Monday, March 31, 2014

Franz Werfel: Star of the Unborn, an SF novel

Franz Werfel
Star of the Unborn
Published posthumously in 1946
607 pages

Opening lines from Franz Werfel's Star of the Unborn

"This is a First Chapter simply because it seemed inappropriate to begin this opuscule with a Second Chapter.  The only factors that stood in the way of placing the words 'Chapter Two' on the first page of this novel were the publisher's sense of propriety, the reading public's well-known propensity for the discovery of monstrous typographical errors, and finally, the author's mania for originality, since he feared that some colleague in the gaily flippant era of romanticism must certainly have begun one of his rank works with a Second Chapter.  For these reasons we begin with chapter One, no matter how superfluous this chapter may be for the progress of the action, or, more accurately, of the exploration."

The novel is a first person narrative, of a little more than 600 pages.  Therefore, the nature or the personality of the narrator, especially in a long work such as this, becomes vital to the work and highly significant to the reader.  Consequently, it behooves me to tell you somewhat about the narrator, as a sort of preparation for what you will experience if you decide to take up this work.  And, since the narrator introduces himself in the very next paragraph  (sort of, anyway), I have decided to let the narrator do all the work and simply let my fingers do the walking.

"Since we are dealing with a kind of travelogue I feel the obligation to introduce the hero, or,  more modestly, the central figure of the occurrences here set forth.  This particular literary form has the unfortunate weakness that the eye that sees, the ear that hears, the spirit that comprehends, the voice that narrates, the  'I' that is involved in many adventures, constitutes the central point about which, in the most literal sense, everything revolves.  This central point, candidly designated as F. W., is, unfortunately, I myself.  Purely from an innate aversion to getting into difficulties, I should have preferred not to be I-myself in these pages.  Still it was not only the most natural, but the only way, and I was regrettably unable to invent any 'he' that could adequately have borne the burden of the 'I' for me.   And so the 'I' of this story is not a deceptive, novelistic, assumed, fictitious 'I' any more than the story itself is the mere offspring of speculative imagination.  It happened to me, as I must confess, quite against my will.  Without the slightest preparation or premonition, contrary to all my habits and instincts, I was sent out one night as an explorer.  What I experienced, I really experienced.  I am quite prepared to embark upon a frank discussion of this little word 'really' with any philosophically minded reader and I am confident that I will with the argument in every instance."

As you no doubt may have noticed F. W. rambles on and on, but he does eventually get there, in a very roundabout way.  And, that for me, is one of the charms of this very unique work as he somehow manages to drag in most of the social, economic, psychological, environmental, and religious issues of the day, which we have not yet managed to solve some seventy years later.  Since we began with a quotation from the beginning of Chapter One, it is only appropriate that we conclude these introductory words with the last paragraph of Chapter One.

"And under the words 'Chapter One' that are still waiting for the story of our monstrous reality, I decided to sketch the foregoing paragraphs.  It is a superstitious trick.  I have not forfeited anything.  I have not given up my original task.  The 'Chapter One' that was to have borne an incomparable load, with the full agreement of my readers, is not a First Chapter.  Instead, Chapter Two assumes the function of Chapter One."

And, thus he begins his little adventure in  "Chapter Two."

F. W. is a time traveler, in a way. He lived and apparently died sometime during the 20th century.  He now finds himself approximately 100,000 years in the future.  He has been resurrected as a wedding gift by B. H., who had been a friend of his some 100,000 years ago.

B. H. had gone to Tibet and studied and learned the basic tenets of reincarnation so thoroughly that he has been successfully reincarnated and retained memories of his reincarnations for 100, 000 years now.  Admittedly his memories of the far past were getting a bit jumbled, but he still remembered F. W. and had used the highly developed science of the day to bring F. W. back to life for some undetermined time as a wedding gift.  B. H. was not fully accepted as a true member of the present civilization at this time and had hoped to gain admittance by presenting this unusual wedding gift.   

Surreal allegory?
Socio/political commentary?
All of  the above?
None of the above?
Some of the above?
Something entirely different?

I'm not sure what to make of this work.   I first read it decades ago and recently came across it gathering dust in a remote corner of my bookcase.  Intrigued, I reread it and now it's scheduled for another reread in the near future.  There's just too much going on here to take it all in within one reading or two, or three.

This book requires a real commitment to finish, primarily because it is so different from what is popular today.  It can't be read in ten or fifteen minute segments. Most people will never read it because of this.  Moreover, the narrator's rambling discursive style will also turn readers off.   And, some of those who have decided to read the book will never get around to it because they will wait for the right moment when they have enough time to spend on this book.  But, this decision is unfortunate because spending the time with this book is far more rewarding than spending the same amount of time on lesser works.   The best way to handle this is to get the book and start reading, without waiting for the opportune moment, for it will never arrive. 

I supposed I've scared off most of you who have taken the time to get this far in my ramblings.   I hope not, but .  .  .

Highly recommended. 


  1. Hi, Fred, I just came across your blog (while searching for "musky muscadine" and read this post too. I will definitely put it on my to-read list. Have you read any Gene Wolfe? I think you will love his work too! See

  2. Robin,

    I wonder how "musky muscadine" got you to my blog.

    Oh yes, I've read a number of works by Gene Wolfe--The Book of the New Sun series, The Long Sun series, Free Live Free, There are Doors, and Castleview among others, including several collections of short stories.

    I did a very short and inadequate post on Wolfe back in 2009, I think. If you're interested, check the Labels section and click on Wolfe when you finally reach it at the bottom.

  3. I'll look for your Gene Wolfe comment. Do a web search on "musky muscadine" to see!

    1. Robin,,

      Pardon my ignorance, but what is a verb search?

  4. Star of the Unborn is my favorite novel. I have a chapter about it in my doctoral dissertation on magical realism. It's a forgotten jewel. I first read it in 1976, and it calls for much re-reading.

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  6. Unknown,

    It's a great novel and unjustifiably ignored. I never associated it with magical realism. This is my third reading, and it's on my TBR list once more.

    What connection do you see with magical realism?

  7. On my second reading and can see where another will be beneficial. I also see each time gets easier. How someone can make the dialog so long yet make sense adds to the fun of reading this. Also some great one liners.

    1. Anonymous--yes, there is much in the novel that calls for multiple readings. One of these days, I'm going to search him out and see what else he's written.

      I think his style is off-putting to many readers, and that it requires some attention. And, yes, subsequent readings are easier.