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Werfel, Franz

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1890-1945) Austrian poet, playwright and author, a member of the loose Prague Circle of writers, active from 1911 and achieving early fame as an Expressionist poet and dramatist, in active service during World War One. His first play, Bocksgesang: in funf Akten (1921; trans Ruth Langner as Goat Song: A Drama in Five Acts 1926), is of sf interest for its depiction of an eighteenth-century Monster, a Golem figure whose very existence – like that of the Frankenstein Monster, or Pan [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] – constitutes a threat to the European moral order. The play has also been seen as presaging Hitler.

In 1938 Werfel, who is now mostly remembered, perhaps unfairly, for his later sentimental novels, was forced as a Jew into exile, first to France, and then Spain as World War Two expanded. He reached California in late 1940; his last novel before he died there was Stern der Ungeborenen: Ein Reiseroman (1946 Sweden; trans Gustave Otto Arlt as Star of the Unborn 1946). This long, contemplative Utopia depicts a philosophically complex Far-Future Earth through the eyes of a narrator (named Franz Werfel), who has been awoken from Suspended Animation or perhaps death, and who is guided through the three parts of the tale by a mentor explicitly associated with Dante Alighieri's Vergil. This narrator's response to the depopulated, deeply alienating, surreal world about him seems cunningly to mirror the exiled author's real-world experiences of California. Fantastic tropes include a partly philosophical system of Transportation that plays with Relativity in that, at least apparently, the destination comes to the traveller rather than vice-versa; the sophistication of food and drink into minute quantities of highly nutritive substances (see also Food Pills); a John Varley-esque episode of playing in liquid-metal pools on the daylit side of Mercury, protected by an impalpable Force-Field spacesuit; Weapons of War that inflict devastating emotional trauma and even suicidal impulses, somewhat anticipating the Acid Head War of Brian W Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (fixup 1969); and in the final section a kind of secular scientific Hell, the "Wintergarden" far Underground, where life ends in sometimes grotesque vegetable transformations (see Devolution).

Despite its frequent wittiness, the melancholy underlying Stern der Ungeborenen, and its long effortless perspectives of time and thought, give the book a clarity and reserve reminiscent of the Scientific Romances of Olaf Stapledon, though its ultimate nostalgic recourse to some future form of Catholicism (see Religion), and long sections of abstractedly philosophical Infodump removed from any narrative pulse, identify it as a work typical of the Mainstream Writer of SF. [JC/DRL]

see also: Arts; Austria; Germany.

Franz Viktor Werfel

born Prague, Austro-Hungary [now Czech Republic]: 10 September 1890

died Beverly Hills, California: 26 August 1945



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