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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Pale Blue Ink
in a Lady's Hand

Franz Werfel

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To purchase Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand

Title: Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand
Author: Franz Werfel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1941 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 116 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand - US
Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand - UK
Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand - Canada
Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand - India
Une écriture bleu pâle - France
Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift - Deutschland
Una scrittura femminile azzurro pallido - Italia
  • German title: Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift
  • Translated and with an introdcutory Translator's Note by James Reidel

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful character-portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand is tightly focused on Leonidas Tachezy, who: "counted among the forty or so government bureaucrats who really ran the country" in pre-Anschluß Austria. It's the fall of 1936, and he's reached "the top of his brilliant career", he has a still stunningly beautiful and much younger wife, Amelie, and he's just celebrated his fiftieth birthday; life should be good, and by and large Leonidas does feel on top of the world. True, the couple has remained childless, but otherwise he can hardly complain -- especially given the humble circumstances from which he rose -- "A nobody, without family, without name, even worse, saddled with a puffed-up first name".
       As he readily acknowledges, Leonidas' success owed a great deal to luck and odd turns of fate. First there was the tuxedo he inherited while at university -- left to him by a boardinghouse neighbor who: "blew his brains out in the adjoining room". Outfitted with this fine suit, Leonidas could appear at gatherings that would otherwise be outside his reach, and that's how he met Amelie Paradini, the "richest heiress in the city", who fell so passionately in love with him that it was Leonidas who was the hunted rather than the hunter.
       Marriage to Amelie has meant a life of luxury and was extremely helpful in hositing him quickly up the career ladder, but he can't help but admit:

Let there be no doubt, I am Amelie's property. The advantages of belonging to a stinking rich woman with a mind of her own and connected to a financially and socially influential family are very great. The disadvantages, however, are not a little large.
       Yet Leonidas also knows that Amelie is as dependent and devoted to him.
       The novel opens at breakfast, with a pile of yet more congratulatory letters waiting for Leonidas. But among the letters there's one that stands out for being addressed in: "handwriting in pale blue ink" (and a lady's hand) -- and with that suddenly Leonidas finds himself confronted with his past, and worried about his present, sure that jealous Amelie will inquire about this unusual letter which, he worries, could bring his world crashing down around him.
       He recognizes the handwriting as that of Vera Wormser, and remembers the last time he received a letter from her, fifteen years earlier. Back then he: "tore the letter into little pieces and made them go away ..." unread, but this time he opens the letter.
       Leonidas had first met Vera when she was in her mid-teens and he was tutoring her brother. They met a few years later again in Heidelberg, when Leonidas was already (but not long) married and she was a student, and they had a passionate brief affair -- except that Leonidas clearly led her on, before simply disappearing, returning to Vienna and his married life. Three years later came the first, unread letter from Vera; now, another fifteen years later, this second one.
       Feeling torn between maintaining what he has built up over the years and what appears to be an opportunity to right an enormous wrong, Leonidas sees himself on trial, and much of the backstory is presented in confession-form, as he reveals and tries to justify what happened years ago. As it turns out, Leonidas misreads both situations -- his concern about his wife's jealousy, as well as what Vera has in mind -- and his near-perfect life is, to all appearances, hardly upset at all in the end.
       But appearances don't tell all, of course -- and this is also a time and place when the maintaining of appearances comes up against a particularly ugly reality. Convinced that Austria in late-1936 is still a refuge and standard-bearer, someone remarks to Leonidas:
In the end we are the last bulwark of culture in Central Europe ...
       Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand was written in 1940, so both author and readers knew that the bulwark did not have long to stand -- and Leonidas already senses that it's not the secure hold his guest believes:
     "Having culture," he said grimly, "expressed another way, is having gone to seed. All of us here have gone to seed, God knows. [...] Everything depends on whether one is strong enough to change himself before the big change comes ..."
       Despite his lucky stars, Leonidas understands that he is weak and goes with the convenient flow. He's done well -- but he also recognizes his abject failure despite all this apparent success. He knows he is not strong enough to change himself.
       Both the student who left Leonidas the suit and Vera are what Leonidas refers to (complete with quotation marks) as "intellectual Israelites", and Leonidas tries to assuage some of his enormous guilt by shifting blame to them (even as they are entirely blameless), in a reminder of how even passive and unarticulated anti-Semitism contributed to the moral collapse that was to have its clearest manifestation in Nazi Europe. The unconscionable suffering Leonidas inflicted upon Vera is something she still has to live with, but she seems to have come to terms with it; now it is Leonidas who winds up suffering most because of his inability to act and take a stand, even just on a purely personal level.
       Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand is cleverly presented, from how Leonidas tries to deal with his actions by, in essence, putting himself on trial to the way things work out -- entirely believably, yet with a number of surprising twists. (Werfel's talents as a novelist were remarkably broad, as he demonstrates with what he pulls off even just in this small work.) Werfel's use of the shadows of Nazi Germany already looming over the scene, and yet hardly really threatening yet (Vera has had to abandon Germany, but is on her way to safety) is particularly effective, making for an unsettling atmosphere.
       A strong little work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 January 2013

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Pale Blue Ink in a Lady's Hand: Reviews: Franz Werfel: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Franz Werfel lived 1890 to 1945. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1943 and 1945, he was also married to Alma Schindler, who had been the wife of both Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius.

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