At 107 pages, Franz Werfel’s novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a powerful story concerning a day in the life of a high-ranking Austrian bureaucrat who faces, or believes he faces, a moral crisis. The book is intriguingly called a ‘prequel to what is known as Holocaust literature,‘ and the events in the book (with memories of the past) take place in 1936 after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws the year before. The morally complex story very delicately, yet significantly, touches on anti-Semitism, herd mentality, the impending horror, and a complete absence of moral courage on the part of its main character.
The book opens with its main character, Leonidas Tachezy reveling, smugly, in his success.
Whenever Leonidas felt consciously pleased with himself, he smiled–dashing and mocking at the same time. Like so many handsome, healthy men in fine form, men who had risen to a high position in life, he tended to feel an exceptional well-being during the first hours of the morning.
We could say that Leonidas is a self-made-man. He’s just celebrated his fiftieth birthday and has reached the pinnacle of “his brilliant career.” The son of an “impoverished high school teacher,” he made a marginal living “tutoring rich, fat, and stupid boys.” The future looked bleak, but he became successful thanks to two fortuitous turns of fate: his study partner, a Jewish student, committed suicide and left his suit to Leonidas. Leonidas took the suit, had a few alterations made and managed to attend some grand society events where he met a wealthy heiress, the much younger beautiful Amelia Paradini.
If one were to question his world view, he would openly admit that he regarded the universe as a venue whose sole intent and purpose was to pamper those divinely favoured like him, from the bottom to the top, and to furnish them with power, honor, splendor, and luxury. Wasn’t his own life absolute proof of this charitable disposition of the world? It took just one bullet in the room next to his shabby student’s digs to inherit a practically brand-new tuxedo. And from there on his life was a song.
That passage highlights Leonidas’s shallow morality. There’s no poignancy about the death of his study partner–just the feeling that the good luck he deserves fell his way. Amelia “pushed” the marriage against the wishes of her family, and since this is a woman who gets what she wants, the impoverished Latin tutor married the “richest heiress in the city.” So here they are twenty years later; he has a tremendous career, Amelia is the perfect trophy wife, and they mingle with the cream of Austrian society. Amelia spends hours pampering herself with “constant cosmetic care,” and there are no children. Leonidas “as the determined defender of his undivided pleasure [he] had never entertained a desire for children,” but he catches himself looking at his wife’s youthful body and thinking “we pay for those virgin breasts with childlessness.”
Leonidas is shaken from these disturbing thoughts by a stack of letters which await his attention. Most of them are obviously business correspondence, but one of the envelopes, addressed in pale blue ink sticks out from the rest. He recognizes the handwriting as belonging to Vera Wormser. He met Vera, a Jewish woman, when she was just 14, and years later he had an extra-marital affair with her. It’s one of the more shameful episodes of his past–an episode that he’s refused to deal with on many levels, but now the moral consequences of that affair appear to have washed up on his doorstep just as he’s trying to distance himself from anything Jewish….
Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a wonderful story, and that’s thanks to the story’s simple framework but also the examination of Leonidas’s undeveloped conscience. A small portion of the story exposes Leonidas’s hypothetical legal defense in which he pleads for mercy and understanding, and we see how Leonidas, a shallow, superficial human being, cannot quite grasp the moral implications of his behaviour. Moral consequences, for Leonidas, don’t really exist–they are like some faded memory he can’t quite recall, a shadow he can’t quite see, and any anguish he feels is for himself alone. And yet.. and yet… there is a moment when Leonidas cannot hide from the fact that he is a morally reprehensible human being, but even as this fact sinks in, he leaves that knowledge “back in the perfect darkness,” closing the door forever on any possibility of moral growth.
Apart from Leonidas’s so-called moral crisis, one section of the book includes a meeting between several Austrian bureaucrats who have to make a decision regarding an important medical faculty appointment. A world-renowned Nobel Prize-winner in medicine is about to passed over for the nomination because he’s Jewish and instead a relative nobody may get the appointment. This appointment becomes not so much a moral dilemma for the bureaucrats as a political one, and the meeting is a glimpse into expediency and moral cowardice. Strangely, knowing that he must face Vera Wormser, Leonidas finds himself championing Bloch’s appointment as he feels “wrapped up in the fishy community.” The meeting and later Leonidas’s rejection of “another atrocity story” are all connected to the “train [is] clattering through his head.” In spite of the fact that the novel begins with Leonidas smug in his comfortable little world, there’s an underlying anxiety, a subtle white noise, that runs through the novel along with the sense that Leonidas is somehow unaware, or deliberately ignoring the moral significance of political events that are about to consume the world. There’s a storm heading Leonidas’s way. How will he deal with it?
Today the world presented itself as a mild October day with a kind of strained, capricious youthfulness that more resembled a day in April. Over the expanse of vineyards that formed the Heitzing district’s border, thick, fast, fast-moving clouds scudded snow white with sharply delineated edges. Where the sky opened, it featured a naked and, for this time of year, nearly shameless spring blue. The garden, which had hardly changed color, retained that leathery persistence of summer. Light breezes, as mischievous as little street Arabs, blew from different directions with the leaves, which still clung fast to their branches.
My edition from the Verba Mundi International Literature series is translated by James Reidel and includes a translator’s note at the beginning of the book. There’s a brief biography of Franz Werfel (1890-1945) and an interesting overview of the real-life people who formed the characters in the book. James Reidel calls this book Werfel’s “lost jewel,” and after reading the book, it seems surprising that Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand isn’t better known. It deserves to be.