Friday, 10 December 2010

Anna Seghers - And Why Not?

On the subject of dead German writers and puerile prejudices, and that conversation linked below in which Dennis Loy Johnson talks about all the different dead German writers people have been alerting him to since he re-discovered Hans Fallada - I can't help thinking of Anna Seghers.

Now while I was a rebellious proto-feminist student taught by a German faculty made up entirely of men (as opposed to the student body, which was 95% female and 50% bored), I discovered Anna Seghers. This was on my year abroad at Berlin's Humboldt University, four years after reunification. At that time, most of the German literature staff had taught in the GDR, and the libraries and reading lists reflected that to some extent, although it was actually an exciting time in retrospect because they were finally able to teach what they wanted.

And a number of them still wanted to teach Anna Seghers. Having been starved of female role models back in the UK, my main criteria for choosing courses in Berlin were whether they had the word "Frauen" in the title and whether they were taught by women. I ended up reading a heck of a lot of Anna Seghers during that year and writing two papers on her work (out of three - my home university didn't want to put us under too much strain).

Anna Seghers was a communist writer from a middle-class Jewish background. She fled to France and from there to Mexico (and was refused entry at Ellis Island - you can read her FBI files somewhere or other). It was while in exile that she wrote her most astounding stuff. Her 1942 resistance novel Das siebte Kreuz was actually first published in English translation, allegedly selling 319,000 copies in the first twelve days, spawning a comic version, a film with Spencer Tracy, etc. Later came Transit, an excellent look at the dreadful lives of German exiles in Marseilles, waiting and waiting and waiting for exit visas, entry visas and transit visas as their money dwindles away. Probably my favourite is her 1946 short story "Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen", a rare personal piece in which the narrator recalls her former schoolfriends and considers what became of them under the Nazis.

Seghers returned to Berlin a year later and became, essentially, an East German cultural apparatchik. Which was of course fantastic for annoying my British professors. Her writing became very propagandistic (the joys of tractor-driving and attending meetings stand out in my mind), although more recent studies have found hidden criticism of the system. And she played a rather ignominious role in the cases of her publisher Walter Janka and the singer Wolf Biermann, never actually speaking out in public against their persecution by the authorities.

Then she grew old gracefully in a flat in the East Berlin suburbs, which you can visit, and got rather experimental in her old age. Science fiction, Caribbean settings - she was plainly wishing she could be elsewhere.

Now if we're going to go digging up dead German writers, Anna Seghers really ought to be one of them. She had a heck of a lot to say about the rise of fascism and resistance against it, complicity in it, and so on. Die Toten bleiben jung (1949), for instance, which the East German authorities didn't really want her to publish - while very much of its time in the sense that the communists are all perfect - is a fascinating fictional analysis that spans various classes from 1918 to 1945. Great structure too. Or someone could put together a lovely anthology of her very good short stories.

Translated short stories by a dead German communist woman - bound to be a bestseller.


Steve said...

And Irmtraud Morgner, perhaps?

kjd said...

Yeah, baby!

Her "Hochzeit in Konstantinopel" just got republished by the new venture edition fünf:

Kerstin Klein said...

Benjamin also wrote a few notes about her in his blog.
"(...) Ich kann mich der heute oft vertretenen Ansicht nicht anschließen, dass es sich bei den Romanen bspw. einer Anna Seghers um ideologischen Kitsch gehandelt haben soll, der heute bestenfalls als »Trash« noch von Interesse sei."

Actually I had never heard of her until I read about her in B.´s blog. But then this is a feeling I very often have when I read about literature. ;)

kjd said...

Thanks Kerstin! I suspected I wasn't alone in my reverence.

MM said...

Well, I was just a postgraduate student, and at that time, people with German as their main subject did no 20th-c. German prose at all (King's College, London). But maybe Böll was done at A Level?
Must try Seghers. I never got far enough with Morgner. Is Brigitte Reimann any good? only know letters.

MM said...

Sorry, commenting on wrong entry!

David said...

I agree that "Ausflug" is one of her best works. But also worth reading is her sequel to Das siebte Kreuz: Das Ende.

I reviewed it here:

kjd said...

@David: Thanks, I'd read your review and forgotten all about it. And yes, a fine piece of writing.

@MM: No 20c writing whatsoever?! The poor things! Thank goodness the British government is abolishing the universities, that's all I can say.

MM said...

No *prose*. We did have the Duino Elegies as a set book, as London (at that time) used to impose the same set books on all colleges, no matter if no-one there was capable of conveying Rilke...

Anonymous said...

Hi- I am a avid German book reader. I love your blog and follow it religiously. I am looking for a (translated) copy of Anna Seghers book "excursion of dead young girls" and have no luck whatsoever in any bookstore/book dealer. can you help?

kjd said...

Dear Anonymous,

You could contact the Anna Seghers Gesellschaft to see if the book was ever translated into English. (
But I'm afraid I can't help you.

Good luck!

M. Charlotte Wolf, Ph.D. said...

One of Morgner's short stories, "Der Schoene und das Biest," is translated in my book, Great German Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: A Dual Language Book (Dover Publications, Inc., 2012).

Unknown said...

In case anyone who posted a comment three years ago or more needs information on an English translation of 'Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen' :

Anna Seghers, The Excursion of the Dead Girls, trans. by Elizabeth Rutschi Herrmann and Edna Huttermager Spitz, in German Women Writers of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1978)

Anna Seghers, ‘The Excursion of the Dead Girls’, trans. by Michael Bullock, in Alexander Stephan (ed.), Early Twentieth Century German Fiction (Continuum: New York, 2003), pp. 231-254

New York Review of Books have bought the rights for a future fresh translation of this incredible short story, which they will feature along with other war-time stories of Seghers. Before that, they are to publish a fresh translation of 'Das siebte Kreuz' at some point in the future.

In case anyone is interested in Seghers's GDR writing, a later long novella, 'Überfahrt. Eine Liebesgeschichte'/ 'Crossing: A Love Story' (1971) is due to appear next month in English translation in the US:

I translated it and eventually found an interested publisher. I have other stories from Seghers's GDR period up my sleeve - who knows, maybe one day these will be published too!