Well, this is a bit of a change of pace after Enid Blyton and crime novels! But I picked “Transit” up when I was in London recently and it’s been calling to me since – and it’s a lovely NYRB edition so what’s not to love??

transit

Wikipedia says of Seghers: “Anna Seghers (19 November 1900 – 1 June 1983) was a German writer famous for depicting the moral experience of the Second World War.” I came across her name once when looking up Christa Wolf, and was intrigued – Seghers had quite a life, fleeing from the Nazis during the war as she was Jewish, choosing to return to Germany after the war and settling in East Germany because of her left-wing convictions. “Transit” was published in 1951 and was based in part on her experiences during the war as a refugee washed up in Marseille, where many people ended up, trying to escape from the Germans.

The book’s narrator is an unnamed man, an engineer who is also fleeing the Nazis, having escaped from a series of concentration camps – presumably he had been held because he was left-wing, but his real identity is never really revealed, and in any case identities are fluid in this place. Whilst travelling, he is asked by a friend to deliver a letter to a writer called Weidel, only to discover that the man has committed suicide, leaving behind a suitcase containing personal effects and writings. Taking the case, he travels on to Marseille, adopting another alias on the way, that of a refugee called Seidler. However, once in Marseille the identities become blurred, with the authorities thinking he is one man using both names. As the narrator searches for Weidel’s wife, to hand her the suitcase and help her obtain visas and papers to escape from France, he encounters old acquaintances, fellow refugees, an amazing variety of other characters trying to escape the country, and also his nemesis: a doctor who is the lover of a women who attracts him deeply. Who is she, and will Weidel/Seidler manage to flee from Marseille and the endless maze of red tape which seems to have trapped every character there?

It’s hard to sum up this complex, dream-like novel in a few sentences, because it *is* very deep and involved. It would be easy to make comparisons with Kafka and Catch 22 because of the ridiculousness of the bureaucracy and the haze of civil servants that every character has to deal with trying to leave – and bizarrely enough, if you want to stay in Marseille the authorities won’t let you – you have to convince them that you want to leave to get a residence permit of any sort! And there are endless frantic searches for exit visas, transit visas, tickets, money – it’s a nightmare of red tape which has the effect of causing the characters to start to lose their identity. Our narrator is already hazy enough, and with all this shifting of identities, becomes even less defined. He does not seem to know what he wants – whether to stay or to leave; to pursue the woman he loves or not; stay with the friendly family he knows or cut all ties. This blurring is deliberately unsettling and captures beautifully the sense of unreality and insecurity experienced by refugees, those people in transit.

seghers

Seghers’ writing is beautiful – she conjures up the landscape vividly, whether the narrator is fleeing through France, or gazing at the bay in Marseilles. And this is a novel not just of events but of thoughts – the narrators indecision is a kind of existential crisis, an inability to deal with reality, to know himself and to understand what he wants. We know all along that he will not leave, as the book opens with him still stuck in Marseille and relating his story to a passer-by. Nevertheless it is somewhat chilling to learn the processes he’s gone through to get to that state, watching him struggle with his feelings and trying to understand his own motivations. In many ways he’s an everyman – representing the state of humanity at this point in time, hounded by an aggressive machine so intransigent that it’s impossible to comprehend. The sense of being stateless, having no land where one could rest or belong, was a common one at the time and the state of mind of the characters in “Transit” epitomises this.

The movement of people is also part of the human condition, one that’s existed for centuries: human beings are always on the move and always have been, from land to land, continent to continent, exploring, discovering and changing their surroundings. The people stuck in Marseille are simply part of a long history.

“Ships must always have been anchored here, at this very place, because this is where Europe ends and the sea begins. There’s always been an inn at this pot because it was on the road that led to the juncture of land and sea. I felt ancient, thousands of years old. I had experienced all this before. But I also felt very young, and eager for all that was yet to come; I felt immortal.”

But there is another strand in the story, which is the search of Weidel’s wife for her husband, the writer. Unaware of the deception being perpetrated by the narrator, she cannot understand why other people in Marseille keep encountering her ‘husband’, while she runs from cafe to cafe, embassy to embassy, just missing him and unable to track him down. Marseille is perceived as a kind of maze, in which people move past each other without seeing each other, where it is impossible to find someone and then you will accidentally bump into them. All of this adds to the dream-like quality of the narrative.

marseille

In the end, the narrator lets go of much that he thinks is of value, and ends up possibly attempting to take root in the locality. How long this transient way of living will be allowed to carry on is unclear, but he seems to have attained a temporary kind of peace. Who he is, we never will really know, as the multiple, shifting identities he’s taken over have blurred the line between fiction and reality. In some ways, I stayed detached from Weidel/Seidler because of his imprecision – although I became concerned in the fates of the other characters, he never really took hold, as if he was almost a kind of chimera with no real identity.

“It’s true, I realized, Everything just passes through me. And that’s why I was still roving about unharmed in a world in which I didn’t know my way well at all. Indeed, even the fit of anger that had decided my life back then in my own country was only temporary. I didn’t stay angry; I wandered around afterward, my anger gone. What I really like is what endures, that which is different from me.”

“Transit” is a haunting and gripping novel which is relevant today, in a world which is still troubled by wars and refugees. Seghers gets inside the mind of people in exile like no other writer I’ve read, and “Transit” is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the effect of WW2 on real, ordinary people, reduced to fleeing for their lives. A really remarkable book.

 

 

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