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Paul Celan

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

John Felstiner
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Yale University Press
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    Paul Celan
    Book Description:

    Paul Celan, Europe's most compelling postwar poet, was a German-speaking, East European Jew. His writing exposes and illumines the wounds that Nazi destructiveness left on language. John Felstiner's sensitive and accessible book is the first critical biography of Celan in any language. It offers new translations of well-known and little-known poems-including a chapter on Celan's famous "Deathfugue"-plus his speeches, prose fiction, and letters. The book also presents hitherto unpublished photos of the poet and his circle. Drawing on interviews with Celan's family and friends and his personal library in Normandy and Paris, as well as voluminous German commentary, Felstiner tells the poet's gripping story: his birth in 1920 in Romania, the overnight loss of his parents in a Nazi deportation, his experience of forced labor and Soviet occupation during the war, and then his difficult exile in Paris. The life's work of Paul Celan emerges through readings of his poems within their personal and historical matrix. At the same time, Felstiner finds fresh insights by opening up the very process of translating Celan's poems. To present this poetry and the strain of Jewishness it displays, Felstiner uncovers Celan's sources in the Bible and Judaic mysticism, his affinities with Kafka, Heine, Hölderlin, Rilke, and Nelly Sachs, his fascination with Heidegger and Buber, his piercing translations of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Mandelshtam, Apollinaire. First and last, Felstiner explores the achievement of a poet surviving in his mother tongue, the German language that had passed, Celan said, "through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15717-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xx)
    John Felstiner

    Because Paul Celan lived—or rather, survived—through the poetry he wrote, this book tries to give a sense of his life’s work. Either a biographical or a textual study alone would miss Celan’s reason for being. Every day he felt his era’s and his own history pressing on the poems he wrote, which “had to pass” (as he said of the German language itself) “through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.”¹

    Born in what soon became the wrong place and time, Celan absorbed his misfortune but never grew immune to it. His family were German-speaking Jews from the eastern...

  5. Part One Stricken

    • 1 Loss and the Mother Tongue (1920–43)
      (pp. 3-21)

      “First of all forgive me, please, for not writing. I’ve got no reason for it, either.”¹ This earliest extant writing by Paul Antschel (he renamed himself Paul Celan only after the war), a letter to his aunt, opens with a familiar plea. It is January 1934, two months after his bar mitzvah, and Aunt Minna, who lived with the Antschel family during Paul’s childhood, has just emigrated to Palestine. “So pardonnez-moi, please!” he goes on, exhibiting a penchant for languages other than his native German. Then he mentions that “by rights” he should be ranked first in his class, not...

    • 2 A Fugue after Auschwitz (1944–45)
      (pp. 22-41)

      “What the life of a Jew was during the war years, I need not mention,” Paul Celan said in a 1949 biographical note.¹ With a discretion that seems to spare his German readers, Celan offset the trauma. Like many people who lived through those years, he gave almost no factual testimony about them—which gives his poetry a testimonial charge. Yet the war years bore down absolutely.

      Exactly when and where his period of forced labor—from July 1942 until about February 1944—came to an end and how he returned to Czernowitz remain obscure. An East German émigré poet...

    • 3 Song in the Wilderness (1945–48)
      (pp. 42-56)

      “How would it be, for example,” Paul Antschel remarked early in 1945 about leaving Soviet-controlled Czernowitz—“How would it be to arrive in Jerusalem, go to Martin Buber, and say: ‘Uncle Buber, here I am, now you’ve got me!’”¹ Buber, who had left Germany in 1938, mattered enough to him, as did Palestine to his family and friends, for this remark to be only half jocular, masking a sense that he really should be emigrating now or should have done so with his parents before the war. That option became for Celan the road not taken, which would have made...

    • 4 “German” Author in Exile (1948–53)
      (pp. 57-76)

      “Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe,” Celan wrote to his Israeli relatives in August 1948.¹ But why “must”? Because a poet cannot stop writing, “even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” All this “may be saying a lot,” Celan added. Just how much it was saying would take him years to realize.

      On first reaching Paris in 1938, he had visited Bruno Schrager, who lived near the Sorbonne on the Rue des Écoles. Ten years later, with...

    • 5 Saying No To Say Yes (1953–54)
      (pp. 77-91)

      “What a game!” (Welch ein Spiel!), Celan said in a 1954 letter, “So short-lived, so kingly too.” He had in mind the writing of poems and his own evolving struggle. “The circumstances of my life, living in the domain of a foreign tongue, have meant that I deal much more consciously with my language than before—and yet: the How and Why of that qualitative change the word experiences, to become a word in a poem, I’m unable to define more closely even today. Poetry, Paul Valéry says somewhere, is language in statu nascendi, language becoming free.” A poet can...

    • 6 Words That Will Not Heal (1954–57)
      (pp. 92-108)

      “And there is ourselves, we who look at these ruins and sincerely believe that race-madness was buried in them forever, we who see this image fading and act as if we had cause for hope again, as if we really believed that it all belongs to only one time and only one country, we who overlook what’s happening around us and do not hear that the scream never falls silent [der Schrei nicht verstummt]” (4:97).

      This sentence by Paul Celan both is and is not a quotation from him. In 1956 he translated Jean Cayrol’s French narration for the Alain...

  6. Part Two Seeking

    • 7 Only Language through Memory (1958)
      (pp. 111-125)

      “The German lyric is moving, I believe, along other paths than the French,” Paul Celan wrote in Paris for the Flinker Bookshop’s 1958 almanac, and his words were meant to admonish German listeners while reporting on his own practice. “With the most dismal things in its memory, and dubiousness all around it,” Celan said, German poetry “can no longer speak the language that many a ready ear even now seems to expect. Its language has grown more sober, more factual, it mistrusts ‘Beauty,’ it attempts to be true. Thus it is ... a ‘grayer’ language, a language whose ‘musicality’ has...

    • 8 The Other Voice Your Own (1958–59)
      (pp. 126-146)

      “Whether the spirit stands on the left? Would that it (still) stood there! But what is spirit? And where, after everything that’s happened, is the left? I believe the spirit stands—insofar as it can still maintain its ‘vertically’—by itself.”¹ In this 1958 letter, Celan condemned the “prettily rhymed banalities” in Doctor Zhivago and Boris Pasternak’s celebrity: “All this testifies most tragically to the isolation of the spirit in Russia. Do you know about the fate of Mayakovsky? Esenin? Isaak Babel? Boris Pilnyak?” Here he names two poets not at home with Bolshevism who committed suicide and then two...

    • 9 With and Against the Pain (1959–60)
      (pp. 147-169)

      “Oh you can hardly imagine how things really look again in Germany,” Celan wrote in a headlong hand to Nelly Sachs in 1959.¹ “You see—oh, I know how much I’m burdening you with this, but I must let you know about it—my latest experience.” After signing himself warmly, he adds: “And nobody answers these fellows! Even that—the answering—is left up to the Jews. The others write books and poems ‘about’ it. . . .” As for those “others” failing to answer insults, Celan has in mind well-meaning German authors who wrote on anti-Semitism. And one word...

    • 10 Wrestling with the Angels (1961)
      (pp. 170-184)

      “You ask about language, about thought, about poetry; you ask in concise terms—permit me to give my answer in just as concise a form” (3:175). Paul Celan was responding to a 1961 inquiry about the “Problem of Bilingualness” from Martin Flinker, a Czernowitz-bornm bookseller transplanted to Vienna and Paris. He went on: “I do not believe in bilingualness in poetry. . . . Poetry—that is the fateful uniqueness of language.” This fatefulness of German led Celan to strain, admix, invade, and undo that same language. His writing collected in Die Niemandsrose (“The No One’s-Rose,” 1963) reveals a Jacob’s...

    • 11 Speaking East (1962)
      (pp. 185-199)

      With this trilingual whimsy, Paul Celan signed off a letter to Reinhard Federmann in February 1962.¹ Deciphered, it declares his allegiances. First, the name and patronymic in Russian form, “Paul son of Lev,” honor his father and East European origins. Celan was hardly Slavic, but better that than “this so golden West,” as he had put it two weeks before.² Next, some Russified Latin borrows from the Holy Roman Empire: “Russian poet in the territory of German infidels.” Lastly, Celan adapts the jeering ditty from Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”: “Strip off his clothes, then let him heal, / And if...

    • 12 Translation Counterpoint (1961–63)
      (pp. 200-212)

      “Last year, around Christmas [1962], I went through a rather severe depression, but I managed to get a hold on myself again and go back to work in the École at the end of January. Since then, I’m climbing back uphill, there are still highs and lows, not a lot of sleep, but I’m working and I face up.”¹ Thinking that Petre Solomon might not have received this letter, Celan wrote again: “I was rather sick last year: a nervous depression (to use the doctor’s simplistic formula).”²

      Simplistic, Celan says, because his illness issued from bitterness at Germany’s literary industry,...

  7. Part Three Reality

    • 13 Etching and Alchemy (1963–65)
      (pp. 215-227)

      “Next year,” Celan said in that 1963 letter about nervous depression and Shakespeare, “I hope to publish a cycle of new (rather short) poems, along with some engravings by Gisèle.”¹ The mention of Gisèle announced a lifesaving alliance. The cycle came out in a superb yet austere, large-format, black-bound edition, with eight etchings that fortify the poems.²

      Silent as a poet for almost a year, Celan had not abated his mistrust of Germany. “As a Jew and a German author I’ve got no easy position,” he said in September 1963.³ Then one October day in a rush came four brief...

    • 14 Crossing into Hebrew (1965–67)
      (pp. 228-243)

      “‘Ride for the Truth’ 23 November 1965.” On his birthday, Paul Celan wrote this motto and date above a list of poems for a new collection.¹ Reite für die Treue could also mean “Ride for the Faith,” like Teutonic cavaliers and knights on crusade. Celan at age forty-five took his motto from Psalm 45, in Martin Buber’s translation.² The Psalmist, having said “My tongue is the pen of a ready writer,” was urging his king to ride forth righteously. The poet, for whom certain dates and dates as such held more than natural significance, was marking his birthday with an...

    • 15 Prophecy out of Exile (1967)
      (pp. 244-252)

      “Into the hut-book, looking at the well-star, with a hope for a coming word in the heart. On 25 July 1967 Paul Celan.”¹ To inscribe these lines in the guest book at the Black Forest retreat of Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who had recently declared that “Being speaks German,” shows a bit of nerve.²

      This first meeting with Heidegger took place after Celan left the clinic and traveled to Freiburg for a reading. For years he had read Heidegger closely. His poems show numerous Heideggerian traces, and his Bremen and Meridian speeches find in poetry the truest path toward Being...

    • 16 An Embabeled Tongue (1968–69)
      (pp. 253-263)

      “Not in the least hermetic” (Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch), Celan insisted to an English translator,¹ because if his poetry was seen as magically sealed off from understanding, that would relieve its readers of responsibility. In “Du sei wie du,” though the word Gehugnis seems inaccessible, recovering this archaic term for memory engages memory. A few days after writing the poem, in a Times Literary Supplement review of Atemwende, Celan saw his poetry called “mysterious” and “hidden” and one of his neologisms taken differently from what he intended.² Yet this article made fine observations, evoked the mystics’ mysterium tremendum, and...

    • 17 To Name Jerusalem (1969)
      (pp. 264-279)

      I have come to you in Israel because I needed to.

      As seldom with such a feeling, I have the strongest sense, after all I’ve seen and heard, of having done the right thing—not only for me alone, I hope.

      I think I have a notion of what Jewish loneliness can be, and I recognize as well, among so many things, a thankful pride in every green thing planted here that stands ready to refresh anyone who comes by; just as I take joy in every newly earned, self-discovered, fulfilled word that rushes up to strengthen those who turn...

    • 18 A Question of Last Things (1970)
      (pp. 280-292)

      “For me, especially in a poem, Jewishness is sometimes not so much a thematic as a pneumatic concern”—a concern of the spirit, he wrote in 1970 to Gershom Schocken, editor of the Israeli paper Haaretz.¹ “Not that I haven’t also articulated Jewishness thematically: it’s present in this form too, in every volume of my poetry; my poems imply my Judaism. I’d gladly have gone further into all this with your father; but he must somehow have known it—which explains why he gave me Franz Rosenzweig’s Judah Halevi translation. Never, my dear Mr. Schocken, have I set up as...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 293-332)
  9. Index
    (pp. 333-344)