BOOKSHELF

EMBEZZLED HEAVEN, by Franz Werfel, Viking Press. $2.50. 427 pp.

FRANZ WERFEL has known instability and terror. In 1933 he fled from the Gestapo into Paris; and, in 1940, he crossed France and Spain to Lisbon disguised as a woman. So, despite its unusual title, his recent book might be expected to be, like the hastily-written volumes of so many other emigres, a keyhole explanation of recent events. But "Embezzled Heaven" is a much less shallow work than "Seven Mysteries" or "Why France Fell." It is essentially an analysis, a dissection of Teta Linek, the gnarled servant woman of pre-auschluss Austrian aristocrats. When her employers with all their culture and education were stamped out under the swastika, this sextagenarian could face the future with calmness. For she had purchased a seat amongst the blessed by educating a nephew for the priesthood--and there was nothing to do but await the call to a sure place in heaven.

Though that deep-rooted faith could be shaken by events on earth, it could not be uprooted. Meeting the nephew after thirty years, Teta even reached the point where she wondered about the transmutation of the Holy Mass. But a penitent pilgrimage to Rome, she knew, would restore her faith and rebuy the future. And Werfel's ironic answer to why Europe has fallen is symbolized in the climax of that pilgrimage, a journey portrayed with a Chaucerian flair for the details which make characters seem real. He shows the Austrians of every class; the nouveau-riche, the poor, the priest, and the salesman--all like Teta seeking blind assurance of happiness beyond life and ignoring the hell on earth. The Pope, himself wracked by physical pain, like them turns his eyes away from the ground. Only the flotsam on the "wave of the future," Werfel and Teta's intellectual employers, care enough even to look at reality.

While they struggle against a few men mad with dynamism, the inertia of the "lower orders," in Teta's phrase, cannot be affected. All else is flux for them except a deep thirst for salvation. For the faithful that deep thirst is sufficient proof of the existence of water--they know they can escape from hell on earth into an embezzled heaven. Franz Werfel, though, cares about mundane things. He can only flee and explain.