Armin Wegner Asked Franz Werfel Not to Write his ‘40 Days of Musa Dagh’—Part III

This is the continuation of the letter written by Armin T. Wegner to Franz Werfel in 1932 which is being published for the first time:

Radio and press continued to feed on me. In the end, a severe illness knocked me down, which I haven’t overcome to this day. I was commissioned by a book club to write an in-depth work on Jewish Palestine. It stole laborious hours from my great Armenian novel, which would have been finished long ago, under other circumstances. Nevertheless, I have finished the first volume, although it still needs a revision. The draft of the second volume is about half way done, as well as parts of the fourth volume, which I had started previously.

When I returned from a sanatorium in Meran on December 12 (fairly recovered), and ready to go back to work again, I heard that you had read a chapter from a proposed Armenian novel in Berlin. By the way, the public oration of some sections of my Armenian novel took place on an evening in the Herrenhause, which the Association of German Narrators organized for me in November 1930, and which was reported to the press at that time.

Dear and honored Franz Werfel, you may now ask with certain rights, why I am writing all this to you? Isn’t it always charming to see different poets use the same material as they shape it according to their temperament, personality and creativity? How many various Madonna paintings do we appreciate based on this artistic impulse, directed to the same motives in the times of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? And, has this somehow affected the fame, success and creativity of the artists? Didn’t it strengthen it, on the contrary?

Unfortunately, we live in other times today, not in an age of cultic community as we did then. In our case, we also deal with a work in which documents from the years of the Armenian deportation are a necessity. Documents which I, despite my own personal experiences, used heavily, as well. I must necessarily draw a parallel, where in some places, the content – in isolated cases, even in the exact wording – completely match. I see this when I have the newspaper reports of your last lecture in which all of those facts are listed, which Johannes Lepsius so vividly left in his journal in his own written judgment about his interview with Enver Pasha.

I hope you don’t misunderstand me! It is not only the right, but the duty of a writer to use such documents. Nevertheless, it is not pleasant to see such parallels revealed in the eyes of the public. In every poetic work, it’s not only the invention, but all the facts operate with and for the work, which the poet draws from the events and intellectual currents of his or her time. Contemporary history, even many literary works of their contemporaries, becomes a quarry for the significant artist, from which he or she breaks the building materials for their work. Emerson recognized this very well when he called Shakespeare a “library” of his time.

The moment I explain this to you, you will also understand the concern that has come my way, since I heard of your new project. Deep down, internally, such concern is certainly not the case. The characters of each poet are necessarily filled with his own flesh and blood, no matter how much he takes them from history, just as a good portrait at the same time shows the features of the master who painted it. But outwardly and economically, this concern is bigger; because your message forces me, at least regarding my first volume, which I would like to postpone until the completion of the second one, to publish it sooner than I intended.

I cannot stay indifferent if a genius, a much more famous and successful poet, like Franz Werfel, should come out with a novel that echoes with the conclusion of my own theme. Because with that he will take away from the public the punchline stuff that my work amounts to, and for which it was actually written. Obviously, I cannot finish the last volume and publish it, before completing the other volumes. Perhaps my fear, caused only by the newspaper notes about your lecture, is unfounded, but imagining your book published makes me feel like a North Pole explorer, who after months of life-threatening hardships, arrives at the pole, realizing that someone else had arrived before him a few days earlier.

If I make this presentation so detailed to you, it will first of all be to prove to you the extensive background of my work, with regard to the shaping of the destiny of Armenia. But there is also another reason that moves me – I am told by members of the Academy, and by friends who attended your last lecture, that you had said that the whole thing would initially be an indeterminate plan, and you did not even know if you were going to execute it at all. If this is correct, then my message should probably not be without influence on your decision.

It is possible that you, as a member of the Academy of the Arts, had heard of my plans, and the honorary award bestowed to me two years ago. Or, perhaps, my offer to the publisher Zsolnay, who is so close to you, or at least through literary circles in general? I suppose this is not the case, since, as a rule, writers knowingly do not cultivate the same materials at the same time, especially not when a project is in an advanced stage.

On the other hand, it proves once again the genius of your poetic vision, to devote your time and talents to the same formidable event. And yet, I was not only fighting for my own life’s work here, but I also would have to warn you against continuing it.

Despite the equality of all primal humanity, Asia, the Asiatic characters, and Turks as well as Armenians, are so utterly remote from us that the design of Asia for any European poet, if he really wants to penetrate into the interior, remains an enticing as well as dangerous mystery. Although I have lived in the country for many years in close relationship with Armenians and Turks, although my Armenian and Turkish friends have provided me with rich personal, unpublished material, and although my own records of the Armenian people and their deportation fill out numerous booklets, documents which I have left, with the consideration of my planned work, to my dear friend Johannes Lepsius, yet I know the infinite psychological difficulty of the task.

Even for you, it is possible, that this dangerous labyrinth, once it gets you, will lure you deeper and deeper. I do not know. If I had known beforehand to what extent my Armenian novel and the work on it would expand with the years, would I have had the courage to dare to get involved with it? My participation in this human tragedy has probably been the deepest and most central shock of my entire human experience.

Part IV forthcoming…

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Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the United Armenian Fund, a coalition of the seven largest Armenian-American organizations. He has been decorated by the president and prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

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