudel, and I should try Herta Müller. Thanks, Stu.

              Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I really like the way that you dug into the text and looked at the underlying themes here.

    Identity and destiny, mythical and Biblical themes make this sound like a book that I would really like.

    I cannot help to think of all the people who, even today, have lives that are dependent upon navigating a bureaucratic maze.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. There’s a lot to say about this book and I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I think you’ve already seen Guy’s review, but it contains some fascinating background on Seghers and her own experience as a refugee. Also, Guy digs into events prior to the narrator’s arrival in Marseille with some chilling quotes on the experience of a country on the move.

      The identity theme is an interesting one. It’s as if the narrator doesn’t have a sense of his own identity other than that defined by a set of documents…and these papers will determine his destiny. There is something mythical and allegorical about this story. In some respects, I think Marina’s comment comparing the novel to Dante’s Limbo is getting at this point. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a sense of another layer to this novel, something going on under the surface that I couldn’t see. That’s why I’d like to read it again at some stage. It’s a fascinating book, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is a great book, Naomi, and it’ll make my end-of-year list. I know I keep saying this, but I’ve checked the list and it’s there! And yes, you’re right, I’m afraid it does feel relevant to the plight of present-day refugees. I wonder if we’ll ever learn from the desperation and heartbreak of the past…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and thanks for the link. This is such a wonderful book – very deep and involving and I’m sure I’ll revisit it one day.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Karen, and you’re very welcome. I don’t know how I missed your review at the time…maybe I hadn’t found your blog at that stage? I got totally caught up in this one and felt there was a deeper level to it. Something under the surface that I couldn’t quite see or piece together..

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        Yes, maybe you weren’t reading me then! I know what you mean about the deeper level – I think this book was saying a lot about the human condition but it probably needs at least one more read to get to it!

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Quite possibly, as I’ve discovered several new (as in new-to-me) blogs in the last five months or so. That’s interesting – definitely a novel to revisit!

          Reply
  5. Mytwostotinki

    This is my favorite Anna Seghers book – I prefer it even to The Seventh Cross. The atmosphere in the unoccupied part of France and specifically Marseille, the claustrophobia and kafkaesque situation of the trapped emigres (that Seghers herself had to endure) is a really haunting reading experience. I read the book together with Varian Fry’s Surrender on Demand and Lisa Fittko’s Mein Weg ueber die Pyrenaeen. Seghers’ book is also a reverence to the Mexican diplomat who saved tens of thousands of lives by issuing Mexican visas to anybody who needed it – while the Chilean diplomat Pablo neruda scanned carefully the applications and rejected all visa to anybody who had ever written a critical word about Stalin, the Moscow trials or the NKWD (for which he worked as a henchman).

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, ‘haunting’ is a very good word for it. I think that’s what I was getting at with my comment about the ghostly feel to the atmosphere in Marseille. The opening section is very chilling, too, and I probably could have written more about the narrator’s time in Paris and journey to Marseille. Thanks for mentioning The Seventh Cross, and I hope NYRB (or another publisher) picks it up off the back of Transit. I’m not familiar with either of the other two you mention so I’ll take a look.

      That’s such a contrast between the approaches adopted by Mexico and Chile. Prior to reading Transit, I had no feel for the sheer amount of documentation involved or the difficulties in navigating the transit process, even for travellers passing through a country en route to their final destination. It was heartbreaking to see just how quickly the rules of the game could change without a thought or care for the human consequences. New regulations or requirements would be introduced on a whim and hopes dashed at the last minute…

      Reply
      1. Mytwostotinki

        Both books are non-fiction. Varian Fry organized the escape of many writers and intellectuals. The book title |Surrender on Demand| refers to the agreement between Vichy France and Nazi Germany that Vichy had to surrender on demand any person the Nazis had on their long list of enemies from the so-called unoccupied France. That made the escape from Marseille such an urgent and desperate matter. Lisa Fittko was a refugee that was guiding groups of refugees through the Pyrenees to Spain. I found both books to be really breathtaking.

        Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is pretty unforgettable, and it shows a different side of the WW2 story. I’d recommend it, especially give your interest in film. I’m thinking of Casablanca here…

      Reply
  6. Guy Savage

    A perfect choice for German Literature month. I recently watched Casablanca which touched briefly on the subject of refugees trying to leave and two Germans who were murdered for their transit visas. I thought of this book, of course. It’s not one you forget easily.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’m so glad I read this for German Literature Month. It caught my eye last year when I saw it the staff recommendations in Foyles, and it’s NYRB of course. Funnily enough, I revisited Casablanca the other week for precisely the reason you mention. Transit really lifts the lid on the whole web of bureaucracy and detached nature of officials dealing with refugees, doesn’t it? An absolutely unforgettable book.

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I’ve now decided to add a second category to my CV as a reader. This is for books I haven’t read but because of others’ reviews I feel I can speak about them as if I had. It’s a more sophisticated version of “How to bluff books you haven’t read.” Thanks, Jaquiwine and other book bloggers, even if you do add to my books-I-must-read panic attacks.

    Reply
  8. yodcha

    I read and posted on this book last year during German Literature Month, the perfect movie to accompany this book is Casablanca, produced almost at the same time Transit was written. Great review.,

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks. I’ll take a look at your review, yodcha. Oddly enough, I revisited Casablanca once I’d finished reading Transit and watching the film again felt a little eerie in light of events in the novel.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    Looks like you’ve found another gem from NYRB. This currently top of my list to buy from German Literature Month reviews (okay, I know we’re only half way through!)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I seem to click with the NYRB titles, and I’m struggling to think of any disappointments (although I know you were less keen on Speedboat). I wonder who curates their list? Whoever does it seems to have very good taste and a knack for picking noteworthy books.

      Glad to hear you like the sound of Transit and I hope it’s still high on your list by the end of the month. (I’ll consider it payback for those Spanish Lit books I ended up buying off the back of your reviews in July!) It does offer a remarkable insight into the horrors and frustrations of the transit process, and Seghers’ own experience makes it all the more powerful and believable as a novel. If you’d like a different view though, you might want to take a look at Tony’s review. I can understand some of his frustrations with it although I thought Seghers’ decision to use a circular structure and elements of repetition might have been a deliberate one as it emphasises the seemingly endless maze of bureaucracy.

      Reply
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  11. Richard

    I hope to read this one someday, Jacqui, so I’m glad to hear you liked it more than Tony did (a lukewarm review as I recall). Sounds up my alley, but that NYRB cover is so off-puttingly ugly–one of their worst!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a remarkable story, Richard, one that will haunt me for some time I think. You’re right – Tony was less enthusiastic about it, and I can understand some of his frustrations with the novel’s pace. Nevertheless, as I mentioned to Grant in the comment above, I wondered whether Seghers’ had made a conscious decision to use a circular structure and elements of repetition. To my mind these elements only served to amplify what it must have been like for these refugees to feel trapped in a never-ending circuit of bureaucracy. And the despair of having to start the process all over again if any of their documents expired. Just awful.

      The cover is a strange one, isn’t it? I must admit to being quite intrigued by the image, and it probably does speak to some of the book’s themes, especially the shifting identities and somewhat ghostly feel / atmosphere. You’ll just have to cover the jacket with wrapping paper, or look for a different edition!

      Reply
  12. Caroline

    Great review, Jaqui. I have read The Seventh Cross and her short stories which are impressive too but this sounds like a book I would love even more. I’ve got it after reading a book about German writers in exile, should just get the time to read it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. Oh, I think you’d really appreciate Transit, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I must track down a copy of The Seventh Cross (maybe for next year’s GLM if you’re thinking of hosting it again). The book on German writers in exile sounds fascinating, and I saw Marina Sofia’s review of it last week. I hope it gets picked up for translation at some point.

      Reply
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  16. poppypeacockpens

    Great insightful review as always Jacqui… I’d like to read this one to examine in particular how she uses the structure to represent the frustrations & repetitious beurocracy… but also to feed my curiosity to see what plays out between the protagonist and the woman in the cafe.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The structure is rather effective as it seems to mirror the frustrations and seemingly endless paperchase associated with exiting the country. Some readers might find it a little baggy or repetitive, but I think that’s kind of the point here. :)

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Caroline. I’m a big fan of this book, so it’s always nice to introduce it to another potential reader. I don’t think it’s as well known in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. I found it really involving.

      Reply
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