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Anna Seghers’s Transit is an existential, political, literary thriller that explores the agonies of boredom, the vitality of storytelling, and the plight of the exile with extraordinary compassion and insight.
Having escaped from a Nazi concentration camp in Germany in 1937, and later a camp in Rouen, the nameless twenty-seven-year-old German narrator of Seghers’s multilayered masterpiece ends up in the dusty seaport of Marseille. Along the way he is asked to deliver a letter to a man named Weidel in Paris and discovers Weidel has committed suicide, leaving behind a suitcase containing letters and the manuscript of a novel. As he makes his way to Marseille to find Weidel’s widow, the narrator assumes the identity of a refugee named Seidler, though the authorities think he is really Weidel. There in the giant waiting room of Marseille, the narrator converses with the refugees, listening to their stories over pizza and wine, while also gradually piecing together the story of Weidel, whose manuscript has shattered the narrator’s “deathly boredom,” bringing him to a deeper awareness of the transitory world the refugees inhabit as they wait and wait for that most precious of possessions: transit papers.
“This novel, completed in 1942, is in my opinion the most beautiful Seghers has written. . . . I doubt that our post-1933 literature can point to many novels that have been written with such somnambulistic sureness and are almost flawless.” –Heinrich Böll
“Transit belongs to those books that entered my life, and to which I continue to engage with in my writing, so much that I have to pick it up every couple years to see what has happened between me and it.” –Christa Wolf
“Anna Seghers in Transit has painted a grim and crowded picture of Marseille when it was still a port of possible escape for the fugitives of all Europe…[Transit’s] very air of confusion and blind groping is consonant with its theme…it is credible and arresting…there is an amazing variety and reality in event the least of the characters.” –Christian Science Monitor
“No reader will question the author’s sincerity as she strives to anatomize the refugee mind.” –The New York Times Book Review
“What makes Miss Seghers’s story so convincing is the human authenticity of her characters, and the masterly panorama of Vichy Marseille, that ‘tiny spigot through which the world flood of Europe’s fleeing thousands sought to pour.’ Often as that heart-choking picture has been drawn before, both in factual reports and fiction, Miss Seghers’s presentation will stir the reader’s imagination to its depth.” –The Saturday Review