Prague German Writers – Franz Werfel: Pale-Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein)

This is the second in the series of guest posts from literalab on Prague German writers. Part I – The introduction – can be found here. 

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here is the first of what will inevitably be an incomplete list of Prague German writers and some of the books they wrote:

1 – Franz Werfel

During his lifetime Werfel (1890-1945) was Prague’s leading literary star, the one whose fame allowed him to leave his provincial hometown behind for the intellectual and cultural bright lights of Vienna. Initially famous as a poet and playwright, Werfel’s current revival is based on his prose, specifically his 1933 international bestseller about the Armenian genocide The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and 1941 novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand, both published by Godine in 2012.

Though Musa Dagh had been translated into English and has been reprinted periodically since the 30s it suffered from cuts of up to 25% of the original novel, cuts that weren’t even made to appease Turkish political pressure (though that was present at the time and helped prevent a Hollywood adaptation) but to fit the work for this adaptation that wasn’t made and for the Book-of-the-Month club. The new edition is the first time the novel has appeared in English in its entirety.

I’d like to highlight the lesser-known novella because Werfel is sometimes criticized for writing long and long-winded novels – in other words for being the anti-Kafka, the opposite of the writer who was so sparing of his adjectives and adverbs. Yet Pale Blue Ink is a masterpiece of concision, and with a lot of recent discussion on the value and nature of the novella, it’s a prime example of a literary form (not just a short novel or a long short story) that at its best contains both the sweep of a long novel as well as the kind of precision in dramatic moments or individual lines typical of the best short stories.

The book opens with Austrian bureaucrat Leonidas Tachezy and his rich and beautiful wife, whose life of empty elegance reflects the Vienna of the 30s they live in. Unfortunately, for both the couple and the city, this smooth surface is only an illusion everyone pretends to believe in at a precipitously high cost. For Tachezy it’s a letter from his past that shatters his present life, though to what degree it will break he spends a great amount of effort trying to determine. An affair is one thing, actually not all that uncommon, but as the details of the letter get drawn out and as Tachezy is forced to confront his self-image Werfel subtly shifts the grounds of the book from ballrooms and boudoirs to Gestapo jail cells in a way that the impact is far stronger than if he had confronted the Nazis head-on.

Pale Blue Ink takes place within a single day and possesses a singular intensity in its focus on a letter and the specific long-ago relationship with a Jewish woman it recalls to the protagonist. Yet the novella’s reach is immense, bringing in Tachezy’s past and modest upbringing, Viennese high society, its government bureaucracy and the darkness of neighboring Nazi Germany.

In achieving the economy of the novella Werfel makes powerful use of leitmotifs that recur with particular characters or to drive home certain themes. Tachezy’s wife Amelie is obsessed with retaining her youthful beauty and the descriptions of her eyes become increasingly haunting and elaborate throughout the book. As a student Tachezy inherited a tuxedo from a Jewish fellow boarder who committed suicide, and this tuxedo likewise goes on to carry a dark, symbolic weight.

The best part of Pale Blue Ink is how unbalanced you are kept reading it, not knowing from one moment to the other just what type of story it is – a love story, a psychological portrait, a society novel, an early Holocaust book – and whether the main assumptions of the protagonist (and reader) are true or not.

Thanks a lot, Michael for this review.

The subsequent posts in the series will either be featured on this blog during German Literature Month or on literalab. I’ll add the links in any case. 

Here is part I of the series: Introduction and Werfel and Kafka (literalab)

25 thoughts on “Prague German Writers – Franz Werfel: Pale-Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein)

  1. Pingback: Prague German Writers: Franz Werfel | literalab

  2. Nice review, Caroline! Thanks for hosting this guest post and thanks to Michael for sharing his thoughts on Werfel’s book. This looks like a very interesting book. I liked Michael’s observation on how the reader is not able to make up his / her mind on what kind of book it is. ‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ looks like a fascinating book too. I can’t believe that they cut pages from the book so that it could be included in the Book-of-the-month club! Nice to know that the complete translation is available now.

    • When I read that it made me immediatley think of my recent post on Wassermann’s novel. But cuttimng pieces out like this to make it fit into some program is quite outrageous.
      Werfel was an interesting writer but many of his books are very long. I’ve got his novel on Verdi here which I think is very good. I’d like to read the novella Michael reviewed as well.

  3. I’ve heard of Franz Werfel (The Song of Bernadette), but wasn’t at all familiar with his work or life. I like the sound of the novella and the ‘unbalanced” nature of the story. Sometimes it’s those uncertainties that make for the best reading–and thinking about a story. I’ll have to look out for it!

  4. Another writer who sounds fascinating who I have not yet read!

    I really like the idea that that Pale Blue Ink seems to transcend genres. I think that really creative and talented writers often do this. It indicates an artist who is not constrained by artificial modes of thought.

    The Armenian genocide is so little known by most (At least in the USA). This book also sounds good.

    • When I saw the post, I thought – why have I forgotten abiztr Werfel. I used to really like him. Alma Mahler-Werfel his wife was a fascinating character, her biography is very interesting. She was related to so many famous men.

  5. Pingback: German Literature Month – Week I Links « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  6. Thanks for the good review. I have a selection of Werfel’s poems in English making the rounds. They, too, provide a rather divergent view of the author.

  7. Great review! a book set in one day often has interesting story. it sounds like a creative book, it’s quite hard to imagine a book set in one day and based on a letter.

  8. Pingback: German Literature Month 2012: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  9. Pingback: Literalab’s Best Books of 2012 | literalab

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