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Book looks at global significance of German Anna Seghers' authorship

Monday, June 04, 2018

LAWRENCE — After being forced to flee Germany during World War II due to her anti-fascist stances, author Anna Seghers returned in 1947, eventually moving to East Berlin.

Her views as a leftist and socialist have likely caused her work to be obscured after the fall of the Berlin Wall, though a University of Kansas professor in a new book provides evidence of Seghers' global relevance beyond German literature.

"Because she went to East Germany, she was dismissed in the West during the Cold War. She was seen as not interesting anymore and as a party hack," said Marike Janzen, associate professor in the KU Humanities Program. "We can't just isolate her as an East German writer, but instead she is a globally significant author who was engaging in the big questions of her time and showing a way to think about being a writer."

In her book "Writing to Change the World: Anna Seghers, Authorship, and International Solidarity in the Twentieth Century," Janzen addresses the global history of solidarity as a principle of authorship by examining the life of Seghers (pronounced "Zey-gars") under her pseudonym. She was born Netty Reiling into a Jewish family, and she married László Radványi, a Hungarian Communist.

Janzen, also a courtesy associate professor of Germanic languages & literatures, said Seghers' work is significant today as many nationalist movements and attitudes have entered politics in many countries in the West, especially surrounding the issue of immigration.

Seghers lived from 1900 to 1983, as her life spanned several transformative events in world history. She is known for depicting the moral experience of World War II, but Janzen said it's important to examine her broader work as well.

"I wanted to highlight her as someone who commented really on all the events of her time and was doing interesting things and important work from the beginning to the very end," Janzen said.

When Seghers was forced to flee the Nazi regime in Germany to France and later Mexico, that international experience also became informative for her work as an author. Like many leftist authors, Seghers emphasized how people are implicated in global economic inequality and efforts to change it, Janzen said.

Her book provides new evidence for Seghers' global relevance beyond German literature because she argues that the continued significance of the movement for solidarity that functions both as a model of global authorship and as a framework for analysis of world literature. Janzen said this refocuses attention on global structures of inequality and people's collective imaginings for a better world.

To support her argument Janzen follows Seghers' establishment of a literature prize that still is in existence today, funded by royalties from her work. She bequeathed the award to support East German — and now German-language writers — and Latin American authors.

"Her idea was to bring together writers from different parts of the world and think about them as working in the same sphere or think about them as being connected," Janzen said.

In the book, she also examines Seghers' work alongside prominent contemporary authors such as German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht of the 1930s, Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier of the 1960s and Indian scholar and theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of the 1980s.

All of these writers also utilized the theme of solidarity in the work by depicting characters who forged connections across borders.

Janzen said an important piece of Seghers' legacy is that writing is international, and she wanted to keep it going, especially for understanding conditions that workers face and fighting to improve them.

"Part of being a committed socialist was that she had this commitment to internationalism, the notion that everyone in the world is connected because we are all involved in the same economic conditions and our shared existence under those conditions," Janzen said.

If she were alive today, Seghers would likely continue to focus on international issues and economic inequality, and likely would criticize nationalist political positions that are less friendly toward immigrants, Janzen said.

"I see her as an example of this similar phenomenon of what it means to be a writer and think about things internationally," Janzen said. "Other significant writers are doing this as well."

Photo: German author Anna Seghers talks to construction workers at Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin in 1953. Courtesy Bild Bundesarchiv via WikiMedia Commons.