THIS VOLUME's TITLE QUOTATION, ”… for once, telling it all from the beginning” (einmal alles von Anfang an erzählen), stems from Anna Seghers's exile novel Transit, in which the author told not only her own story but that of countless others who faced political, personal, and bureaucratic obstacles in their attempts to escape peril during the Nazi era. While sitting in a café in the old harbor of Marseilles, the unnamed narrator of Transit spins the quintessential tale of exile in 1940s France: “Which view do you prefer? The pizza baking over the open fire? Then you'll have to sit beside me. The Old Harbor? Then you'd better sit opposite. You can see the sun go down behind Fort Saint-Nicolas. That won't bore you, I'm sure.” Transit, completed by the prolific Seghers in 1942 and first published in English in 1944, and in German in 1948, is a political novel that shows the author's acute awareness of human compassion. It also makes clear that without the vitality of storytelling, the experience of exile becomes more of a fleeting historical moment, too easily left in the past. Storytelling forms the basis of a lasting and powerful historical chronicle.
In Transit and so many other literary works in the twentieth century, storytelling is thematized and put forth not only as a way to chronicle events but also as a means of processing the dire situation in which the exiles found themselves—indeed, as a means of psychological survival. Michel de Certeau, in his The Practice of Everyday Life, argues that the practice of storytelling defines our society, and that without stories, societies break down. This is pertinent when considering how fiction can define a society, or help in redefining one. Writers such as Seghers, who experienced the harsh and alienating effects of exile and persecution firsthand, created characters with similar backgrounds who also engage in various forms of storytelling about their trials and triumphs. The resulting mise-en-abyme, story-in-a-story structure highlights the enduring tenacity of both oral and written narrative through the ages.
Certeau is not alone in his view of stories as the backbone of our contemporary existence.