Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand (Verba Mundi) Paperback – 30 Jan 2012
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Done and Undone
Pale Blue Ink In a Lady's Hand by Franz Werfel is the story of the ramifications of an affair that lies hidden but not forgotten. Under this story lies another story. The novel's drama unfolds over the course of a day in pre-WWII Austria. It is October 1936 and the suffocating atmosphere of anti-Semitism is electric. Leonidas, our main character and a man involved in politics, seems to be largely unaffected until a letter from Dr. Vera Wormser arrives, recalling him to an affair eighteen years earlier with this Jewish woman. James Reidel explains in his preface (as always I encourage you to read it after finishing the work to which it pertains) that Werfel had completed the novel in April of 1940. He and his wife Alma Mahler were already in exile in France. It was in May that Hitler invaded France through Belgium and Werfel and his wife fled to Los Angeles. So, much as his novel about the Armenian genocide The Forty Days of Masa Dagh was meant to be a warning to the German-speaking public of the sinister path ahead, the novel Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand was to give a human face to moral responsibilities and emotional ties of Jews and non-Jews as flesh and bone, sentient human beings. He succeeds in this by lightly, lightly sketching the story of a comfortable cowardly man with professional responsibilities and personal obligations and little in between. Just a few short weeks eighteen years ago and two letters in pale blue ink.
There are books in which an inquiry into one event in a character's life can shed light over the whole of their person. This is one of those books. Leonidas's life seems largely uneventful, and repetitive. Apart from his wealth it seems to be very average. The affair with Vera Wormser, though short-lived, was the major event of his life. One that fills him with dread and something else that he is never able to describe. Werfel described Leonidas's memory of Vera (the meaning of her name in Russian, truth, is not to be overlooked) as fuzzy and nebulous. Events he can remember well, but her face: nothing. Just a few descriptors (her dark hair and vivid blue eyes, her foreign Jewish intellect) that are incapable of resuscitating her image to his memory. But her handwriting, yes, that he knows immediately and he has received only two letters from her. In contrast, his wife Amelie is a sharply in focus. She comes across like a grand piece of modern architecture with crumbling hidden foundations. Her arms and breast are described in terms of marble, things unchanged by time and bought at the price of "constant cosmetic care, which she took as seriously as a divine duty". The only thing in which he can detect a change through all these years is her green eyes. It is unclear if this change is something altered by mood or by the passing of years. She in turn sees, once, a definite change in his face and they both decide to ignore it. The opera house is beginning to fill up and there are the appropriate nods to dispense.
The novel is slim. A little under 107 pages in the attractive and recently published Verba Mundi edition. Yet, it is satisfying and although short, does not dissipate quickly. The power of this little book is how subtle, permeable Werfel's writing is. How patient he is. How faithful he is that he has a common language with the reader. He over-explains nothing. Instead he extends shade after shade of meaning:
"The rapid descent of these considerations caused him to forget about the letter in his hand. A curiosity had suddenly seized him now. He wanted to know how she was doing. Maybe these gloomy notions and fears were just figments of his easily excited hypochondria. Maybe he'd be breathing a sigh of relief if he read the letter. The fat summer bee, his cellmate, finally found a gap in the window and droned outside to freedom. All at once it was terribly still in this miserable corner. Leonidas opened the penknife to slit the letter. The ancient little steamer, small and decrepit, tooted, a child's toy of a forgotten era. The paddlewheel could be heard churning up the water. After a brief stillness, the shadow pattern of grape leaves began to play upon the wall again. Time's up."
Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand was written by Franz Werfel and translated with an introduction by James Reidel. It was published this month by Verba Mundi. You can read more about it here. (...)