Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo #WITMonth and an Urban Balade in Marseille

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck tr. Susan Bernofsky #WITMonth

I’ve attempted to read Visitation about four times and never succeeded in getting past the first few chapters, but this year I persevered as I felt I hadn’t given it a fair chance.

Now that I’ve finished it, I realise I held unrealistic expectations when I first came across it. I bought my hardcover version in Daunt Books in Marylebone on a visit to London in 2010, I was aware of it after having read a review in the Guardian, this was in the early days when I was newly discovering works by writers in translation.

Jenny Erpenbeck was being hailed as “the rising star of the German literary scene” and her work described as “one of the most striking and original new voices in German writing.” I wanted to discover what that meant, to read it and feel it. Naive. I wasn’t yet able to discern in the little explored world of translations, which voices I would lean towards and appreciate, or to value my reading perceptions.

I began this book a few times and the striking and original wasn’t happening. I shouldn’t have read those blurbs, I should have read it without any expectation and then moved on to her next books, which have gone on to develop a wider audience, won prizes and further established her as that which that was predicted.

Visitation is a veiled narrative that shows a little of the lives of a few people who lived alongside a lake that was formed about thirteen thousand years, whose origins might be traced back to a glacier from twenty-four thousand years ago. Beginning the book with this geological origin reminds us of our insignificance and the inevitability of change and transformation.

“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner

The first chapter is entitled ‘The Wealthy Farmer and his Four Daughters’ and tells of the local mayor, who comes from a long line of men, all who have been Mayor of the village, the chapter tells of many traditions, rituals and superstitions, of what is meant to be, to happen, to the point of extreme ridiculousness, as if thousands of years of rituals have piled up on top of one another, awaiting the seismic event that will topple them all. Because he has only procured girls, the inevitable is indeed waiting to happen, for there will be no new Mayor from his family and change is coming to Brandenburg. History as we know is about to impact this family and others, people are going to have to leave and strangers are going to arrive.

When they returned to Germany, it was a long time she and her husband could bring themselves to shake hands with people they didn’t know. They had felt a virtually physical revulsion when faced with all these people who had willingly remained behind.

In between the chapters with titles encompassing their time there, like ‘The Architect’, the Architect’s Wife’, ‘the Red Army Officer’, ‘the Subtenants’, ‘the Girl’, ‘the Writer’, ‘the Visitor’, ‘the Childhood Friend’, are the chapters of ‘The Gardener’, the one closest to nature, the one consistent thread that exists throughout all the others, as the others succumb to the effects of the era in history they embrace – pre-war(s) to post war Germany, is the man with no name, who looks after everything, but who is a cycle of nature himself, so that by the end, as his (in)ability changes, so too do others that come in have to either take up his responsibilities or allow things to fall into neglect.

Laced with melancholy, it offers snippets of lives of those who dwell(ed) near this lake, wood, village – the compromises, the passing of seasons, the building, destroying of things, relationships – why strangers are both spurned and revered and always The Gardener, the one who tends, who observes, who slowly wilts, forcing others to adapt.

While I appreciate what it attempts to do, I didn’t find the novel engaging, that melancholy combined with the veiled effect, of keeping the reader at a distance from the characters, of only seeing so much, instilled in it for me, a kind a quiet dread, a feeling drained of hope, as if there was no escape from a dire inevitability, no matter what it was. The psyche of the era it was set in perhaps; if so, it succeeds in creating an atmosphere of a country, its people and the spectre of its past.

 

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler tr. Charlotte Collins

A Whole LifeDumped with an uncaring relative after his mother dies of consumption Andreas Eggers connects with the mountain more than with the family that barely tolerate him and when he is strong enough to resist the thrashings, will leave and make his own way as a labourer eventually earning sufficient to buy a plot of land up the mountain where he can build a cabin.

He arrived in the village as a small boy in the summer of 1902, brought by horse-drawn carriage from a town far beyond the mountains. When he was lifted out he stood there, speechless, eyes wide, gazing up in astonishment at the shimmering white peaks. He must have been about four-years-old at the time, perhaps a little younger or older. No one knew exactly, and no one was interested, least of all the farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, who reluctantly took receipt of little Egger and gave the carriage driver the measly tip of two groschen and a crust of hard bread.

A Whole Life is a melancholic yet soothing narrative of days and events that affect the life of Eggers, few of its turning points are initiated by himself – only when it becomes a matter of survival or principal. He is somewhat at the mercy of the mountain, the elements and whatever it is that confronts him. It is a gentle, unassuming novella of an unremarkable life, touchingly evocative yet unsentimental, a tribute to small wonders that make up a relatively uneventful life.

His early life stems from the moment of being left in the place of the family, his later life from having carried a dying man down the mountain, causing him to stop in at the inn, where the briefest touch of a woman becomes the catalyst for the next significant turning point in his life.

‘Another one?’ the young woman asked, and Egger nodded. She brought a fresh glass, and as she leaned forward to put it on the table she touched his upper arm with the fold of her blouse. The touch was barely perceptible, yet it left a subtle pain that seemed to sink deeper into his flesh with every passing second. He looked at her, and she smiled.
All his life Andreas Egger would look back on this moment, again and again; that brief smile that afternoon in front of the quietly crackling guesthouse stove.

Apart from a brief period at war and a longer spell as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, his life is spent living off and around the mountain, a landscape he is at one with, in awe and wary of. It is all that he knows.

Seethaler describes Eggers, his life and environment in thoughtful, elegiac prose creating a man as much in harmony with his surroundings as is possible. He stands for those who observe change and the approach of the modern world from a distance, who accept who they are and where they have been placed and have only the occasional fleeting desire to move, but will do so when it is necessary.

He thought of the fact that, apart from trips to the Bitterman & Sons cable cars and chair lifts in the surrounding area, he had only left the neighbourhood on one single occasion: to go to war. He thought about how once, along this very road, back then little more than a deeply rutted track across the fields, he had come to the valley for the first time on the box of a horse-drawn carriage. And at that moment he was overcome with a longing so searing and profound he thought his heart would melt. Without looking back he got up and ran.

I loved this book, it reminded me a little of Julio Llamazares set in the Spanish Pyrenees The Yellow Rain, another novella with a strong connection to the village/environment, a kind of wistful resistance, imploring the reader to understand what it means to be human and so strongly connected to a place.

No surprise this novella became a bestseller in Germany and Austria and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2016, we are fortunate to have had it translated so beautifully by Charlotte Collins into English.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.

Robert SeethalerBorn in Vienna, Austria, Robert Seethaler is an actor (most recently in Paulo Sorrentino’s Youth) and writer, he grew up in Germany and now lives in Berlin.  A Whole Life is his fifth novel and the first to be translated into English.

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator, and has also translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

Further Links: 

Irish Times ReviewOne man endures, one day at a time by Eileen Battersby

To Buy This Book Now, Click Below

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

The Pollen Room by Zoë Jenny tr. Elizabeth Gaffney #GermanLitMonth

The Pollen Room was written by the Swiss writer Zoë Jenny when she was 23-years-old and became an international bestseller, translated into more than 27 languages and invitations to speak to readership audiences in Japan, China and the US among others.

Pollen RoomIt is interesting to write about this story after having just read Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, this novella yet another version of what Morrison demonstrates.

It is the memory of childhood without maternal love and its after-effect. It is not dramatic, nor a traditional story, it is a narrative that sets the reader up to feel something of the isolation and vulnerability of the protagonist and follow her forward as she tries to plug the gap, looking for that nourishment as if it were something tangible she could use to plug the abyss it created by its absence.

Jo stayed with her father when her mother left. There is no explanation, just significant and detailed memories of insignificant events, noises that communicate the beginning of her father’s daily routine, signals that provoke anxiety, nameless visitors, the one he married Elaine, who eventually left too.

‘At night I would fall into a restless slumber. Fractured dreams floated past my sleeping eyes like scraps of paper in the raging torrent of a river. Then I would hear a clatter and find myself wide awake. I looked at the spiderwebs on the ceiling and knew that my father was in the kitchen…

There came a series of muffled rustling noises and a moment of quiet. My breath quickened. A lump rose in my throat and swelled to enormous proportions as I watched my father put on his leather jacket and pull the door quietly closed behind him.’

After initial weekly visits, her mother soon moves on to a new life and there is no contact for 12 years. Eventually Jo goes in search of her, however being reaquainted doesn’t bring her companionship or stability, it brings responsibility, creates concern, disquiet. She seeks solace in the company of others, those who appear to live in the semblance of a home, acquaintances short-lived, consequences that won’t leave her.

 Author Zoë Jenny

Author Zoë Jenny

The prose is spare, observant, it infiltrates your mood and makes the reader suffer alongside the protagonist.

Brilliantly conceived, it is not a book to read if you are feeling sad or vulnerable. There is dialogue, interaction, and a great swathe of stream-of-conscious thought as Jo observes each encounter and responds in her inward-looking, sensitive way to it all.

Unfortunately I read this without realising that and so didn’t appreciate it’s best qualities as much as I might have done, had I read it at another time. I read it at a time of being acutely aware of the fragility and vulnerability of youth and couldn’t see past the neglect and narcissism of those around Jo and spent the entire book worrying that something even more terrible was going to happen to her and just felt great relief when it was all over and we were safe.

I was recommended this title by Vishy and I would highly recommend reading his review, which celebrates the beauty and artistic merit of the novella, showing us just how great it can be, when we choose the right time to read it. It was one of his favourite reads of 2015.

Vishy’s Review of The Pollen Room

And it’s German Literature Month, thanks to Caroline at Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life

Follow the hashtag #GermanLitMonth on twitter, or click on the links to see what they’ve been reading, and what great works in translation there are out there for us!

German Literature Month

 

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius tr. Jamie Bulloch

Portrait of the MotherThis 117 page long single sentence in a novella, is the third and final book in the Peirene Press series entitled Female Voices: Inner Realities.

If you missed the first two, you can read my reviews here:

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)

In my previous review I mention the enticing page at the beginning of all Peirene books where publisher Mieke Ziervogel shares what drew her to choosing this book for translation into English.

Here is a glimpse at what she says about this book:

Portrait 2

The book is set in Rome in 1943 when Italy and Germany remain allies during the second world war. The narrative takes place during an afternoon stroll as our young woman on the brink of becoming a mother is walking towards a Lutheran church where she will attend a classical concert.

Eight months pregnant, she is the young wife of a German solider and had been waiting for him to join her in Rome; after briefly reuniting, one day later he is redeployed to Tunisia. Alone again so soon, she walks to the Bach concert thinking about how her life has changed now as a married woman and how distant she feels from everything around her. She recalls recent memories of the short time spent with her husband wondering whether he will return to her safely or not.

Rome 1943Being outside her own country, without her husband and not yet active in her role as mother, it is as if she becomes more acutely aware of who she is, there is little to distract her and she often prefers to keep to herself.

Even the friendship that naturally developed with her room-mate Ilse, she keeps in check, worrying about the implications of being associated with those whose views are more vociferous than her own, she who wishes for a quiet life.

she worried about Ilse, who rarely had a good word to say about authority that was

invested by God, about Hitler and Mussolini, only a few days ago she had said Hitler always demanded that people show no weakness, but human beings were not made like that, and Mussolini always demanded that people had to hate the enemy, but the Italians that she knew were not fond of hatred, why should they hate the English and the Americans,

fortunately Ilse had broken off at this point, perhaps out of consideration for her, because she,

the younger woman, who was always silent when national and political questions were discussed, had just for a second wondered why it was necessary to hate the British and Americans, and in the same instant this forbidden thought made her feel guilty, confused and horrified,

She is not despondent for she has a deep faith and whenever her thoughts turn towards herself she recalls that war is God’s most difficult trial, lamenting:

“God, who is love, delivers this all to us, that it may benefit us in the end,

for it was un-Christian to shed tears for one’s own misfortune and to forget the far greater misfortunes of others, the joys of life were limitless”

Her thoughts enable the reader to understand her reluctance to do anything that might jeopardise what slim chance she may have at a normal life, she dislikes that by virtue of being foreign she already stands out, the opposite of what might give her peace of mind.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a spellbinding portrayal of one woman’s internal conversation, her method of coping with the strangeness of her environment, talking herself into maintaining a calm state of mind, rationalising why they have found themselves in this situation. Though it is a trial for her, it is not enough to prevent her dreaming of the life she wishes they were living, something that seems increasingly like a fantasy, as the probability of her husband’s return grows slimmer as each day passes.

Poignant in its simplicity, expressing that universal feminine desire for love in a safe, nurturing environment.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque translated by A.W.Wheen

Vera BrittainVera Brittain gave us her Testament of Youth, an account of a generation of youth lost whether they lost their lives or survived World War One, for those who lived, something of the essence of youth was lost to them forever and none who were part of it were unaffected or not changed by it.

Earlier in the year Juliet Greenwood gave us a fictional account of woman during World War One in We That Are Left, a novel that highlights the significant changes in the lives of women during that period, to the point of not going back to the way things were.

More recently Richard Flanagan’s Testament of Horrors, which for this reader was more than was possible to absorb, despite the later redeeming passages I may have missed, so visceral were his descriptions.

And now, I add the German Literature classic All Quiet on the Western Front to that tome of war literature that shares something of the experience and its effect, the novel by Erich Maria Remarque telling the story of Paul Baumer, a 20 year old German soldier.

He and his friends are pressured by their schoolmaster to join up early, an action that won’t be forgotten and which will be repaid when they meet again under different circumstances.

“For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognise that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces. ”

All QuietHe narrates his journey, their comradeship, their fear, their daily survival. Their small joys often centred around food, their occasional escape, a mild wound or a leave pass and thoughts of how they might ever continue a life other than this if ever there is a peacetime. It is something few can imagine and most don’t want to, it isn’t relevant.

On one of his infrequent visits home, Baumer tries to understand what has changed.

“They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, yes that is it – they feel it, but always with only half of themselves, the rest of their being is taken up with other things, they are so divided in themselves that none feels it with his whole essence; I cannot even say myself exactly what I mean.”

The longer war rages, the further away from their past the young men become, they find solace in each other and even begin to miss the front when they are on leave, as they are no longer the youth they were and those that know them now are not here.

The author was himself a German solider who survived the war, became a teacher and a writer, but when in 1933, his works were banned and publicly burned on the initiative of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels he and his wife left Germany to live in Switzerland. All Quiet on the Western Front had been published at a similar time to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the two narratives were polar apart. The moment Germany elected Hitler to power, he went after Remarque. Sadly, it was his sister who paid the price, convicted of undermining morality as her brother was beyond reach. She was beheaded in 1943.

All Quiet 1st Editiom

1st edition in English

I read this on Armistice Day, 11 November, the day that an armistice was signed in France between the Allies and the Germans in 1918, commemorating the end of hostilities in WW1.

Although it is fiction, it reads like a true account. It is a remarkable book, sharing both the physical and mental aspects of youth at war and their slow realisation of its personal consequences.

It is tragic, sad and true and there is an element of hopelessness, that even though we can come to understand what will happen to those affected by war, there is little to be done to prevent it, we as humanity continue to choose it as a method of punishment disguised as a weapon of peace.