Prague German Writers: Franz Werfel

And Werfel’s friendship with another Prague German writer named Franz

From the time his first book of poetry Friend of the World was published to great success and acclaim when he was 21 until his death 34 years later in exile in Los Angeles, Franz Werfel didn’t need to have his name brought to readers’ attention. He had achieved popular, critical and financial successes as a poet, playwright, novelist, and lived to see his work on the silver screen with Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Paul Muni and even Vincent Price.

Times have changed, and that’s why Werfel is the subject of my guest post at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Some added information apropos this success: it sparked the envy of an older hometown literary compatriot and friend, namely Franz Kafka, who had no such early (or later, as in, while he was alive) fame, nor the kind of family wealth Werfel made use of to help him launch his literary career.

What the two writers did have in common was the incomparable Max Brod, who isn’t adequately appreciated for all the once (and some still) unknown writers and artists he selflessly championed. Brod threatened to leave his publisher unless he would take the young Werfel on. Yet their friendship grew strained over, of all things, Werfel’s initial dislike of Kafka’s writing, which he saw as provincial: “That will never play outside Tetschen-Bodenbach,” he told Bros, referring to a small Czech-German border crossing (near today’s Děčín). The big blow-up came when Werfel and Brod fought over the relative merits of Verdi (Werfel) and Wagner (Brod).

Relations between Werfel and Brod, together with Kafka, warmed up on a subsequent return visit. By then, Werfel had left Prague (another reason for Kafka to envy him) and was living in Leipzig working for the publisher Kurt Wolff. Better relations led to much stronger assessments of each other’s work. They even went out together to see Nijinsky perform with the visiting Ballets Russes.

The encounter was consequential for more than personal reasons. Werfel got Kafka in contact with Wolff and when Kafka visited Leipzig soon after told the publisher about his novel in progress Amerika, of which Wolff published The Stoker chapter as Volume 3 of the publishing house’s “Day of Judgement” series of young authors (Werfel’s play The Temptation was Volume 1). The Metamorphosis and The Judgement would both be published as part of the series in 1915 and 1916 respectively.

While the differences between Werfel and Kafka are pretty evident (it’s hard to picture Kafka spontaneously breaking out into Verdi arias) the similarities between them – the conflicted relationship with the religion of their fathers, not to mention with their actual fathers and the world they represented – are also very suggestive. These similarities led to other moments of friction between the two friends, with Kafka coming across as the subversive to Werfel’s more worldly and accomodating, socially conservative thinker.

They remained friends to the end of Kafka’s life though and Werfel lobbied to help Kafka get better conditions, namely privacy, as his health deteriorated. According to Werfel’s biographer, the last book Kafka read was Werfel’s novel Verdi.

In connection with this Werfel profile I will be posting some other Werfel-related articles, including reviews of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Peter Stephan Jungk’s biography of Werfel, of a Werfel film adaptation and will have another, totally different review of Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand in the upcoming issue of Dalkey’s Review of Contemporary Fiction, which should be coming out soon.

Photo – 1) Werfel’s Czech passport, which states first that he lives in Vienna, then this is crossed out and replaced with Paris. And, by the way, do you or anybody you know have a passport photo where you look like this? Imagine going to get your picture taken at, say, an embassy, and having them tell you: “Okay, please stare out the window, look appropriately moody, reflect, dream.” Awesome.

2) Werfel clowning around with composer Alban Berg in Santa Margherita (1928/29), 3) Wolff’s edition of Kafka’s The Judgement.

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Categories: Essays

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  1. Prague German Writers – Franz Werfel: Pale-Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat - 07/11/2012

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

  2. German Literature Month – Week I Links « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat - 08/11/2012

    […] Prague German Witers – Franz Werfel (literalab) […]

  3. Literary roundup: Imre Kertész’s retirement, Hermann Ungar makes Top 10 and Tolstoy’s head | literalab - 19/11/2012

    […] been writing about Prague German Writers for German Literature Month (and before) so it’s nice to see the Czech-born Hermann Ungar make […]

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