Anna Seghers (1900 – 1983) is considered by many one of the greatest German writers of her era. Born Anna (Netty) Reiling in Mainz to Jewish parents, she adopted the name of the Dutch landscape artist and printmaker, Hercules Seghers (c.1589 – c.1638) when she began writing. A communist and a fascist, she endured some horrific experiences. Her work was blacklisted by the Nazis and when the Second World War broke out she had to flee first to France, then Switzerland and finally to Mexico, where she wrote the title story of this collection after emerging from a coma following a serious road traffic accident. She returned to Germany in 1947, settling in Berlin where she died, aged 83.
Seghers’ writing is mostly concerned with politics and the mythical. It has a Kafkaesque quality and (for this reader) distinct overtones of the work of the Swiss playwright and novelist, Max Frisch (1911 – 1991), who wrote highly moralistic tales about identity, social responsibility and political commitment. In both Frisch’s and Seghers’ writing there is a sense of the protagonists suffering from some form of mental imbalance and being close to a breakdown. Several of Seghers’ stories are set in small claustrophobic towns whose citizens are highly critical of one another, even though their own life is far from perfect, such as ‘Jens is Going to Die’ and ‘The Zieglers’. Other stories, such as ‘A Man Becomes a Nazi’ and ‘The Dead Girls’ Class Trip’ tell of harrowing wartime events.
Jens is Going to Die
A young boy becomes sick with an apparently progressive unspecified illness, which his parents believe will kill him. Eventually, however, he begins to make a slow recovery and goes out to watch the neighbourhood boys play football. One day he is overcome by unaccustomed daring, climbs onto the town’s bridge where the boys often congregate. He crawls underneath and claws his way along the underside. When he climbs back up he falls, bangs his head and dies. I guess the moral of the story is: you can’t escape your pre-ordained fate.
Exhausted, demoralised and fractious, the Ziegler family struggles to make ends meet by sewing, knitting and repairing clothes for other people. In this story, too, there is illness, followed by death. First the father dies and at the end, it is inferred, one of the two daughters dies on the way home from her errands in town. Her plight is ignored by a girl she once snubbed when the girl tried to befriend her.
The Best Tales of Woynok, the Thief
Woynok and Gruschek are two thieves with different ways of doing things. Woynok operates alone. Gruschek has a band of forty accomplices. He invites Woynok to join them, but Woynok says he likes to work on his own. However, their paths keep crossing and as often as Woynok tries to rid himself of the band fate always has them meet again. It is as though some higher power keeps their movements aligned.
“Once the winter was over – and it was over while Woynok was still intently waiting for it to begin – Gruschek’s band of thieves, at his suggestion, which coincided with Woynok’s own ideas, moved back to the steep slope on the east side of the Kirushka mountain. They set up camp at the same place Woynok had chosen.”
Eventually, in desperation, Woynok throws explosives into Gruschek’s camp, “hoping to exterminate the men”. He doesn’t account for their cunning, however, and most of the band escape with their lives in tact. Gruschek tells Woynok he never wants to see him again, but when news reaches the band that Woynok has been found dead, they mourn him and give him a decent burial.
The Dead Girls’ Class Trip
The title story of this collection is an autobiographical sequence of memories in which Seghers recalls her two best friends, Leni and Marianne, and a school trip they undertook to a place along the Rhine, not far from their home town of Mainz. The author begins her narrative by describing the place in which she finds herself at the time of writing her account.
“I was able to look out at the steep, grayish brown hills, the sight of which – barren and wild as a lunar mountain range – dispelled any suspicion that they had ever supported life. Two pepper trees glowed at the edge of a black gorge. The trees seemed aflame rather than blooming. The path that led from the village was so white that it seemed to be etched on the inside of my eyelids as soon as I closed my eyes.”
She tells of the heat of the Mexican countryside and how she still tires easily following her awful accident. The reader learns how the lives and characters of Leni and Marianne alter as they grow up and, through the rise of Nazism, fall under the influence of radical ideologies, such as when they join the National Socialist Women’s Organisation.
The Gestapo arrest both sets of parents and Marianne, who goes on to marry a high-ranking Nazi official, is worried they will come for her, also. Lena and her husband are arrested and Seghers muses it’s right that they are, “because they had transgressed against Hitler.” These thoughts provide a clear insight into Seghers’ own political beliefs.
Tales of Artemis
This is a story about fate and illusion. A group of hunters in a forest inn tell their companions stories about events in their past which they have, until now, kept secret out of fear they might be laughed at. They mostly involve young girls who may, or may not, be who they appear. One is supposedly a goddess, one perhaps a personified version of destiny and, the last and oldest of them, is possibly a witch. Apart from the young girl who is specifically described as being a goddess, the personas of the other two women is gleaned more by deduction or supposition.
When the Germans invade Paris, a hotelier asks her friend to take in the young son of a man who has been arrested for protesting against Hitler. The friend’s husband is against sheltering the boy, citing danger and that rations are scarce enough without having another mouth to feed. The woman decides to lie to her husband, telling him her cousin has asked her to look after her boy for a while, because her husband is seriously ill. As a blood relative the couple are obliged to help the woman’s cousin. As time goes on the woman’s husband wonders what happened to the German who was arrested, saying he respects anyone who stands up to “those German bandits”. If the son could be found he would take him in out of defiance against Hitler. “I’d treasure him above my own sons; I’d feed him better,” he says. His wife tells her husband, they are already sheltering the boy.
A Man Becomes a Nazi
This story follows the life of Fritz Mueller from a young boy at school, to how he becomes increasingly filled with hate when his friends tease him about his “new brown shirt”, the uniform he wears on joining the SA (the Assault Division of the German Army). This is how Seghers describes the effect the indoctrination of the SA has on Fritz:
“He learned that the cause of all his problems was the Versailles Treaty created by the Jews and the Free Masons in order to enslave him. And he learned that it was an honourable act to shoot down those who had signed that Treaty. He also learned that Bolshevism stole a man’s soul and that it had already stolen that of the Russians.”
He fumes against Jews, Poles and Russians, killing people on sight he doesn’t like. By the end of the story he thinks nothing of shooting two brothers for not wanting to join the army, followed by their mother when she steadfastly refuses to reveal where their younger brother is hiding.
Considering that the translator, Margot Bettauer Dembo (1928 – 2019) was awarded two prizes for translation, her efforts, in this particular instance, unfortunately leave a lot to be desired. Although she manages to convey the tone of Seghers’ writing reasonably well, she frequently makes very elemental mistakes, both in her use of grammar and syntax and in how she translates fairly common words and / or terms.
Any Cop?: Dry and convoluted, like much of German literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century often is. Anna Seghers’ short stories make difficult reading at times, but it’s worth persevering for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with a writer whose work is considered to have made an important contribution to the German literary canon.