Tag Archives: Margot Bettauer Dembo

#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing — the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, this is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imagined world. Best approached as a volume to dip into, whenever if you’re in the mood for something beguiling and different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it here.

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.


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.