Transit by Anna Seghers is a story worthy of Kafka. As a matter of fact in his introduction Peter Conrad compares The Castle's Joseph K to the refugees trying to get out of Europe in advance of the Nazi invasion. "Not for the last time, modern life had turned into the enactment of a Kafka novel: Seghers and countless others were like Kafka's Joseph K trying to get his credentials as a land surveyor recognized by officials in the impenetrable castle." Seghers was born into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Germany where she received a doctorate in Art History from the distinguished University of Heidelberg before moving to France in 1933. She had to flee in 1940 with her husband and children finally settling in Mexico, and like her characters in Transit had to make the journey by way of Marseille no doubt experiencing the same endless rounds of visits to officials trying to get her papers in order to leave.
It's sometimes hard to imagine (though little of what she writes in her story is surprising) the world as it was in 1940. Today communication is instantaneous. You can read about a revolution half a world away the moment it occurs, and not just hear about it but see it. Nothing short of a catastrophe separates two people who are in contact no matter how far the distance. But imagine Europe at the start of the war as people must leave their homes and livelihoods behind and begin a vast migration crossing borders, countries and oceans. To lose contact with someone might be devastating and permanent. The world Seghers writes about it both disorienting and harrowing. There is such an overwhelming feeling of dislocation, a sense of urgency and a fear that perhaps the next ship will be the last and you will not be on it, having not obtained the correct visas and travel permits. Maybe worse is the feeling of boredom and misery for the endless waiting and the uncertainties attached to the process.
Transit reads almost like a thriller, though strangely it is not overtly political. What happens in the book occurs in an endless limbo and while the stories of the characters are personal, not a lot of detail is provided about their past histories. It's the here and now as lived by average people that is related. The unnamed narrator, a man who escapes first from a German concentration camp and then later a French detention camp takes on not one but two different identities mostly by chance and whim. "My own name never entered the picture" he tells the reader (essentially he is telling the story to the reader, though it is via other refugees in his daily café visits. As he sits and waits in the port city of Marseille, trying to get his necessary papers and deciding just what he wants to do, he tells his story, in many ways the same story as countless others who have flooded the city.
After the narrator escapes from Germany without any identity papers, his journey will take him five days walking, he ends up in Paris in search of old friends. There he agrees to carry a letter and suitcase to the widow of a writer named Weidel who is living in Marseille. It seems a small thing, but will cause him quite a lot of trouble and create a tangled web of misunderstandings. Along the way he adopts, too, the identity of another refugee named Seidler to add to the confusion.
In Marseille he meets and falls for a woman who seems to always be rushing from one café or restaurant to another in search of her husband who she has heard has arrived in the city belatedly. Although Marie has since hooked up with a doctor, she puts off their departure, though she seems always a step behind never arriving in time to see him. And always the doctor waits for Marie, going so far as to give up his departure ticket so they can travel together. The three form a triangle with Seidler/Weidel alternately fearful of being left behind and not wanting to go, but simply remaining in Marseille or the countryside nearby to live despite his fraudulent papers.
The story moves in circles it seems. Always the same problems and the same disappointments, the same missed opportunities. No one is allowed to simply move to Marseille to live during the war. It is now a city of departure. To stay one must have papers showing proper travel credentials from wherever the journey began. To leave one must have transit visa, a ticket on a ship and a visa to enter whatever country is the end destination. Always luck runs out. When one paper or visa is obtained, whatever was already in possession will have expired. Seghers has created an existential nightmare. I would say she has created a cloying and claustrophobic atmosphere, but this is not simply her imagination, a story. It was the reality of the day. She has captured brilliantly the chaos of a world that was collapsing. It is at once a remarkable and absurd story.
All my NYRB subscription books have been excellent and each one so different from the others. Although I have fallen behind in my reading (I think I am now three books behind--and another should arrive in another week or so), I plan on continuing my subscription next year. Next up is Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary, which I hope to begin reading properly this week. I read the introduction a couple of weekend's ago in anticipation for starting but my attention has been elsewhere. Although I am going to continue on with my four main reads, I'll be bringing the Hoban along with me to work as well.
If you want an entirely different look at WWII I highly recommend Transit by Anna Seghers. My own copy is marked up and dog eared and I'm afraid I've barely touched the tip of the iceberg.