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)

Prague German Writers: A List – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein)

I’m so pleased to have a few guest posts for you from one of the blogs I admire the most. literalab is my go-to blog for Central and Eastern European fiction. Michael is an American expat living in Prague. He is a journalist and writer and has written for different European and American magazines. His posts have always something completely new to offer. Either because the writers are new to me, or because the angle from which he writes about them is unusual. For German Literature Month he has written a few guest post on Prague German writers. We kick off today with an introduction, tomorrow I’ll feature one of his reviews. You will see, there are far more Prague German writers than Kafka to be discovered or re-discovered. The posts wich will follow are part of a series. I’ll feature a few, the following will be posted on literalab in the upcoming weeks. 

As the number of early 20th century German-language writers such as Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig get “rediscovered” and belatedly translated into English there is the impression that the deep literary mines of the era might have dried up and all that’s left are the correspondence and diaries of those same writers, or perhaps a new translation of Kafka’s second-grade homework or some of his miscellany that will inevitably come out of the recently litigated manuscript stash in Tel-Aviv.

That impression is, of course, wrong, and one of the sources of the many German-language writers still left to be read, re-published and even translated for the first time happens to be the same source as those contentious manuscripts and the posthumously famous “prophet of the 20th century” who wrote them in the first place – Prague.

Recently, Prague German writers have finally been getting rediscovered to a certain degree, though generally without getting profiled in the New Yorker like Joseph Roth or shredded in the London Review of Books like poor Stefan Zweig (the exception is Ruth Franklin’s New Yorker profile of H.G. Adler, unavailable online.) I have written about a recent exhibition on Prague’s Forgotten German Writers at Readux and a number of the writers I’ll list have been republished or published for the first time in English only this year.

This will be a totally unsystematic list, consisting of writers I love and have read and reread, writers I haven’t read in a long time and some I haven’t gotten around to reading yet at all. I wanted to put them all there to show the variety of Prague’s now vanished literary scene.

These writers suffered from some very stark and evident wrongs – they grew up in an atmosphere of nationalist intolerance, and with many of them Jewish, experienced Czech nationalism at first as harshly, if not more harshly, than its German counterpart. Later, they experienced more severe repression, exile, and privation.

One ironic result of Nazism’s defeat, in combination with the Holocaust, was that their language was erased from their homeland. This meant that Prague German writers became almost unknown in their homeland, and even today putting up a public bust to a world-renowned figure like Rilke took until 2011, seemingly after all the busts of Czech choral directors and dental school founders had found there eternal homes.

Yet perhaps the darkest and most obscuring shadow for this group of writers has been that of their canonized compatriot Kafka. Their work is compared to his (even by people who haven’t read theirs) in a way that is patently unfair and which would kill off any number of other national literatures of the period if their work was put to a similarly unfair test. Kafka’s labyrinths are supposed to be a stand-in for the streets of Prague, so then why read about those actual streets? Well, I can think of any number of reasons, one of which is that Kafka’s labyrinths aren’t a stand-in for the streets of Prague.

Prague offered a fantastic starting point for its writers to go in a multitude of directions, Kafka included, but where he uses a sparse prose style to delve into layers of symbolic meaning, Leo Perutz, for example, makes use of the city’s rich history and myth, whereas writers like H.G. Adler and Hermann Grab ventured into entirely different realms of modernist writing, often being compared to Joyce and Proust respectively.

Thanks a lot, Michael, for this great contribution. Tomorrow I will post the sequel,  the first name on the list of Prague German writers. The list will be continued in the upcoming weeks and will either be featured on this blog or on literalab