Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review of Transit, by Anna Seghers

I hesitate to review Transit because I don’t feel that I connected with the book at all. Perhaps this prospect was doomed from the outset. I only read the novel because I felt it would be the responsible thing to do since I’ll be coaching Academic Decathlon, and this is the chosen novel to correlate with the 2016-17 topic of WWII. We never enjoy “assigned” books as much as those we chose for ourselves. The fact that I had recently enjoyed two other novels set during WWII, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, also served to raise my expectations. The further fact that I have studied WWII fairly extensively and have been so deeply moved by such profound writing1 and art2 from the period and its survivors also works against a novel like Transit which I find incredibly dull.

If you’ve read Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, incidentally, was Academic Decathlon’s choice for WWI) or works by some of his fellow expatriates, you will understand the feelings of restlessness and boredom, often experienced simultaneously, as the writers and the characters who represented them struggled to find meaning in their lives. Anna Seghers has written a novel in the same vein; however, it lacks the depth and complexity present in the works of her predecessors.

As I read on – trudged on, honestly – through the novel, I continued to remind myself that Seghers’ work had been translated, and I do believe that it is important not to underestimate the impact this could have had on the syntax and language of the text, its deeper meaning, and, ultimately, my enjoyment of the story. Knowing all of the nuances in the English language as well as the subtle connotations in each available synonym, I can’t help but think about how much power the translator (Margot Bettauer Dembo) held. How many of the words, phrases, and sentences that annoyed me would have annoyed me in the original German text? I wonder.

Yet, those aspects that I found most offensive in the novel could not be blamed on translation. The inane chatter of people worried about trivial things when so many were experiencing such devastation and loss, the narrator’s constant complaints about being bored, or worse – annoyed that the attached woman upon whom he had fixated didn’t fall immediately into his arms despite the fact that he constantly lied to her, and the narrator’s wishy-washy and indifferent approach to life left me wanting him to experience an awakening. I wanted him to learn, to grow, to lose something he truly cared about, to stop whining and do something with his life.

In the end, he does, but it’s all so subtle. What works for Hemingway’s iceberg model of writing doesn’t work as well for Seghers. I cared so little for the narrator by the end of the novel, and felt so bored by his boredom, that I barely noticed his character’s growth.

Just as the narrator finds himself in an endless cycle of bureaucracy, I found myself trapped in it with him. In his shoes, I would have an opinion about what I wanted to do, whether to stay or go, and how to treat my friends. I would have a plan to stop dealing with the bureaucracy as soon as possible and continue my journey with the hopes of a destination. The narrator did not. Thus, I found myself trapped with fictional company that I did not like nor respect. I wouldn’t find myself drawn to the company of such a character in life, and didn’t enjoy spending 252 pages with him through the novel.

1 Check out the written reflections of Lawrence Langer and Charlotte Delbo

2 Everyone should see painter Samuel Bak’s work. Here’s a link to a gallery: