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