Translated from German by Margo Bettauer Dembo
When you think of the times that Anna Seghers (1900-1983) lived through – WWI, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, Communist East Germany – and consider that she wrote short stories throughout her career, then the prospect of an anthology of said short stories is very enticing. I’m delighted to report that The Dead Girls Class Trip, published today, lives up to expectations!
This selection of 16 stories is arranged chronologically, and begins with one written in 1925 and ends with one published in 1965. At times parallels with events that were contemporaneous to the writing are obvious, at others they are more obtuse. There are some very short, powerful pieces, and some longer stories to lose yourself in. There are pieces of vivid realism, and others with a more mythic feel. As with any short story collection there are stories I loved and others I did not. I’m going to be honest about that, but I would emphasise that the whole collection is worth reading. These likes/dislikes reflect only my personal tastes, not the quality of the writing.
Let’s start at the beginning, and the first story, I believe, is the first that Seghers ever wrote, and one which she chose to “keep in her desk drawer”. It was only published posthumously. Though I fail to see why. Jans is going to die (1925) tells us exactly what is going to happen, and the first sentence tells us how it all began. “No one knows whether Jans fell down that day because he was dizzy or whether he got dizzy only after he had fallen.” Ambiguous? Yes, and yet it is the start of Jans’s demise, a young boy who is never going to see adulthood. The story, with its omniscient narrator, shows the impact on the child and his parents. Even though the narrator is detached, this is heartbreaking, the stuff of a parent’s worse nightmare, and yet the dying child must be cared for and life must go on ….
The second story, The Zieglers (1927-1928) had me wondering whether it was penned by the same author. The narrative style is so flat. Sentence after sentence of she did this, she did that, she did the other, and at 47 pages, it is the second longest story in the collection. I almost gave up. But then I realised that this flatness was purposeful. Just imagine. Your family is trapped in a downward economic spiral. Your father is losing contract after contract. The only income your family has is that which comes from your needlework, mending clothes. You are a plain Jane, and must watch how your sister enjoys her romance, with someone once on the same social niveau as your family, but now way above you. Your family must give up your father’s workshop, even rent out space in your home to make ends meet, and the renters must walk through your living space to reach theirs. Just how do you preserve your dignity in such circumstances? The daily grind will flatten everything.
The longest story in the collection is also a fight for survival, but in The End (1943, 1945) we have an ex-concentration camp guard seeking to evade those looking to bring him to justice. This is a man was one who enjoyed his “duties” in the camp, as they allowed free reign to his brutality. As he darts from job to job, taking on one identity after another, trying to remain inconspicuous, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep his true nature under wraps. A brave story given that it is told from the POV of the ex-camp guard, but also one in which justice is delivered in the end. Unfortunately this is not the case in The Innocent Ones (1945) in which Seghers lacerates the German people for what they allowed to happen and the excuses with which they tried exonerate themselves. Voice is given to all echelons from the lowliest to the highest in the land (including the Führer himself) with every word sounding as hollow as the moral backbone of the time. The satire is vicious, the author’s rage palpable. By contrast in the earlier and eponymous The Dead Girls’ Class Trip (1943-44) the narrator, now living in Mexico as Seghers was herself, experiences a flashback to the day when all her classmates were still friends. She ponders on the various fates that befell them, trying to understand how the two closest friends were split assunder in the dark times that followed.
Those are just a selection of the vivid and realistic stories of the Nazi era in the volume. The realism contrasts strongly with a series of stories based on myth and legend in which characters such as Artemis and Jason of Argonaut fame appear. I’ll pass over these as the recent fashion for mythical retellings has sated me. Far more interesting are The Best Tales of Woynok, The Thief (1938) in which Woynok, a lone thief meets up with Gruschek and his band of thieves. But these are no merry robbers, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. These are villains who might band together for a while, when it is expedient to do so, but who ultimately prove that there is no honour among thieves. In his introduction, Ingo Schulze points out the potential of reading this story as a message against the treachery and discord of Stalinism and its purges. The political undertones of the final story are not so hidden. The Guide (1965) is set during the time of the Abyssinian War, a colonial war in which Fascist Italy subjugated the Ethiopian nation, employing poison gas on both military and civilian targets. Of the efforts of the vanquished, “it has all been in vain” writes Seghers. All that can remain are individual act of resistance, acts which prove that the nation is down but not out. Enter the young angelic-looking guide who promises to lead three Italian geologists to a source of gold. I think it’s fair to assume that it’s not going to end well.