Catching

Michael Hofmann

  • Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner
    Yale, 344 pp, £19.95, June 1995, ISBN 0 300 06068 8
  • Breathturn by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris
    Sun & Moon, 261 pp, $21.95, September 1995, ISBN 1 55713 218 6

Paul Celan was born in 1920 as Paul Antschel, to German-speaking Jewish parents in Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovina: ‘a posthumously born Kakanier,’ he once said of himself (the city and province of his birth had been ceded to Romania in 1918, when the Habsburg Empire was broken up). His upbringing reflected the family’s Jewish traditions, but also the deep love of German literature and culture that was often found, especially in Jewish populations, in the Eastern marches of Austria-Hungary (think of the Galician, Joseph Roth). In Celan’s case, this came to him from his mother: German was, in every sense, his mother-tongue. Already as a boy, he loved poetry, first Goethe and Schiller, then Hölderlin, Heine, Trakl, Kafka and in particular Rilke. He spoke German, Hebrew, Romanian and some Yiddish and was obviously an exceptional linguist, later translating poetry from Russian, English, French and Italian. And yet, when he came to write, he had no real alternative to German: ‘Poetry – that is the fateful uniqueness of language,’ he wrote. Only slightly younger Jewish writers like Yehuda Amichai and Dan Pagis – a fellow Bukovinan – emigrated to Israel and wrote their poetry in Hebrew: Celan couldn’t. It is what gives his poetry its desperate distinction. ‘There is nothing in the world,’ Celan said, ‘for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew, and the language of his poems is German.’

In 1938 he went as a student to France – still thinking to study medicine – but he returned home the following year committed to literature and philology. When the war started, Czernowitz was occupied first by Russian troops and then by the Germans and their Romanian allies. The Antschels were put in a ghetto and got out of it, but in the summer of 1942 his parents were picked up and taken to a Nazi labour camp in Transnistria – one of the bleak, almost nonce names of South-Eastern Europe. Celan himself was fortuitously absent. His father died there, after a few months, of typhoid fever, and his mother was murdered – shot in the neck – by the Germans for being unfit to work. ‘These killings, especially that of his mother, were to remain the core experiences of his life,’ writes Pierre Joris in a biographical note. Celan himself did forced labour. When the Russians retook the Bukovina, he went back to Czernowitz. In 1945, having anagrammatised himself to Paul Celan, he was in Bucharest, where an early version of his most celebrated poem, ‘Todesfuge’, came out in a friend’s Romanian translation: it was his first publication. In 1947, he went west to Vienna. The following year, he settled in Paris, where he worked as a translator and taught – German – at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He married the graphic artist Gisèle de Lestrange in 1952; they had a son, Eric (having lost another in infancy), and lived in Paris and Normandy, Celan teaching and publishing poems. He visited Germany fairly frequently for professional reasons, giving readings and receiving awards, and in 1969 paid a short but intense visit to Israel. In April 1970, he drowned himself in the Seine.

Celan published six substantial volumes of poetry in his lifetime, of which Atemwende (Breathturn) was the fifth; three more appeared posthumously. A selection from these posthumous books, called Last Poems and published by North Point in 1986, was made by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin. Michael Hamburger has published translations from Celan in increasing volume since a 1972 Selected from Penguin; Poems of Paul Celan, containing work from every one of Celan’s nine volumes, is published by Anvil and Persea. All the English editions – except the old Penguin – have parallel texts. All of them too, I think, make some appeal to Celan’s own activity as a translator – Shakespeare’s sonnets, Emily Dickinson, Mandelstam, Blok, Yesenin, Apollinaire, Valéry, Supervielle, Ungaretti – to validate their own efforts. A scholarly edition of Celan, obviously an exceptionally difficult and delicate undertaking, has been underway in Germany for some years. In the meantime he is surely the most written about poet of our time – over three thousand items, Pierre Joris reckons.

John Felstiner’s book is of inestimable value to anyone wanting to read Celan with understanding. It provides a sort of triple deal, giving a rudimentary narrative of the life, and combining this with translations and brilliant readings of maybe four or five dozen poems, the two acceptance speeches of 1958 (the City of Bremen Literature Prize) and 1960 (the Georg Büchner Prize), and the 1959 prose piece ‘Conversation in the Mountains’. When Felstiner ends: ‘From first to last his poems stand’ – a crucial verb in Celan – and follows that with four pages of lines from Celan’s poems, with their dates, from 1938 to 1970, it is like getting a dramatis personae; and when the reader feels, at each line or fragment, a pang of recognition, orientation and emotion, it is a tribute to what Felstiner has achieved in mediating and explicating these urgent and often enigmatic writings.

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