The Language of Displacement

In the beginning of Casablanca, a man approaches an English couple sitting at an outdoor café and says, “Have you not heard?” The Englishman says, “We hear very little and we understand even less.” Across the way suspects are being unloaded from a police van by the Palais de Justice. “This is the customary roundup of refugees, liberals,” the man explains. “Some of them have been waiting years for a visa. I beg of you, Monsieur, watch yourself. Be on guard. This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere, everywhere.” The Englishman thanks him for the warning (“What an amusing little man!”), realizing as he signals for the waiter that the amusing little man has made off with his wallet.

It is a comic entry to the film’s exotic world of the displaced, where vultures really are everywhere and visas in their various denominations (entry, exit and transit) are the currency of escape. Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine is a perfect fit for this city of transients: emotionally withdrawn and outwardly indifferent—he sticks his neck out for nobody. He affects a world-weary nihilism, which masks a sentimental heart saddled with a sentimentalist’s heartache.

           I had lost something, lost it so completely that I didn’t quite know what it
           was, I’d lost it so utterly in all that confusion that gradually I didn’t even
           miss it very much anymore. But one of those faces from the past, I was cer-
           tain, would at least remind me of what it was.

In an alternate version of the film these lines could belong to Rick. You can see him sitting at the bar after a hazy flashback with a drink and a cigarette and his bottomless despair. But the lines belong to the unnamed narrator of Transit, Anna Seghers’ short, wonderful novel, which she began writing in 1941, the year before Casablanca had its American release. It was republished in Margot Bettauer Dembo’s translation from the German by NYRB Classics this May.

Context, of course, is key. Rick’s sadness belongs to Hollywood, where war is an occasion for great love and the heroism of self-sacrifice. The narrator of Seghers’ novel, by contrast, is overcome with a kind of misery that the French call a cafard, as he explains, a Godless emptiness that swallows you up, like the strong winter winds in Marseille that come off the water. And his actions might as well be given course by the wind. After fleeing a Nazi concentration camp and later another one in Rouen, the narrator ends up in Paris, where he is asked to deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, who, he discovers, has committed suicide in his hotel room. Weidel has left behind a suitcase containing letters and the manuscript of a novel. Out of boredom the narrator reads Weidel’s novel, and again out of boredom he leaves Paris for the south of France when the Germans arrive.“I had always wanted to see Marseille,” he recalls. “As for the rest, it was all the same to me.”

One is not left with a Godless emptiness all at once. It takes time to wear down the soul so completely that a person loses not the capacity for feeling but the language necessary to express it, and in many respects Seghers’ novel asks, What might it take to gain that back? The long path to an answer, or a better understanding of the question, begins with Weidel. After finishing the dead writer’s manuscript, he says:

          And as I read line after line, I also felt that this was my own language, my mother
          tongue, and it flowed to me like milk into a baby. It didn’t rasp and grate like the
          language that came from the throats of the Nazis, their murderous commands
          and objectionable insistence on obedience… I felt as if I were alone again with my
          own family. I came across words my mother had used to soothe me when I was an-
          gry and horrible words she had used to admonish me when I had lied or been in a
          fight. I also stumbled upon words I had used myself back then, but had forgotten
          because I never again felt the emotion I needed to express them. There were new
          words, too, that I sometimes use now.

This is all that we are told about the narrator’s past. The language of his youth exists for him in a work of fiction; the memories arrive soon after.

Though she did not know Casablanca, Anna Seghers knew Marseille, the city “where Europe ends and the sea begins.” At the time, refugees were coming to the French port from all over Europe to flee a continent consumed by war. Seghers herself did the same. Born Netty Reiling into an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Mainz, Seghers escaped to France in 1933. She was an ardent Communist and became deeply involved in political causes from abroad. When the Germans invaded Paris in 1940, she went into hiding and later fled to Marseille with her two children, where she wrote, as her daughter describes, “on a suitcase between the bed and the gas cooker.” For as much as Seghers was influenced by Kafka’s work, her life in Marseille soon became a reflection of it. She spent her time in the strange, disorienting world of embassies and consulates, trying to arrange the necessary visas for her family’s departure. During this period her husband was interned at the concentration camp in Vernet, in the south of France. In March of 1941, with the family’s visas finally in order, they sailed to Martinique aboard the Captain Paul Lemerle, one of the last ships carrying refugees before the Germans closed the port.

It was based on her experience in Marseille that Seghers began to write Transit, published first in English and Spanish in 1944; it was not published in Germany until 1948. Seghers was grateful to leave. In a letter from June 1, 1941 she wrote, “I feel as if I’ve been dead for a year.” The narrator of her novel is one of the few hungry to stay. He is bored at first by the harbor “chitchat” of exit visas and transit visas. Not for the first time were people “anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about money, or who were fleeing from all the real or imagined horrors of the world,” and history has shown us that it would not be the last:

          Suddenly I no longer thought all the chitchat was disgusting; it seemed fascin-
          ating now. It was the age-old harbor gossip, as ancient as the Old Port itself and
          even older. Wonderful, ancient harbor twaddle that’s existed as long as there’s
          been a Mediterranean Sea, Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and
          that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of . . . Mothers who had lost their
          children, children who had lost their mothers. The remnants of crushed armies,
          escaped slaves, human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the
          earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new
          lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death to-
          ward another.

You could say that permanence is the goal of the displaced, and not always to return home. For the narrator of Transit this is certainly the case. What home is left for him to return to? And if home resides somewhere else—in language or in literature, as Weidel’s manuscript suggests—what would be the point in continuing to run? The logistics of staying put, however, set the narrator paradoxically on the road to departure: to stay in Marseille he must prove that he is preparing to leave. In doing so, he assumes the identity first of a man named Seidler, with whose refugee papers he is granted asylum, and later of Weidel himself.

Assuming an identity is a bit like learning a language. There is a new grammar, a new set of rules. You have to learn the necessary words to give expression to thoughts and feelings, which, with the slightest slip, can give you away. The narrator does not decide to learn the language of Seidler-cum-Weidel as much as he is guided to it, by coincidence or boredom or the wind always blowing down the Canebière. In his repeated visits to the Mexican Consulate in Marseille to have the suitcase delivered to Weidel’s wife, he is mistaken for the dead man. Once it becomes clear that his best chance of extending his stay would be to do so in Weidel’s name, he begins to inhabit Weidel’s life. He sits at cafes with a newspaper, poking two eyeholes in it so he could “see everything without being seen,” just as Weidel did. He even goes so far as to fall in love with Weidel’s wife, Marie, who, unaware of her husband’s death, keeps bursting into restaurants and cafes, hoping to catch sight of him in the places where he has reportedly been seen. “There was something in the way she was searching, in her features, that told me that the man she was looking for was not a shadow, but flesh and blood.” Perhaps more accurately: she is chasing a shadow that is still learning the language of its human expression.

It is remarkable how deftly Seghers handles this subtle doubling, and you cannot help but hope, as the narrator does, that the two men will somehow become one, to fill in that old emptiness, his cafard. Waiting inside the American Consulate:

         I calmed down when they called out the name Weidel. I was no longer afraid of
         being unmasked or of being rejected. I sensed the immeasurable, the uncrossable
         divide that separated the man whose name had been called out and the consul who,
         flesh and blood . . . sat impassively behind his desk. I watched with interest, as if
         from outside myself, this ghost being conjured up—a ghost summoned to appear
         who had long ago fled to some shadowy, moldering, swastika-marked necropolis.

But the ghost will never be indistinguishable from the man, just as Marie will never enter a café and mistake the narrator for her husband. There remains between them a deep, uncrossable divide. Availing himself of Weidel’s language and his world cannot bring him any closer to Marie. The feeling of permanence only gives the appearance of life, and leaves him with not much more than a memory. At least they’ll always have Marseille.