BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Part IV (Final)
This is part IV, the final, of the letter exchange between the two historic figures Armin Wegner and Franz Werfel.
Armin Wegner wrote to Franz Werfel:
“Of course, I do not know your own connection with Asia Minor, and I can be fooled by guessing it. Strangely, I have found that the Jewish soul, in the frame of German and Prussian characters, makes them better able to imagine than the majority of German poets can, that this Asian soul usually stands much further away and stays more alien to the descendant of the European crusaders. This probably has its deep foundation in the law of antagonism.
I have no right to ask you to give up your project. That probably wouldn’t help much either. But you will certainly not be grateful to me if I, who from the first moment of our meeting, passionately loved and venerated your poetic work, ask you to consider all my thoughts, which I submit to you here. Precisely because I appreciate you, not only as a writer, but I also know the depth of your humanity, I can do so with a clear conscience. Perhaps it will cause you to drop an unfinished project that has barely begun, or to go beyond to design a shorter novelistic study, as it originally began?
I need not emphasize the immense gratitude and the deep reassurance that would fulfill me, having the opportunity to complete and market my work without fear of competition. Truly, I cannot give up my project, which has become my mission from my deepest, profound experience, for which I have sacrificed laborious years of toil under the greatest hardships and struggles, and for the sake of it, stood in the background for so long.”
Werfel responded on December 23, 1932 from Vienna:
“Let me first briefly tell you the story of the formation of my Armenian novel. Since the war, I have been to the Middle East twice (for several months) – the first time in 1925, the second time in 1929. In Damascus, I had a shocking experience with Armenian children, which, to some extent, made an epic plan virulent in me, which already existed since I first heard of these things; perhaps just after the war. I do not know for exactly how long. Oftentimes, in my method of writing, the dramatic or epic plans grow in the darkness for many years before they are strong enough to entice me to work. (I wrote the Verdi novel part time in 1911 and completed it in 1923.) In the case of my Armenian novel, I started studying and sketching only last year. Of course, the work progressed rapidly during the summer, and today I have already finished more than half of my book. (around 400 printed pages.)
Be that as it may, I naturally like to acknowledge your primary concern and bow to you for being an eyewitness. However, I am almost reluctant to point out that there is no material legitimacy in the field of poetry [creative writing]. You indicate it several times in your letter. There are, perhaps, ‘personal’ substances that may belong to the peculiarity of a particular writer – the World War, with all its chapters, of which the Armenian tragedy is one, may by no means count on these substances. Fairly considered, you have in your great experience and your fateful connectedness, a tremendous advantage over me, who cannot create his work based on experience, direct exposure, grasp of senses, but only from imagination, inventiveness and thus some historical documents. With such a competition, therefore, the worry should be far more on my side.
But I believe, dear Wegner, that we can both be very calm, because our works will certainly be completely different. Mine uses documented facts of only one single episode that covers a few pages in the Alster collection of Lepsius. The episode serves me as the framework for a universal human happening, for a symbolic development, for figures purely invented, it is not an end in itself but only an occasion. Nor will there be much talk of atrocities and massacres in my book. I will set aside all the documentary stuff. The human destiny of the invented characters alone will be important. The scene I am referring to, the contents of which have become known to you through the newspapers, has very little to do with the actual novel. The scene I am referring to, the contents of which have become known to you through the newspapers, has very little to do with the actual novel. A multi-volume work like yours will project a gigantic and magnificent painting of the Armenian destiny, with ten thousand details. While mine, I hope, will be a story limited to a certain region and a small fragment of people. The emphasis will be more on the mythical-human side rather than the Armenian cause.
Lastly, I am surprised about the muffled suspicion that sounds from certain lines of your letter.
You are suggesting that I had heard of your correspondence with the Prussian Academy and Paul Zsolnay Publishing House, and might have been inspired to write my Armenian novel. In fact, I entered the meeting room of the Poets Academy for the first time in my life fourteen days ago, and, as far as publishing correspondence is concerned, my own stuff is already annoying enough. But is it possible that you seriously believe that the facts of your work could stimulate my choice of substance and put you off your work? You are a poet and, therefore, you know that it is not us who choose the substance, but the substance chooses us. Nothing is more sensible to me than that everything I write is essential, i.e., dictated from within.
Until yesterday, from your books I had only the beautiful volume ‘The Face of the Cities,’ which I admire and love very much. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of your prose. Since I work a lot, I read almost no novels or short stories. I just got the mail with your open letter to Wilson. The real glow of your words deeply moved me. Please do not overestimate the rivalry of our works. They go different ways. For me, and globally, you are a great authority on the Armenian cause, through knowledge, experience, and connectedness. This was shown to me in just the few pages I went through yesterday. The glow of these pages, however, also suggests that your publisher cannot be unhappy, even when another, be it a layman or artist, tries to serve the same mission.”
Fortunately, Franz Werfel was not dissuaded by Wegner to give up his plans to write “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” On the other hand, Wegner published only the first volume of his planned four-volume book, depriving the world of his precious eyewitness accounts of the Armenian Genocide.