Godine Publishes New, Complete Translation of Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh


By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — The publication on April 24 of a new, expanded and complete translation of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel demands recognition as a major literary and cultural event. It is an historic irony, given the dialectic between the Holocaust and the Genocide, that it fell to an Austrian Jew, Werfel, to write the iconic novel of the Armenian Genocide — many of those Armenian writers and intellectuals who might have penned it having been slaughtered on April 24,1915.

Nineteen thirty-three, the date of its first publication in Austria, is of significance, given that this was the year that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party solidified their grip on the Third Reich. The book, first issued by Paul Zsolnay Verlag in Vienna, although read in Nazi Germany, was eventually banned and burned there but that first German edition achieved major international attention and was snapped up at the time of its publication, particularly in Austria and Switzerland. It brought an immediate focus on the events of the Armenian Genocide, which had, hitherto, received scant attention from the international community.

In 1934, Viking Publishers issued an abbreviated version of the novel in an English translation by Geoffrey Dunlop. It immediately became a bestseller in the United States and was picked up for distribution by Book-of-the Month-Club, where it remained one of their most popular titles for decades after its original publication. It was offered as an alternate selection as recently as the 1970s.

David Godine, well known in the publishing world for his interest in the production of books of high quality, described in a recent interview how he happened to acquire the rights to Werfel’s work.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Said the Boston-based publisher, “I was in at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008 and went to visit Fischer Verlag, which held the rights. I had known about this book and knew that it dealt with the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians. The agent for the book, Barbara Perlmutter, told me that the rights had reverted. I was really inter- ested in acquiring the rights to Werfel’s unpub- lished novel, Pale Blue Ink, but when I found that Forty Days was available, I decided to acquire both books.”

At the time that he purchased the rights, Godine says he had been unaware that the English version of the novel had been cut.

“What had happened was that Viking trimmed the novel down to satisfy Book-of-the- Month Club, which said it could not sell the longer two-volume version. We were going to do a simple reprint of Viking’s 1934 translation when we heard from James Reidel, who wrote to one of our editors, Susan Barba, to tell her that the book had been cut in the original English version and that he wanted to do a new translation to make the book complete.”

Added Godine, “Werfel clearly intended his novel as a message to the Jews in Germany. He accurately saw the fate of the Armenians at the hand of the Turks as a precursor to the slaugh- ter of the Jews by the Nazis.”

Barba, who is descended from an Armenian grandmother, was already working with Reidel on the translation of the Werfel’s Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand when he told her that the original English translation of Forty Days had been cut.

Said Barba, “The book has had such a long life. We felt that it was important to add the missing 150 pages and that we could afford it if we used a light-weight paper and put the book out in paperback. James did the knitting togeth- er of the Dunlop translation and his additions. Also, his new translations go some way towards Americanizing the text.”

It was also Barba who persuaded Vartan Gregorian to provide an introduction to the new translation. Gregorian, too, remarks about the alarm the novel raised for Germany’s Jews. He comments, “… the novel serves as an allegory, a not-so-veiled warning about the virulent racialism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism and amoral realpolitik that were about to be unleashed by the Nazis. It was a wake-up call for Jews and non-Jews alike about the impending calamity that was soon to engulf the Jews of Germany and German-speaking lands.”

Reidel, a poet and translator, became interested in Werfel through studying and translating his poetry.

In an interview from his Cincinnati home, he said, “I came across Werfel as part of a larger research project that involved the translation of poetry. I began to read his poems and more of his work and read the German version and then the English version of Forty Days. It was per- fectly clear that the English version had been cut. I would say about 20 percent of Werfel’s novel had been dropped in the Dunlop translation.”

According to Reidel, the missing material deals primarily with what was “idiosyncratic to the Armenian people, much of the color of their culture. The cut version also left out passages that might be considered especially offensive to the Turks, although I believe the Turks would have been offended by anything that portrayed them in a negative way. I would have liked to retranslate the entire book, but unfortunately that route was cost prohibitive, so the additions have been worked into the previous translation by Dunlop.”

Added Reidel, “Werfel had a keen sense of eternity and he knew what was happening. What he dealt with in Forty Days is what was haunting Europe at the time.”

Werfel was moved to write the story of the Armenians thanks to a trip he took through Palestine, Syria and Lebanon in the winter and spring of 1929-30. He knew the horrors of war well, having served as a corporal and telephone operator in the military corps of the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I on the Russian front.

In a prefatory note to the novel he wrote, “The book was conceived in March of the year 1929, during the course of a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of maimed and famished looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian peo- ple from the Hell of all that had taken place.”

The novel, at 900 pages, is a challenge to any reader, but like its literary cousin, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it remains one of the most significant and compelling works of 20th-century literature.

In bare outline, the novel focuses on the defense of a small community of Armenians liv- ing in the mountainous region of Hatay Province of the former Ottoman Empire — as well as on events in Istanbul and provincial cap- itals where the Young Turk government orches- trated the deportation, concentration camps and massacres of the Ottoman Empire’s Armeniancitizens.

The novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Bagradian, is a wealthy Armenian from Paris who has returned to his native village of Yoghonoluk. The area is dominated by the presence of a great mountain, Musa Dagh, or Mt. Moses, as it would be in translation. Although Bagradian listens to the rumors of the killings of Armenians in nearby areas, he considers him- self a loyal citizen of the Ottoman Empire and at first does not believe the stories. But he soon overhears a Turkish district governor discussing the “Armenian problem” and the trick- le of refugees with their tales of brutal suppression becomes undeniable.

Bagradian rallies the villagers to take up positions on Musa Dagh and to prepare to fight to the death. At first, they mount a fierce and suc- cessful defense, but eventually, the better-equipped and more numerous Turkish troops overwhelm the Armenian forces and they are forced to disperse.

The book stands as a tribute to a courageous resistance by a minority against superior forces and the message could not have been lost on Jewish and German readers at the time of its publication. Werfel, whose previous novels had been banned because he was a Jew, was pillo- ried in the press in Nazi Germany as an enemy agent and propagandist.

In 1934, upon the occasion of the novel’s American publication, one critic, Louis Kronenberger, wrote in the New York Times, “If Hollywood does not mar and mishandle it, it should make a magnificent movie.”

Against the advice of his legal department, which feared Turkish objections, Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer acquired the film rights for the novel from the Austrian publisher, and in the same year as its publication, began production on the film, which was to star Clark Gable as Gabrtiel Bagradian.

Despite the fact that the English version had been abridged and many of its most controver- sial passages omitted, the idea of a film that would dramatize the cruelties inflicted on the Armenians by the Turks, was indeed an anath- ema to the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The Turkish ambassador to the United States, Mehmed Munir Ertegun, was charged with putting a stop to the film. He was quoted as saying to an MGM official, “If the movie is made, Turkey will launch a worldwide campaign against it. It rekindles the Armenian Question. The Armenian Question is settled.” The Turkish objections received a great deal of publicity and eventually MGM backed down.

In the 1970s, MGM sold the film rights to Forty Days and a low-budget, poorly-distributed film was made, directed by Sarky Mouradian.

Thus, Werfel’s great novel has yet to receive the cinematic treatment it deserves. Still, it is not impossible to imagine that Godine’s deci- sion to publish the complete text will renew interest in the making of a major movie.

The significance of Werfel’s achievement can- not be underestimated, because while there have been a number of privately published eye- witness accounts of the Armenian Genocide and several valuable non-fiction books that deal

intelligently with the subject, no other work of fiction exists that has done literary and dra- matic justice to the events of the Genocide. Werfel’s mammoth achievement stands alone as fully imagined testimony to terrible events still not fully acknowledged by modern Turkey, or, for that matter, the United States.

Perhaps a new reading of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh can bring about the rightful and universal recognition of the facts of history.

Werfel, like so many Jewish and German intel- lectuals — Thomas Mann and many others — was unable to remain in Germany, and in 1938 he fled with his wife, Alma Mahler, through Spain and France, eventually making his way to California where he lived until his death in 1945. His remains were interred in Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, until, somewhat coin-

cidentally, Gregorian mounted a campaign to have them returned to his native Austria in 1975.

Although Forty Days is, without doubt Werfel’s greatest literary achievement, he is perhaps best known for The Song of Bernadette, the story of a religious peasant girl, which was made into a film. In spite of his Jewish background, Werfel was much drawn to Catholicism and spiritual and religious themes run through all his works. Traces of his interest in Sufi Islam may be detected in Forty Days.

Godine will publish Werfel’s novel, Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand later this year. And there is at least one additional title with an Armenian connection on Godine’s upcoming list — a collection of Youssuf Karsh’s photographs, titled Karsh: Beyond the Camera.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: