George Heisler is in deep trouble. A rakish man-about-town, George has been in trouble before: womanizing, gambling, shirking bad debts and worthwhile friendships with abandon. His mother rolled her eyes when he began to dabble in Communism, the Gestapo proved to be less melodramatic and more assault-y. Germany is on the cusp of World War II and George is a prisoner in what the rest of the world will soon call a concentration camp, but not for long: he and six other inmates escape. In response, the camp commander has seven trees pruned to resemble crosses, six are quickly filled with soon-to-be-tortured souls. Bated breath, hair-pin turns, and near-misses hold the reader and the characters dotting the German landscape in and around the camp in thrall, hoping The Seventh Cross remains empty. Published in 1942, this book served as one of the first literary dispatches to the outside world illuminating Hitler’s Germany.
Did you guys ever go on one of those obligatory long middle school field trips? We went to St. Louis. This book is like that field trip. You’re excited; it’s a respected, long-held tradition. You know that it’s a big deal to look st this landmark or be in this famous museum, but you’re antsy. Halfway in you realize that your tour guide is actually pretty cool. Whaddya mean the Gateway Arch is as wide as it is tall get outta here, Randy, ya crazy. From page one I was aware that Seghers was a giant: most sentences grammatically complicated, yet all somehow crisp. The plot, especially the pacing and descriptions, are a beautifully tuned piano, each word a hammer striking string to produce an impression just so. It seems that Seghers was desperate to convey two main messages in the writing of this work: totalitarianism is stealthy and resistance can be successful. Anna deftly turns her narrative mirror onto the contemporary German populace by interspersing the thrill of George’s escape with musings and plot lines involving nearly thirty other citizens living around the camp. She paints their situation starkly, allowing little room for denial, yet uses gentle strokes, adding calming descriptions of picturesque landscapes. The ultimate “happy little cloud” is that all of George’s near misses leaves the effect that the reader, too, could get away with some rebelliousness. The Seventh Cross isn’t just a well-written novel, it’s a treasonous offense.
The incredible manner in which this book was written and published almost outshine the skill of the writing. Anna Seghers WAS George Heisler. At the time Seghers was writing The Seventh Cross she was being actively pursued by the Gestapo. A Jewess and a Communist, she’d already had dealt with them after writing Die Gefährten (1932), a novel which warned against Fascism. She was arrested and released, officially left the Jewish community, and escaped to Paris. In 1940 she was still there, still angry, always an artist: The Seventh Cross was born and the Germans invaded France. Anna claims that she only made four copies (and then she got out of dodge-ending up in Mexico): one was seized by the Gestapo, one was destroyed in an air raid, one was lost by a friend, and one she mailed to her German publisher in America which was received and published. Anna’s novel set The States on fire: a condensed version was sent in American soldier kits to help the men better understand the average German, it was a Book of the Month Club Selection, and was made into a popular movie with Spencer Tracy playing George.
Not only did Seghers write a bold, concise, well-written work, but she literally did it with a death looking over her shoulder. Can you imagine how hard it would be to edit your work when you can’t keep copies of the work around? If the wrong person found out what she was writing she could have been denounced and captured. Hats off to you, Anna. May we all remember your struggle to complete your work whenever we’re wrestling with procrastination.
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