Last Testament

Star of the Unborn.
by Franz Werfel.
New York, Viking Press, 1946. 645 pp. $3.00.

One hesitates to use the sharpest edge of the critical blade when no reply is possible. Yet candor forces a judgment contrary to that of the dead poet, who considered his last work to have been his greatest achievement. Star of the Unborn is surely neither tragedy nor comedy of any high seriousness, but rather at most a bewilderingly attractive piece of pathos.

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Franz Werfel lived and died true to his fate: a physical and spiritual exile. His “adaptability,” of which he boasted so often, can only have been superficial, since his later works represented a consistent attempt to escape from harsh contemporary realities by absorption in mysticism and especially in the mysteries of Catholic theology. Clayton Reeves (in Hearken Unto the Voice) was also depicted as “possessed” by a tortured temperament and as confessing to experiences like those of “F.W.”: “When, as a child of six, I saw the ocean for the first time, I fainted.” Reeves’ maladjustment in the present was resolved by a queer sort of “time-stuff” that transported him into the past of Jeremiah’s age; in Star of the Unborn, F. W. makes an even more fantastic leap into the future.

This “travel story” does not fall short because of any flagging of Werfel’s fancy or of his ability as a story-teller. The three days F. W. spends in the Eleventh Cosmic Capital Year of Virgo (about 100,000 years from now) are full of varied characters and episodes, suspense, satire, and writing that is always clever and occasionally moving. In the course of an intricately woven plot, the reader is treated to skilful descriptions of an “Astromental” world; “Comet Calisthenics through the Lower Intermundium”; visits to Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter; “a tour through the Lamaseries of the Starrovers, Marvelers, and Foreignfeelers”; the proper dose of sex interest; a battle between the Mental civilization and the “swinish hubbub” of a revived “Jungle” humanity; and a whopping climax involving escape from a sort of hell called the “Wintergarden.”

Thus, there is much to remember—and forget. The total effect is not much more rewarding than that produced by good “science fiction,” with Einstein and Catholicism bringing H. G. Wells up-to-date.

Futuristic fantasy, of course, is significant chiefly as a key to, or satire on, the present, and it is here that Werfel constantly betrays his sense of guilt and inadequacy. Occasional flashbacks, probing F.W.’s past, provide some of the best writing in the book, and the only two institutions depicted as surviving from the 20th century are the Catholic Church and the Jew. An Orthodox “King Saul” (from Rembrandt) and his radical son, Io-Joel Sid (short for Sidney), conform to typical Gentile stereotypes of the Jew, and F.W. even takes the Catholic side in a medieval disputation borrowed from the history of the Jews in 14th century Spain.

In structure and detail, the book is imbued with Catholic feeling and doctrine. At one point, practically all the moderns (Voltaire, Kant, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Schopenhauer, and Dewey!) are exorcised as heretics; and analogies to Dante are frequently drawn, if not labored. Werfel even proves that those who “maintained that only three hundred thousand angels could dance on the point of a needle” had “underestimated reality”! Yet even with the Grand Bishop, who is treated as the final source of wisdom, Werfel’s tone cannot help but be his usual mixture of seriousness and arrogance and flippancy. Not even in the Church is he completely at home.

Thus, in spiritual exile, Werfel spent his last years on a skilfully wrought mixture of melodrama, crude superstition, pseudo-scientific fantasy, and occasional flashes of insight and wisdom. The depth of his failure can only be measured by the magnitude of his attempt, the extent of his undoubted talents, and the fact that, as he confesses in his first chapter, he knew what he was doing all the time: “My time is short and I am wasting it unscrupulously.” What a pity!

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