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)