The revival of Franz Werfel

I’m not sure where on the scale of literary ambitions getting your face on a postage stamp should be ranked, but Prague-born writer Franz Werfel has just achieved this distinction. I have to admit to never having read a word Werfel wrote, though I have read a lot about him over the years. Last summer I even saw his life partly dramatized in the unique staging of the play Alma about the infamous Alma Mahler-Werfel in Prague’s Martinický Palace, its gardens and in the square in front of Prague Castle outside. Werfel was Alma’s third husband and approximately seventh celebrity love affair.

I was planning to write that Werfel’s novels are practically unavailable in English, but discovered that two of them were published this January 31 by Verba Mundi Books – The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand, the latter translated into English for the first time by James Reidel (Reidel also revised Geoffrey Dunlop’s original translation of the other novel).

I originally also found it odd that the only site seemingly reporting Werfel’s stamphood was an Armenian news site rather than a German, Czech or Jewish/Israeli one, but that was cleared up by the significance of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh being about the Armenian Genocide.

In fact, The Atlantic just ran an article about Armenian efforts to get Steven Spielberg to do a Schindler’s List-style blockbuster about their genocide as its 100th anniversary approaches in 2015. The strangest part of the whole story is that previous efforts to bring Werfel’s novel to the screen were spearheaded by that great admirer of Jewish Central European writers Mel Gibson as well as Sylvester Stallone. In a way, I understand this strange pairing and can picture a studio exec saying “Mel, it’ll be like Braveheart, but in Armenia and without a happy ending.”

Ultimately, even Rambo couldn’t overcome the political obstacles to making such a controversial film (as, the article points out, Antonio Banderas was apparently pressured from the other side to give up on an epic film about Ataturk.)

There has been a lot of talk about revivals and “rediscoveries” of various Central European writers – from Joseph Roth to Sándor Márai to Stefan Zweig – so maybe Stallone (assuming he read the book and not just the screenplay) might know something we (or at least I) don’t and Werfel, with two novels just out, is next in line.

One final note – the Israeli Werfel stamp says “Good Luck” in Hebrew and English in its upper left-hand corner. This is hardly a strong vote of confidence in the postal service, as if they’re saying – “We’ll try to deliver it and, you know, hopefully it will get there, but you know how it is, so best of luck.”

Photos – 1) The Israeli Werfel stamp, 2) Scene at the railway station in Alma, Prague 2011

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Categories: Writers


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4 Comments on “The revival of Franz Werfel”

  1. 20/02/2012 at 8:45 pm #

    there is also ‘star of the unborn’ by werfel, it was translated by gustave arlt and appeared 1946 (viking). so how do you like libuse monikova?

  2. 25/02/2012 at 5:45 pm #

    I haven’t read libuse monikova yet, though I have a borrowed copy of The Facade which I will try to get to at some point. Do you like her writing?

  3. 28/02/2012 at 8:38 pm #

    yes i do like her writing. my favourite is transfigured night. but facade is good too and in a fine way funny.


  1. Yerevan to begin year as World Book Capital | literalab - 17/04/2012

    […] a result of having written The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the Armenian genocide which I previously wrote about in regard to the interest in bringing it to the silver screen by the likes of…. I will have a review of the novel soon and will try to figure out how Werfel so effectively […]

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