Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand

In February 1940 Franz Werfel began work on an “intricate little tale of a marriage,” which, he warned his publisher, was quite a departure from his best-selling fiction of the 1930s. This new short novel was to be a tragicomic tale of contemporary history, a glimpse into a world that was soon to become inhospitable and uninhabitable.

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is, in many ways, a prequel to what is known as Holocaust literature. It is about a long suppressed love triangle between Leonidas Tachezy, a high-level Austrian career bureaucrat, his younger, trophy wife Amelie, and a Jewish woman from his past, Vera Wormser, with whom he’d fallen in love when she was fourteen. After his marriage, Leonidas encounters Vera in a German university town where she is studying philosophy. He makes a promise that implies marriage, but drops out of her life entirely to return to a comfortable existence until one day when a letter arrives, addressed with Vera’s unmistakable handwriting in pale blue ink. Like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Leonidas explains his “crime” against Vera to an imaginary courtroom in a way that anticipates Nabokov. The evasions and self-deceptions of Werfel’s characters, the various Austrian types—both Jewish and non-Jewish—and the pervading breathless air of anti-Semitism capture interwar Austria in its poignant eleventh hour of toleration, the heart of Werfel’s subject in this twisted love story.

Prior to the current NEA-award-winning translation, Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand was the only Werfel novel never before published in book form in English translation. Available now to a new generation of readers in America, this translation of Werfel’s novella powerfully suggests that Werfel still belongs in the same company as his contemporaries Mann, Kafka, Canetti, Musil, and other Central Europeans whose works have a permanent place in the world canon.

A remarkable, and devastating, work.

As a peculiarly vivid letter from a strange and not-too-distant past, it should compel us all.
—The Barnes and Noble Review

Franz Werfel was born in Prague to a well-off Jewish family. As a young man, he was involved with the burgeoning community of writers who frequented Prague’s Cafe Arco, including Max Brod and Franz Kafka. He published his first book of poems at the age of twenty-one and began working as an editor for Kurt Wolff’s publishing firm the following year.

Werfel’s talents as a writer and editor allowed him to avoid the frontline in World War I in favor of the Military Press Bureau, where he worked as a propagandist alongside other notable writers. The connections he made during this time allowed him to become one of Austria’s most renowned writers by the end of the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, the humanist, anti-genocide stance he expressed in works such as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, as well as his Jewish heritage, attracted the censure of the Nazis. His books were among the many that were burned among accusations of conspiracy and decadence.

In 1940, Werfel fled to the United States via France and Spain and settled in Los Angeles. There, he wrote his final play, Jacobowsky and the Colonel. He died in Los Angeles five years later.

James Reidel is a translator, editor, biographer, and poet. He has won numerous awards for his translations, including a PEN Translation Prize and a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His own poems are equally well-regarded and have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Reidel lives with his wife, the artist M. Lori Reidel, and their three sons in Cincinnati, Ohio.