Last month, we both reviewed and podcasted about NYRB Classics’ new editions of Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man and The Alteration (reviews here and here, respectively, and here’s the podcast). But on the same day those were released, NYRB Classics also published a new edition of Anna Seghers’ Transit (1944; tr. from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo). I really enjoyed the two Amis novels, but, between you and me, if I could choose only one of the three, I’d swoop up Transit — even with its ending that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book — without second thoughts.
Anna Seghers was born in 1900 to an upper middle-class Jewish family in Germany. In 1933, after Hitler took over, she moved to France but had to flee the Nazi invasion again in 1940. She sailed from Marseille to Mexico on the same ship that carried Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, around the same time she heard her friend Walter Benjamin had committed suicide on the French-Spanish border after being turned away from Spain when Spain cancelled all transit visas.
In a sense, then, Transit is autobiographical, focusing as it does on those trying to flee before the Nazis arrived, particularly those held up in Marseilles, waiting for the perfect combination of documents that would take them to a new world. That said, here our central character and narrator is a twenty-seven-year-old man who has already escaped a concentration camp in Germany and another in Rouen. Transit begins with this narrator sitting across from some “you” in a Marseilles café, watching the ships in the harbor.
He offers to buy the listener a slice of pizza and then says he once gave up a chance to take a ship — he already had the ticket, the visa, and the transit visa — and now there is a rumor that ship, the Montreal, struck a mine and sank. He knew a couple who was on the ship. He’d like to imagine that they made it. Ah, if it won’t be too boring, he’d like to, for once, tell someone the whole story.
Dealing as it does on the life of a refugee who is always circling just on the cusp of survival, the story can be repetitive — wait in line here, wait in line there, secure a visa here, lose it there, always dealing with some bureaucrat — but Transit is far from boring. And so we begin his story in a concentration camp, move from there to an escape that takes us quickly past Paris, and then a life on the edge of frontiers on the dusty, hazy port of Marseilles.
When I say our narrator is nameless, I mean that we don’t know his real name. In the story, he actually possesses two names. On the way to Marseilles, someone asks if he’d deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, in Paris. When he gets there, he finds Weidel has committed suicide, so the narrator leaves for Marseilles, assuming the name Siedler to assist him along the way, but the authorities think his real name is Weidel. Kafka would have been proud to see a nameless narrator with two names attempting to secure temporary residence papers, for which one is required to have a transit visa, for which one is required . . . and so on.
In the midst of this waiting game, the narrator befriends a man with an invalid son. When he goes out to find a doctor, he meets Marie, the doctor’s lover. The narrator, now that he’s Weidel/Siedler, turns out to have other connections to Marie.
But as fascinating as the story with Marie is, as fascinating as the trips around the bureaucracy are, for me the book’s real treasure lies in its examination of narrative and its postulation that, in a way, life is but a dream. These two concepts come together.
As I mentioned, when the story begins, the narrator talks of a ship that carried this mysterious couple and that might have sunk, and now he’d like to, for once, tell the whole story. He may feel it’s a way of rescuing them. Also, the manuscript Weidel left behind is a kind of fairy tale that the narrator claims could rescue from evil. And in all of this, there are the hazy harbors of Marseilles, where the narrator seems to be in a state of waiting, or limbo, no longer living, not yet dead, and all the time waiting transit to some promised land where the terrors chasing them down do not exist.
Such a perspective, on narratives and on this dreamy afterlife, is not all positive. The narrator wonders if he’d survived all of these things simply to write about them, as if life is only meant to be the source of some exciting story of humans in mortal peril. And the narrator also knows that the promised land everyone is lining up for is not yet tangible. If — and that’s a big if — we even succeed in arriving there, it won’t be heaven. We are all passing through this life, which perhaps has no meaning and which perhaps leads to nowhere.
Unfortunately, as alive as these concepts are through most of the novel, in the end they take backseat to a strangely compelling love triangle that leads to a rather sentimental epiphany. If you’re thinking of Casablanca, you’re not alone. Still, provocative in so many ways (and the love triangle is rather great), Transit remains powerful and relevant today as we all move about in this life.