Tragedy and Triumph of a Simple Soul : FRANZ WERFEL: A Life in Prague, Vienna and Hollywood <i> by Peter Stephan Jungk (Grove Weidenfeld: $22.50; 350 pp.)</i>
Franz Werfel knew everybody: Rilke, Schnitzler, Musil, Zweig, Berg, Freud, Thomas Mann.
As a young man, he was the companion of two other writers, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, who frequented the literary cafes of Prague before World War I. Once, the three had a day in the country: “They hiked through the Bohemian forests and went skinny-dipping in the rivers. Tall, thin and olive-skinned, Kafka was the bravest swimmer among them.
“Werfel, however, was not up to strenuous hikes and hours of swimming; after one such weekend in early summer of 1909, he returned home exhausted and severely sunburned, and took to his bed for several days with a high fever. His mother was furious and took Brod to task; it had been irresponsible of him, she scolded, not to have taken care of his younger friend, especially at this critical juncture when Werfel, a weak scholar at best, was just about to take his graduation exams.”
There was always something of the pampered fat boy about Werfel; the contrast between him and Kafka is almost absolute. Kafka is, for us, the icon and the saint of Modernism: suffering, austere, pessimistic, formally experimental, belonging nowhere on this Earth. Werfel was the opposite; his suffering was of the Romantic sort that admitted the possibility of solution and assuagement (somewhere, someone could understand him; the problem was finding the one).
He wrote quickly and published easily. At the time of Kafka’s death in 1924, Werfel, seven years Kafka’s junior, had published 16 volumes. Kafka, of course, died virtually unknown. Werfel never experimented, and he believed in the triumph of the pure, simple soul. The model for this coeur simple was his childhood nurse, a devout Catholic who fed him between meals in the kitchen and took him with her to church. It is possible to say that the early warmth he received from her disposed him for the rest of his life to idealize Catholicism. Or are there darker explanations?
Werfel’s Jewishness was a vexing issue for him, and he slithered around in the mud of Jewish self-hatred all his life. Like many sensitive, artistic boys, he was the son of a successful upper-middle-class father who had little regard for his son’s ambitions and hoped that Franz would get over them in time to take over the family glove factory. Of course, it’s no accident that Freud, the creative son of a bourgeois father, centered his explanations of psychic life on the Oedipal conflict. But the extent and ramifications of this conflict are vast, taking in the economic and spiritual as well as the psychological.
The great flowering of European Jewish intellectual and artistic life that took place at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th was made possible by fathers who had worked themselves up to the middle class. These fathers often were tyrannical at home, and their sons’ longings to be free expressed themselves in their desires to throw off the formal constraints of their literary fathers, as Harold Bloom told us years ago. But in the case of young men with a taste for the spiritual as well as the artistic, the conflict with the father could also express itself in ambivalence towards Jehovah, and a desire to replace him with a friendly brother (“gentle Jesus, meek and mild”) and the loving mother (Mary or Holy Mother Church) from whose paradisal world the boy had been ousted. It is a less well-documented, but not unknown, form of Jewish self-hatred for the sensitive Jewish boy to buy the International Banker conspiracy theory, and to associate Christianity with anti-materialism, high-mindedness, devotion to the pure.
The Prague of 1890 was a cosmopolitan city where Jews assimilated with relative ease. The Werfel family attended synagogue and Franz had his bar mitzvah, but he attended a Catholic school in the monastery of the Piarist order. Instructions in religion were held in separate classrooms; Jewish boys were taught by a rabbi who came to the school for that purpose.
Werfel was an undistinguished student and a hypochondriac, a romantic boy who loved theater and opera and adored staying in bed as a semi-invalid, writing his poetry. He fell in love (unrequited) with the local beauty, spent time in cafes and brothels and achieved prodigious success with his poetry while he was still a teen-ager. He moved to Vienna and was recognized by Rainer Maria Rilke as an important young poet.
Werfel’s poetic success did not spare him from the draft during the First World War. He had an undistinguished military career, serving as a telephone operator, and he fell in love with a simple German nurse whom he planned to marry after the war. But, returning to Vienna, he came under the sway of Alma Mahler Gropius, and the jig was up for the simple German nurse.
Alma Mahler is one of those female legends--part goddess, part joke--whose powers are inexplicable when one simply reads about them. Tom Lehrer wrote a song about her, and every man who composed, wrote, painted or designed buildings seemed to find her irresistible. Yet she seems to have tormented all her men, and every one makes a point of saying she was in no sense conventionally beautiful.
When Werfel met her, (he was 28, she 41), she was married to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, having left painter Oskar Kokochka for him.
While still married to Gropius, Alma became pregnant by Werfel and gave birth to a hydrocephalic child. Eventually the child died, but the experience was shattering for Werfel. Gropius behaved like a gentleman and disappeared into the Bauhaus; Werfel and Alma married in 1929.
Alma served as both inspiration and distraction; she was a compulsive hostess, needing contact with whatever genius was named fashionable at the moment in order to feel she was alive. She was right-wing, anti-Semitic and absurdly self-inflating. As a mother, she was indifferent at best, cruelly destructive at worst.
If Werfel was ambivalent about his Jewish identity, the Third Reich was not. In 1933, Heinrich Mann was forced to resign as president of the Prussian Academy of Literature because he had signed a manifesto urging Communists and Socialists to join in resistance to Hitler. Werfel signed a statement of loyalty to the academy, a statement declaring that in view of “changed historical situations,” members of the academy would refrain from criticism of the German government. But the Prussian Academy had no desire to “pollute” its membership with Jews, and Werfel was ousted.
Only a few weeks later, Werfel’s books were being burned on bonfires. He got the message and belatedly realized that his alienation from Judaism was a tragic error. He and Alma fled from France to Spain, whence a harrowing escape led to the United States. Eventually they settled in Hollywood, one of the community of expatriates who transplanted themselves so oddly.
It was in Hollywood that Werfel had his greatest success, with the book for which he is best known in America, “The Song of Bernadette.” It is the rather sentimentalized account of Bernadette Soubirous, to whom the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared at Lourdes. The book, a best seller, made Werfel even more famous--and rich (“a well-made bad book,” said Thomas Mann, who was also living in California).
Werfel was caught up in the net of pious Catholic rumor and gossip; it was constantly being announced in pulpits and in the popular Catholic press that he had converted; the Bishop of New Orleans took it as his special mission to effect Werfel’s baptism. But Werfel didn’t convert, and he lived out the remaining few years of his life miserable with Alma--who blamed his Jewishness as the cause of her having to leave her beloved Europe, and whose anti-Semitic, indeed pro-Nazi remarks were the cause of private fury and public anguish to her husband. Werfel died of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1945.
How does one judge a life and a career such as Werfel’s? He was a weak man, and in many ways not admirable, but he seems to have been beloved: a great, sweet boy who liked to sing Verdi. There is something comic about him--pudgy and sloppy, writing compulsively, compulsively smoking anything: pipes, cigarettes, cigars.
His devotion to literature was real, but it in a 19th-Century mode. He seemed to write about things rather than to be seized by the inner demands of a work itself. His range of subjects is large: He wrote full-length books on the prophet Jeremiah (whom he modeled on Kafka), on the Armenian massacre, on Verdi, on ancient Troy; he wrote poetry, novels, biography, librettos, screenplays, plays. Yet his work seems dated: otiose and merely literary.
Werfel may be one of those people who are more important for what they represent than for what they were. He was born in the middle of Europe at what was undoubtedly a period (perhaps the last) of extraordinary prominence of thought and art. He saw everything, but didn’t tell us much about it that we could use. He may be most interesting in his embodiment of a particular kind of Jewish conflict; that he never resolved this conflict makes him a sympathetic figure.
One of the last books he wrote was a theological tract, a series of aphorisms about Judaism and Christianity, but there is no point in going to Werfel for a coherent system of thought. He wrote that he would not convert because although he regarded Catholicism as the “purest force sent upon this earth to combat the evils of materialism and atheism,” the historical situation prevented him from “escaping the flock of the persecuted,” and the anti-Semitism so prevalent among Christians would prevent his feeling truly welcomed.
He was a proud Zionist, but he also stated that “it is one of Israel’s strangest transgressions that by means of its nature and form of being it calls forth . . . from Christians . . . the sin of anti-Semitism, which leads to its own destruction.”
Though he died a Jew, Werfel wished to be buried in a non-religious manner. Yet at his funeral, a priest who was a close friend of his and Alma’s preached on the unquestionably Christian nature of Werfel’s life and art. Alma denied at the time that she had had her husband conditionally baptized after his death, but she later confessed to having done so.
Does author Peter Stephen Jungk like Franz Werfel? Not madly, it would seem, but he has served him well. Jungk does an excellent job at creating the different ambiances of Werfel’s life, and of synopsizing his many works. His inclusion of interviews with people (still alive at the time of the book’s writing) who knew Werfel, and his journeys to the places--still standing, often transformed--where Werfel lived are a haunting reminder that Werfel is both of our time and not of it: a man who came at the end of something rather than pointing the way to that which was to come.