Homeless in the World: On Anna Seghers

Rey Conquer explores the work of East German author Anna Seghers.

By Rey ConquerApril 5, 2023

Homeless in the World: On Anna Seghers

“IT GRIEVES ME how little, or else how badly, I am translated in England,” Anna Seghers wrote to the publisher John Lehmann in the late 1930s. Her next book, she wrote, would be “more intelligible to foreigners and more straightforward to translate”; she was even willing to give up her advance, despite needing the money, in order for a translator to be paid. The new book was The Seventh Cross, still her most widely read. Published—not in England but in the United States—in 1942, it became a bestseller, was turned into a film and a comic strip, and was even suspected by the FBI of being a communist codebook.

In it, seven prisoners escape from a concentration camp; after seven days, only one, George Heisler, is left uncaptured, but the Gestapo are closing in. His wandering journey through the Rhineland, described with dreamlike vividness, provides a plot—but also, more importantly for Seghers, the opportunity for a panoramic view of Germany under (and beyond) Nazism. Knowing that his family and contacts are being watched, Heisler must rely on strangers and friends from a previous, unpolitical life—“neighbors” in the Christian sense. We follow a cast of many characters—a gardener’s apprentice, a camp commandant, a costume maker—as they choose to heed or ignore a human instinct towards solidarity, each decision moving Heisler closer to or further from freedom. No character is too minor, or too right-wing, for their thoughts and decisions to be presented with sympathetic clarity. Interiority is granted to all, and it is the inner life that forms the basis for resistance, as the famous last lines make clear (here in Margot Bettauer Dembo’s translation): “We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also sensed that in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.”

This “something” is present throughout Seghers’s work, as the possession of taciturn and inscrutable heroes, such as Heisler or his mentor Wallau or, as in a radio play of 1937, Joan of Arc—a possession characters suddenly find themselves aware of in moments of epiphanic clarity, often under interrogation and torture, but also through encounters with others. Of the heroic, one-legged Heinz, who, like Heisler, moves others to help him, the narrator of Transit (1944) says (again, in Dembo’s translation), “For even in me he found something, I don’t know what, which even I hadn’t known I still possessed; and I was only aware that I still possessed it for as long as his gaze rested on me.”

Particularly in Seghers’s early fiction, we see not only the inner workings of conscience and feeling but also secret and unaccountable desires. In the story “Jans Is Going to Die” (written in 1925 but only published after her death, and translated by Dembo for a selection of stories, The Dead Girls’ Class Trip, published by NYRB Classics in 2021), Jans’s father waits for his wife to leave the room before he dares to “take his index finger and dab a little dent in the child’s soft flesh.” These desires—rarely erotic, and when they are, only as part of the larger texture of living—come from her characters’ deep sense of homelessness in the world. In a review of her 1937 novel The Rescue, Walter Benjamin described the “eccentric cravings” of Seghers’s characters, “as if they were pregnant,” due to the agonizing idleness of unemployment. Desires and aversions may be a mark of “how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being” (in the collective narrator’s words from the end of Seventh Cross). But—as most obviously in the 1943 story “A Man Becomes a Nazi,” also in Dead Girls’ Class Trip, where to ignore human impulses is to take a step towards atrocity—they are also a mark of availability for rescue and redemption (the German title, Die Rettung—rescue, but also salvation—gestures towards both).

Seghers was born in 1900, the only child of well-to-do observant Jews in Mainz, Germany. At Heidelberg, Netty Reiling (as she was then known) fell in with a group of theologically minded left-wing intellectuals, especially Hungarian émigrés from the circle around György Lukács (who also became a friend and correspondent of Seghers’s), such as László Radványi, attractive and “sad in a religious way,” whom she married in 1925. She became a member of the Communist Party in 1928, the year of her first literary success: the novella Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara, published under the mononym Seghers, to which she later added Anna. The Evening Standard reported her as giving an “intensely Communist speech” at a PEN Club dinner in London in her honor, addressing fellow writers as bourgeois “adversaries”—and complaining that another event was “all ladies.”

In 1933, Seghers fled Germany and ended up in Paris the next year, her husband and two children joining later. In 1941, after an exhausting year of constant movement and anxiety, they landed in Mexico, where Seghers stayed until 1947. In exile, she wrote what is usually considered her best—and is certainly her best-known—work. She made an important (and somewhat overlooked) contribution to the debate on the politics of avant-garde aesthetics among German-language Marxists that played out in exile journals, writing to her friend Lukács to defend experimental methods. Returning to Germany in 1947, she was dismayed by the self-serving cowardice of those who had stayed behind. She settled in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where, as one of Germany’s foremost communist writers, she became a literary figurehead, an icon, “our Anna”: a microelectronics factory was named for her, and after her death in 1983, her flat was preserved as a memorial, complete with her library (each book stamped “please return”) and her collections of shells and figurines from all over the world. To the literary press in the West, she became the go-to example of the writer whose talent had withered in the dry soil of socialist realism, even a traitor to her own art. Early communist critics had viewed her stories of the 1920s with suspicion, and even in the GDR, some privately held her work to be too romantic, too bourgeois, too interested in the mythical, the transcendental.

Until recently, nothing of this work had been translated into English since the 1970s. Over the last decade, however, NYRB Classics has brought out three new translations: Transit (2013), The Seventh Cross (2018), and The Dead Girls’ Class Trip (2021), all by Dembo, who died before the last title appeared. Also in the United States, Diálogos Press has published translations of two later works, the 1971 novella Crossing: A Love Story (2016) and Seghers’s final, perhaps overly simple, book of stories from 1980, Three Women from Haiti (2019), both by Douglas Irving.

Of the stories gathered in Dead Girls’ Class Trip, the only one written in the GDR is “The Guide,” a hypnotic tale of a young Ethiopian boy triumphing over Italian colonial geologists by exploiting their greed and lust. Most of the book’s contents are from the exile years; several stories deal with resistance to Nazism, some are what Seghers called “pure” (as opposed to “applied”) art, written “to annoy Lukács,” that draw on or invent myths and legends. The title story, unusually autobiographical, is the only one to deal with the experience of exile itself: its narrator finds herself transported from Mexico to the Mainz of her childhood, surrounded by classmates and teachers whose futures she knows—this one will die in a concentration camp having not betrayed her husband; that one will refuse to help her, having become a Nazi. Concrete, and in some cases historical, examples stand in for Germany and its people: the Jewish teacher who, like the narrator’s mother, will be deported to Poland, the devout Christian teacher whose “heavy black cross” necklace is no longer comical but “as solemn as a symbol.”

As Seghers put it, paraphrasing Marx, “we write in order not to describe but, in describing, to change.” The story ends with the narrator remembering a task assigned to her by her Jewish teacher: to write an account of the class trip. This recalls a scene in Transit, finished the previous year, where the unnamed narrator (a somewhat aimless engineer who, without exactly meaning to, is impersonating a writer who killed himself as the Nazis marched on Paris) is asked why he—that is, the dead writer—will not write another book. He answers:

As a little boy I often went on school trips. The trips were a lot of fun, but then the next day our teacher assigned us a composition on the subject, “Our school trip.” And when we came back from summer vacations we always had to write a composition: “How I spent my vacation.” And even after Christmas, there was a composition: “Christmas.” And in the end it seemed to me that I experienced the school trips, Christmas, the vacations, only so that I could write a composition about them. And all those writers who were in the concentration camp with me, who escaped with me, it seems to me that we lived through these most terrible stretches in our lives just so we could write about them: the camps, the war, escape, and flight.

Transit was “written in the middle of the situation that it describes”: the absurd, almost farcical bureaucracy facing refugees in Marseille in 1940. The narrator, who has escaped a concentration camp in Germany and an internment camp in France, has turned up in the city without any plan to emigrate. A Czech conductor, waiting for a visa to Venezuela, delights in explaining to him the paradoxical situation the novel’s title alludes to: “[T]hey’ll let you stay here in peace for a certain length of time only if you can prove that you intend to leave.” When the narrator allows himself to be mistaken for the writer Weidel, whose papers he has brought from Paris, he enters the nightmarish world that the conductor describes—of exit visas and transit visas; of expiration dates and ever-changing regulations; of self-interest, corruption, and despair; and of the “age-old harbor gossip,” as he details,

that’s existed as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea, Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of gossips who were anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about their money, or who were fleeing from all the real and imagined horrors of the world. […] The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves, human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death toward another.

Critics and even friends were disappointed with the novel after the success of The Seventh Cross. One supporter privately called it a work of “drabness and boredom,” a criticism preempted on the first page: “Probably you find all of this pretty unimportant? You’re bored?—I am too.” And again on the second:

I’d like to tell someone the whole story from beginning to end. If only I weren’t afraid it was boring. Aren’t you thoroughly fed up with such thrilling stories? Aren’t you sick of all these suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger by a hair, about breathtaking escapes? […] If something still thrills me today, then maybe it’s an old worker’s yarn about how many feet of wire he’s drawn in the course of his long life and what tools he used, or the glow of the lamplight by which a few children are doing their homework.

Boringness, that is, as an antidote to the tedious “thrills” of fleeing war and persecution, and as a fitting mode for depicting the life of the refugee, in which the mundane is painfully stretched out, the only certainty the daily deprivations of a country at war.

Even the “suspenseful tale” that is The Seventh Cross shares in the propulsive kind of boringness characteristic to Seghers. Cyclical structures, narratives made up of small tales and encounters in narrow permutations—that is, the resources of the epic—form a crosscurrent to the powerful tide of history. Benjamin (whose suicide is marked through overheard gossip in Transit) wrote admiringly of Seghers as a kind of chronicler, and Transit in its turn seems almost a reworking in novel form of ideas from his essay “On the Concept of History,” written early in 1940, which crossed the Atlantic a few weeks after Seghers.

Transit ends with a change of mind: the narrator decides at the last minute not to leave with the writer’s wife, with whom he has fallen in love. That way he is free for others, and providence brings him to a peach farm where, with a friend, he makes plans to join the resistance. As with many of Seghers’s characters, political commitment is enacted through, and born of, an ability to ask for and offer help, a recognition of and openness to others. And so, a second change is that this man, who begins by telling us he doesn’t have much use for books, has—through reading the dead writer’s unfinished manuscript, and through listening to the stories of other refugees—become a storyteller, a master of the kind of German he finds in the manuscript: “And as I read line after line, I also felt that this was my own language, my mother tongue, and it flowed into me like milk into a baby. It didn’t rasp and grate like the language that came from the throats of the Nazis […] This was serious, calm, and still.” This is a statement of Seghers’s own stylistic aims: a language—drawing on Franz Kafka, the Brothers Grimm, Heinrich von Kleist, Georg Büchner, Martin Luther—that is simple and serious, and intimate, immediate, vital: a language that belongs to the people it describes but remains always at a distance.

Simplicity is harder to translate than it might sound, and Dembo does it well, with a sense of ease and spontaneity. There are inevitably minor errors and moments of overliteralism (“Marie […] ripped open the door”—threw, flung?) or mismatches of tone (“spooky” instead of eerie or uncanny). Repeated words are not always translated the same way when there seems little need for variation: in Transit, both Weidel’s stories and the folk song of the German legionnaire are described as “einfach und fein,” “simple and fine,” yet Dembo goes with “clear and elegant” and “simple and beautiful” respectively, a decision that loses the connection between the two (and, by extension, with Seghers’s own style). But the flashes of oddness, and particularly the occasional sense of being able to see through the translation to the German behind it, give Dembo’s Seghers a not-unwanted sense of coming from afar.

Translation adds another frame to Seghers’s stories within stories: the letters read out from beyond the grave to the aging Nathan Levi in “Mail to the Promised Land,” the we-narrators of The Seventh Cross and “The Lord’s Prayer,” the hearsay of “Shelter” and Transit—the forms of relating that she presents as necessary to human life and human hope.


Rey Conquer is a writer based in London and teaches German literature and film at the University of Oxford.

LARB Contributor

Rey Conquer, a writer based in London, teaches German literature and film at the University of Oxford. Their first book, Reading Colour (2019), was a study of German modernist poetry.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!