Best known for The Song of Bernadette (1941), which was turned into an Oscar-winning movie, Jewish writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) was also the author of one of the most popular Book-of-the-Month Club titles ever, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. First released in 1933, the work is a historical novel based on the Turkish deportation and massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. Viking Press sold more than 34,000 copies of the 817-page novel, translated by Geoffrey Dunlop, in the first two weeks of its release. Three decades later, when David Godine was at BOMC in the late ’70s, he said that it was still selling briskly. For the past 10 years, the book has been out-of-print, but Godine will reissue it next month on Genocide Remembrance Day, April 24, in an uncut $22.95 trade paperback edition translated by James Reidel that restores roughly 25% of the original German text. To underscore the importance of Werfel’s work, Godine is also publishing the first English-language edition of the author’s novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand (1940), also translated by Reidel, about an Austrian bureaucrat, his trophy wife, and a Jewish woman from his past.
Although the story of The Forty Days resonated in much of the U.S. and Europe from its initial publication, it was by no means universally embraced. In February 1934, the German government seized copies of the novel, and while Armenians revere the book, the Turks deny that genocide took place and have tried to undermine it. In the 1930s, pressure from the Turkish and French governments prevented a film based on the book from being made, and more recently, opposition to the novel swayed Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone to give up on the idea of turning it into a movie. Despite reports that Armenia’s National Film Center is in negotiations with Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian for a movie based on it to commemorate the centennial of the massacre, a recent article in the Atlantic calls it “unlikely.”
Film or no, Godine is hoping to capture review attention for its new edition, which editor Susan Barba, the granddaughter of a survivor of the Armenian genocide, regards as “my book.” The press delayed publication for two years in order to get it right, making it both the longest novel, and the book with the longest gestation period, published by Godine. “We had originally intended simply to reprint Geoffrey Dunlop’s translation,” explained Barba. “But in conversations with James Reidel, we began to understand how incomplete the Dunlop translation truly was. Restoring, expanding, and resetting the text was a formidable authorial, editorial, and design challenge.” To keep The Forty Days from becoming unwieldy, Barba went with thin paper stock. To preserve the novel’s elegiac quality, she chose a historic photograph of old women collecting water from a fountain in Musa Dagh for the cover.
Much about the Godine edition of The Forty Days rests on coincidence, starting with Godine hearing about the book at Frankfurt from Herman Graf of Carroll & Graf, who republished it in 1983. After the imprint was bought by Perseus and then shut down, Godine purchased the rights from Barbara Perlmutter at Fischer Verlag in 2008. Barba asked family friend and scholar Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, to write a preface and subsequently learned that Gregorian had been instrumental in having Werfel’s remains exhumed from Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles and repatriated to Vienna.
As for Reidel, he describes his interest in Werfel’s work as “falling into his lap.” He was looking for poems to translate and came across Werfel’s poetry in a publication that had been subscribed to by a previous tenant of his office. Then wanting to experiment on translating something longer, he turned to Pale Blue Ink. From there he became interested in Werfel’s family, who appear along with friends as characters in Werfel’s work. When Reidel looked for the Manon Gropius character in The Forty Days—Werfel’s stepdaughter died of polio in 1935 at the age of 20 and served as a model for Bernadette—and couldn’t find her, Reidel realized that chunks of the author’s epic were missing and urged Godine to print the complete edition.
While many regard The Forty Days as Werfel’s masterpiece—the original New York Times placed it in a category with other 20th-century literary masterpieces like The Magic Mountain, Ulysses, and Remembrance of Things Past—Reidel argues that Pale Blue Ink should not be overlooked. “Both [Werfel] books,” he said, “deal with anti-Semitism, and they’re warning books. We live in a time where we need to be alert again, especially Jewish people, about where anti-Semitism can lead. They’re both from the 1930s and they’re both remarkably fresh.”