Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift by Franz Werfel

At the beginning of Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift (In a Woman’s Pale Blue Hand), life is going very well for Leonidas Tachezy as he celebrates his fiftieth birthday. Thanks to a lucky break in his student days, his natural abilities and discipline have led him to a high station in Austrian society in 1936. He is a section head in the Alpine republic’s ministry of education, part of the apparatus that takes care of public business year in and year out, regardless of the government of the day. He advises ministers, does their bidding when he judges it a good idea, and remains when they have moved to their next post or been voted out entirely. His good looks and considerable skills on the dance floor enabled him to win the heart of Amélie Paradini, a wealthy heiress whose standing gave him entrée to Vienna’s toniest circles, and whose millions gave him the backing not to care too much what they thought.

Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift by Franz Werfel

The one significant blot on their life is the lack of children. For a time, both had been sad about the failure of their efforts to start a family, but over time, they adjusted. Now they are established, and establishment, regulars at the Opera and at the seasonal balls, a middle-aged couple whose whirlwind romance still shows in their dancing abilities, whose settled routines show in the evident pleasure that they take in each other’s company. Amélie’s background gave Leonidas standing; his success at the ministry showed that more than just birth mattered in modern Austria.

Among the dozen or more congratulatory cards and letters that Leonidas receives with the morning mail on his birthday, one stands out, at least to his eye. The handwriting, a woman’s hand in pale blue ink, is identical to the writing on another letter he received some fifteen years ago. That one, he destroyed unopened. What will he do with this one?

Of course Leonidas has immediately recognized the hand behind writing: Vera Wormser, a woman with whom he had a brief affair while on an assignment in Heidelberg in the early days of his marriage. That affair — in contrast to the nine or eleven flings he has had over the ensuing two decades — mattered to him. There was never any question of his leaving Amélie, no matter what he told Vera, but his heart was nevertheless engaged, and he has never quite forgotten. The letter fifteen years ago so unsettled him that he burned it without ever learning of its contents. Now there is another, and worse yet, Amélie saw it among his post; a cover story will have to be concocted.

Werfel himself was no stranger to marital intrigue. By the time he published Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift in 1941, he was married to Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, whom he met and fell in love with when she was still married to the architect Walter Gropius. Mahler bore a son by Werfel before she divorced Gropius, but he was born prematurely and did not survive infancy. She gave him the surname Gropius. By 1941, Werfel and Mahler were in America, having fled Austria after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. The Nazis had been burning Werfel’s works since 1933, and would very much like to have captured him. They settled first in France, which they narrowly escaped after that country fell to German invasion in 1940. They hid in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes for five weeks — an experience that led to The Song of Bernadette, probably Werfel’s best-remembered work — before crossing the Pyrenees on foot into Spain. They made their way to Portugal and took passage to America; he lived another five years, just long enough to see the end of the war. (She lived until 1964, an artistic life that ranged from the Viennese Secession to Beatlemania.)

As the novella proceeds, Werfel reveals more of Leonidas’ past and character, as well as the atmosphere in Austria in 1936, a divided post-imperial state where plenty of people thought its destiny was with much larger Germany. Reading the letter brings Leonidas yet more difficulties. Vera is asking for help for a young man from Germany who is being prevented from getting a pre-university secondary education because “of well-known reasons.” That’s code saying that the young man is Jewish and barred from this path by Nazi laws. Leonidas has just come from a bruising meeting with his minister and other department heads where some of the other bureaucrats want to deny a renowned Jewish physician a prestigious university professorship. Though the Austrian Nazi movement had failed in their coup attempt two years early, they still had many supporters, and with the scene about the professor Werfel shows how their influence continued to work in Austrian government, and how bitter the struggles were before the Anschluss. To engage on behalf on the young man Vera has written about would entail risk for Leonidas; it might put him in a very precarious position. But what else can he do for someone he presumes is the son he never had with Amélie? And if he does take action, what will he say to Amélie, who, after all, has seen the letter’s envelope?

Werfel answers all of these questions, with sharply drawn characters who reveal the workings of human hearts, in their desires to maintain pretenses, in their triumphs and failures, and in the long-lasting effects of decisions taken quickly. Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift is brief, but by no means simple.

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