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July/August 2016
 
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Star of the Unborn, by Franz Werfel (1946)


PLACE: California. Time: 100,000 years in the future. Hero: the author himself, revived by a spiritualist for a wedding entertainment. Earth has been subjected to a catastrophic solar event that irradiated the exposed hemisphere, killing most life forms and mutating survivors. The only flora is an "iron-gray turf." Humanoids ("Astromentals") spend most of their 200-year life spans underground with advanced technology and an exquisitely refined culture. Then they journey to "the Wintergarden"—a deep subterranean realm where their bodies are packed in "retrogenetic humus" and later transplanted to a field to become daisies.

Franz Werfel wrote Star of the Unborn (published posthumously in 1946 as Stern der Ungeborenen, and translated from the German in the same year by Gustave O. Arlt) while he was dying. He referred to it as "a travel novel," and it certainly is that, heavy on painstaking description. But its 645 pages of dense first-person narrative is studded with discursive asides and provocative epigrams. Its philosophical heft will enrich patient and adventurous readers.

The novel's fertility and profundity of vision is comparable to Stapledon. Its yearning for transcendence brings to mind David Lindsay, its faith in Christianity, C. S. Lewis. Yet its author was a Jew who barely escaped Europe for America in 1940. Werfel never converted, yet he believed that Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism historically required and eternally complemented each other. He accepted "the conservation of evil," yet paradoxically embraced an optimistic teleology.

Werfel was the third husband, after Gustave Mahler and Walter Gropius, of Alma Schindler, who once described herself as "a collector of geniuses." This novel should confirm her critical acumen.

—Robert Eldridge

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