Transit – Anna Seghers

transitAnna Seghers tells a story about war, but away from the bloody battlefields. Her narration is instead filled with the  bureaucratic nightmare and the stagnation of people who are caught between borders and emotions. Even though far from violence, Transit’s characters still grapple with the effects of the World War that torments their lives and forces them away from the place they belong. Employing irony as a literary device, Seghers addresses the themes of belonging and the temporariness of refugees.

“Transit” starts out slowly, taking a long prelude to build up the ironies that remind readers of the lengthy bureaucracy in Kafka’s “Before the Law” and the near-impossible logic of Heller’s “Catch-22”. The situation that every refugee faces in the novel is the circular logic of the “transit visa”: they must prove that they are intending to leave Marseille, France, in order to get permission to stay. From this central issue, Seghers builds more layers of convoluted, often comical, loopholes in the bureaucratic system: “I have no money to pay the security deposit that you need to get an exit visa, and without the exit visa, not ticket for a passage on a ship.” So just like other refugees in Marseille, the protagonist sits idle, waiting for the right papers to gain rights to more papers. So, in contrast to its name, “transit visa” turns out to be a main stoppage for people’s movements. This juxtaposition highlights the stagnating, suffocating and lengthy wait that refugees endure. They were lucky enough to escape death and violence, but here in France, all stuck in a place that they don’t belong.

Every character that tells their story in the novel expresses nostalgia for their home. This recurring theme adds a melancholic to the irony. The concept of “home”, which means different things to each person, is expressed with sadness, yearning and longing. As the protagonist reflects, “I had forgotten that time stood still for these people once they left their homeland”, he recognizes the importance of “home” as an anchor for the people whose lives have been in constant flux and uncertainty. Marseille acts as a safe haven for people who have escaped, but everyone constantly feels like they are “a stranger, a foreigner”. In one man’s story, he details the formation of Lithuania, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. The changing borders of Europe during and after the War complicate people’s concept of “home”. While the man laments on the bureaucratic consequences of his home becoming a new country, we sense the complex emotions he endures. He feels nostalgic for a place that he no longer has the citizenship rights to be in, while it is also occupied by Nazis. Seghers details the mix of emotions of European refugees: tiredness from the turmoil of war, grief for the loss of peace and perplexity of the changing power and political borders. Perhaps the simplest central feeling that is shared among all is the longing to go back to their origins: “what could be more hellish? War? The war’s going to follow us across the ocean too. I’ve had enough of it. All I want is to go home.”

Each character’s story highlights the temporary settlement that refugees make do with. Marie is constantly running around, looking for someone she doesn’t know is dead; the doctor is waiting for Marie’s decision, and then couldn’t leave on his own either; and the protagonist’s dealing with multiple officers, travel bureaus, and friends who helped him make the right influence and bribes. There is a sense that everyone is in a hurry, but no one is going anywhere. The circles that they races around in illustrate the chaos that Europe was enduring. At the centre of the novel, Marie, Weidel, Seidler and the doctor’s lives are entangled in frustration and indecisiveness. They all know their lives are temporary in Marseille, but none of them are efficient at getting out. This intertwined plot demonstrates the lives of refugees: complicated and precarious.

Towards the end of the novel, a question dawned on me: “what language are these characters speaking?” They are Germans, Russians, etc. who are in France, dealing with Mexican, American, Brazilian etc. consulates. How are they navigating the language barriers? Anna Seghers conveys the compassion that people in crisis share, which fades away the cultural and language differences. Perhaps one passage sums up perfectly the humane message that Seghers shares: “Walking through this crowd for the last time, everything in me that could hope and suffer with other was awakened, and the part of me that drew a sort of bold pleasure from my own and other people’s desolation, and saw suffering as an adventure, dwindled away.


The Go-Between – L. P. Hartley

“Isolation” would be the single word I’d use to describe the feeling that L. P. Hartley’s most prominent novel evoked in me. The Go-Between’s hero’s, Leo Colston, coming-of-age story is marked with a deep sense of sadness and loss of innocence that he could not share with anyone, and therefore his feelings buried in a past time. The novel sophistically narrates the sense of loneliness, shedding of naivete and realization of the complication of human feelings, all on top of a peaceful, upper-class backdrop, seemingly shielded from the chaos of the world outside.

Leo Colston is a character with a lot of emotional depth but little social connection. His social status prevents him from connecting with his host family, even though they are welcoming of his stay. The prologue sets the tone for the novel, and also foreshadows the loneliness that Leo will eventually live with throughout his life, despite his deep compassion and observant mind. Throughout the novel, Leo often withdraws into his own thoughts, or finds solace being alone in the field or farm. As the key player in two converging love affairs, he also is a secret holder, pushing him deeper into his own solitude and preventing him from trusting and opening his heart. Near the end of the novel, Leo reflects, “I was a Tower of Silence, on which lay whitening the bones of a dead secret – no, not dead in that sense, but very much alive and death-dealing and fatal.” So in every aspect of his life, not getting along with schoolmates, holding a lower class social status and involuntarily being the centre of a secretive scandalous affair, Leo finds himself locked away from the world around him.

Leo’s insistence of learning what ‘spooning’ is from Ted Burgess is symbolic of his loss of innocence. Some great pieces of coming-of-age stories, such as Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, portray the painful and sad moment when naivete is lost and the realization of reality sets in. L. P. Hartley joins the ranks of amazing writers in describing this sadness, in The Go-Between’s case, also mixed is nostalgia and guilt. Void of a fatherly figure, Leo is drawn towards Ted, but their relationship is complicated. While Leo wants to be loyal to Ted, he could not have fully understood Ted’s motivation in using Leo as a go-between, and therefore when Leo comes to the maturity state to comprehend his role in Ted and Marian’s affair, he experiences a strong sense of abandonment and distrust.

In coming-of-age, Leo also starts grasping more abstract sense of morality through his role as a go-between. Though he involuntarily facilitated the forbidden affair, he “had a strong sense of ought and ought not. […] Now for some such scruple I felt constrained to take preventive action – and at a sacrifice to myself.” This is no other than altruism – which grew from a boyhood crush on Marian and boyhood friendship with Ted and Hugh. Leo, in growing up, has learnt to put other’s well-being above himself, because he feels a sense of responsibility to the situation that arose.

Finally, Leo develops a budding understanding of the sophistication of human emotions. When Marian and Ted turn on him, Leo’s world seems to have collapsed. Marian was the centre of his admiration – his “enchantress” – and with her anger towards Leo, she took away the world he held so dearly. Leo finally confronts the reality that he means little to Marian and realizes his true role in her relationship. But with this he also starts to comprehend the complexity of Marian’s emotion and her place between her affair with Ted and engagement to Hugh. Leo reflects, “I feared for Lord Trimingham, I wept with Marian, but for Ted I grieved.” Perhaps Leo feels the sense of tragedy of three people’s lives and bearing witness to each person’s angle of the story, is the only person who truly could understand what love is.

Unfortunately the tragedy and the deep isolation that Leo was put in made him distant to his emotions and could not transform his compassion and understanding of love into his own emotions. In the epilogue, L. P. Hartley invites readers to reflect on Marian and Ted’s affair – was it true love and was it beautiful? As readers had followed Leo’s footsteps throughout the entire novel, we have the chance to judge for ourselves what love is. This is where Leo’s world of facts and imagination collide and he ponders one last time: “A foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it, I turned into the street.” The Go-Between is a sophisticated novel in essence, and the weaving themes of love and coming-of-age bring out human nature’s deepest and most forbidden desires.

The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan


When I first read Keegan’s last essay for the Yale Daily News, I was captivated by her writing. There is something earnest, sincere, heartfelt, brave, optimistic and hopeful in her last words as an undergraduate student that drew me, as well as more than a million other readers, to her. She described perfectly what it feels like to be in one’s early twenties and so uncertain, but at the same time so full of hope for the future. In the other pieces that she wrote, she experiments with a wide range of themes and genres. It feels like she hadn’t quite found where she belonged as a writer, but at the same time, she showed a unique eye and take on modern fiction. Exploring the relationship between people in the age of technology, insecurities, war and instability, she was certainly a talented budding author.

My favourite pieces are “Cold Pastoral” and “The Ingenue”; two very difference pieces. In the former, Keegan confronts the topic of death. Not an uncommon topic, but at such a young age, she explored the imminence of death and how that affects the precarious relationships between young people, and how they handle the tragedy. Facing death, the true value of relationships, long term and committed romantic relationships versus casual sexual relations, shows the different degrees of intimacy that we experience. I consider it a brave confrontation of the author with death and self-worth, evaluating earnestly and sensitively what we, young people, look for in our relationships. Keegan concludes that we all want and need intimacy, both on a physical and emotional level: “And suddenly, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, I wanted him to love me.” Somehow there is a tone and feeling of loneliness in her short story, subtly pervading her writing, but only became apparent in the last paragraph, where reality is put in contrast with the hopes and wishes of true intimacy. The piece is optimistic; death is not the end, but could be a beginning filled with hope.

In “The Ingenue”, Keegan shows her humour. A light-hearted piece, the short story skillfully portrays the ups and downs of a young relationship and how the little interactions between people can express a lot about a person’s true personality. The structure of the piece is interesting; it is told in a non-linear order, placing a short ‘hook’ at the beginning, which sounds very trivial and leaving lots of questions to be answered, before telling a longer story of the protagonist’s love story. There is an iconic moment of young love: the girl being jealous over the guy’s coworker who seems much more “compatible” with him than she is. (I must admit I related to it and I’m sure many other young people relate to it as well). But the breaking point of the relationship is quite an original point. The climax of the story reveals a key personality trait in Danny and why his dishonesty, even though is harmless, is ultimately the reason the protagonist could not accept him. The story’s ending paragraph connects back to the opening to explain its significance and wrap up a coherent story. Overall it’s a cleverly written piece that utilizes all the classic tricks of story telling to make it a compelling, believable and interesting read.

Keegan’s non fiction is not as charming, however, “Stability in Motion” is a standout. While she explored human relationships in the fiction, this piece described her love for her car, which acted as her friend and shelter for important life events. All in all, her writing shows a budding talent in the making. Even though they are not masterly executed, there is enough to see her knack for seeing people from different and new angles and describing them as interesting personalities. Her attempts to deal with death and other important life decisions are impressive.


Chocolates for Breakfast – Pamela Moore


At 18, Pamela Moore wrote a coming-of-age story, but it is rather a crashing-into-age “tragedy”. Even though the characters announce that they “are not capable of tragedy” and their lives are a “child’s game that came to an end”,  I can’t help but feel a sense of overwhelming sadness as the story closes, as if the protagonist had failed her life. It was then that I catch myself doing the thing that the parents, in the story and in real life, do and think for their children, and I realize the ultimate struggle and conflict of this story: how to gain power and freedom when one is not ready for it.

Struggling against parents is one of the major themes of the novel. From the first chapter, Courtney laments about her relationship with her mother, “why do we have to pretend to the parents?” The girls lie and avoid their parents when needed so they can achieve a sense of freedom: going to parties at night, drinking with boys and having affairs at their command. Inadvertently, the lies distance them from their parents, and build up an illusion that they have complete control over their lives. Courtney and Janet learn to become masters at controlling the people they meet, through dates and love affairs. Their attractive youth becomes one of their weapons and they equate sexual liberty and breaking laws with power. But it is not just defying parental rules that make them free, it is also breaking away from their parent’s influence. Courtney resists her parents advice, but it is Janet who displays her struggle emotionally and physically as pivotal points of the novel.

In the two scenes between Janet and her father, dynamic and different attack strategies were utilized by the characters. These attacks are seen again and again in many different stories of parent and children, which may be different in words but the same in essence. Janet’s position is her right to privacy and freedom, while her father’s is his right to maintain guidance and control over his underage daughter. The struggle starts from an isolated incident to emotional and accusatory language, escalating in intensity. This is how family relationships are destroyed, from small incidents, building up to accumulating unresolved bitterness to the point where emotion and fact cannot be separated. Once tangled up in this mess, the characters have no way out.

Not unlike parental struggle, which is both physical and emotional, the female protagonists also plunge themselves into love affairs that result in damage. Courtney’s affair with Cabot, which under current laws can be considered statutory rape, met with strong disapproval from her wise guardian Al Leone. This love started out to be a “Romeo and Juliet” type and seemed to head out to a strong and glamorous finish, but Moore chose to let the affair meet with reality and end with pain. The centre piece of the lost of innocence in “Chocolates for Breakfast” is not losing virginity sexually, but rather Courtney’s realization that love is “ugly” and never perfect. It is then she learns to manipulate her lovers, as seen with George, Anthony, Charles etc. She moves from one to another without pain, just like her moving from one restaurant to another, “I get tired of the same places.” Perhaps this is her declaration of sexual independence, that she is not in need of one single man. Readers may disagree with Courtney’s way of finding sexual liberty, but it is no doubt she is making her statement loud and clear. To me, it is a tragedy, because I could no longer see what her value in love is, though she longingly wants to be loved.

And as the girls learn about their life and values, I find myself judging them, disapproving of their decisions, being disappointed and at the same time cheering them on. I react to their actions the way their fictional parents do, and realize the girls did achieve freedom because they made decisions independent of other’s judgments and faced the consequences. The story is a complete coming-of-age tale, with strong female protagonists who refuse to be victims. When the book was published, it probably gained attention for its sexual themes, but I believe it is the psychological and physical struggles that make the story so riveting and moving and relatable to anyone who is going through or remembers the difficulties of growing up.