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.
To anyone raised on Anglo-American biographies of the sort that know everything about their subject and will say anything, Felstiner’s propriety and lack of intrusiveness come as quite a shock. His gentle approach seems to push Celan back into a more dignified past: it is strange to think he died just two years before John Berryman, whose hospitalisations, marriages, alcoholism and so on are all common knowledge – not least because Berryman wrote about them himself. As Hamburger says, Celan ‘had hardly any use for realism of a kind that merely imitates and reproduces, for what Northrop Frye has called “the low mimetic”’. He never wrote anything like Berryman’s ‘I didn’t – I didn’t. Sharp the Spanish blade’ and the corollary is that we aren’t now being told what Celan liked for breakfast. We don’t know with what feelings or even exactly when he went to his death, nor can we picture the scene on 27 June 1942 when his parents were taken away. In part, it is Celan’s difficulty and delicacy that continue to protect him from any intrusiveness. A poem in Breathturn begins, ‘Temple-pincers, eyed by your cheekbone’. Felstiner conjectures it might be about shock therapy. But it’s good not to know, or rather not to be told for sure – and all these dark and heavy biographical facts are left to accrue to the benefit of the poems (and out of range of the trivialisation and inquisition of biography). It is striking, too, how people who knew Celan talk about him in terms that are reminiscent of his own poems. At times, their statements show a mastery of one of his own favourite forms, paradox: his style of reading aloud, with ‘a cold heat’; the poet Henri Michaux’s laconic Möbius-ism ‘we spoke so as not to have to speak’; or Emmanuel Lévinas’s Dickinsonian remark that Celan’s poems testified to his – stunning phrase – ‘Insomnia in the bed of Being’. Clearly, no one is about to write a knock-down-drag-out biography of Paul Celan; in fact Felstiner’s book is the nearest there has yet been to anything of the kind.
Still, it is not biography that is the motor for Poet, Survivor, Jew, but translation. Translation in the service of comprehension, not as its own end (it makes, I think, all the difference in the world). Thus, Felstiner comes to a poem, offers his English version of it, explaining his priorities and choices, rejoicing in his successes and lamenting his failures, the impossibilities and the imponderables, gives the background to the poem – the imagery, the experience behind it, Celan’s reading, inaccessible allusions and bits of word-play – and goes on. In a sense, the translation is the least conspicuous part of the process; it seems to abolish itself, it is just the vector that delivers the poem. I kept thinking what a roundabout way of doing things this was, how much more straightforward and strictly focused if the whole thing had been kept to German, as poem plus elucidation – but actually it works like a charm. (And it does bring in an English readership: Felstiner’s book assumes no German on the reader’s part, while managing to make it continually available – perhaps the single most wonderful thing about what he does.) As he observes in his Introduction, ‘to grow attentive, especially in translating, is to activate these poems.’ Primarily, then, the translating is for Felstiner’s own benefit: it keeps him honest and up to the mark, it leaves him all the time exposed (as Celan said, ‘poetry exposes itself’), and the continual friction between the languages gives him energy and material. It remains a weird undertaking, this parallel action – a phantom operation, a powerplant with dummy fuel rods. In the context of his book, however, it makes sense: his enthusiasm, scholarship and literary sensitivity enrich these rods. It is crucial that we get not just the translations – inadequate, depleted and impossible as they almost invariably are with a poet like Celan, embedded in that ‘fateful uniqueness of language’ – but a sense of the things that need to be added to make them live. And for that, Felstiner deserves enormous credit.
On their own, the translations can indeed look a little odd. One has been done as a Dickinson pastiche. The most famous one, the version of ‘Deathfugue’ that Daniel Weissbort used in his anthology, The Poetry of Survival, where I first saw it, goes, as Weissbort describes it, ‘at certain crucial points, back into German, in an almost sacramental completion of the translational circle’. Fugally and incrementally, Felstiner incorporates the original, so that the last two and a half lines are exactly as Celan wrote them:
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod
ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein achenes Haar Sulamith
(Since they have been translated earlier on in the poem, there can be no possibility of not understanding them.) It is a way of acknowledging – and in a translation! – the untranslatability of Celan. How can the within/without, first/third-person ambivalence of ‘Deutschland’ be rendered by the unfreighted and external ‘Germany’ (with its distinct root of ‘Aleman-’ for ‘Teut-’, all cosy and Western)? What seems at first like a pointless stunt is in fact only doing in a performative way – and only here, in this of all Celan’s poems, ‘the Guernica of postwar European poetry’, Felstiner calls it – what Felstiner does throughout Poet, Survivor, Jew, which is to bring the German within reach of the English reader.
More striking, and more valuable than his translations, are the readings (of the necessary microscopic acuity) to which Felstiner subjects Celan’s poems. One of his odder words for Celan is ‘reliable’ – reminding me of Heaney’s sloes ‘bitter and dependable’, and then in turn of Celan’s almonds – and he uses it only once, but it stays with the reader, so that by the end of a book expounding (Katharine Washburn’s words) ‘small poems, speaking little, saying everything’, reliability has come to seem anything but a minor virtue. It is here that Felstiner’s book becomes incomparably, almost unimaginably – and finally suspiciously, even counter-productively – richer than reading someone’s English versions of the poems, or even the originals unassisted. Take ‘Tenebrae’, a transparently great poem in any language, not ‘hard’ but with a howling, desolating coldness to it: ‘Nah sind wir, Herr, / nahe und greifbar. // Gegriffen schon, Herr, / ineinander verkrallt, als wär / der Leib eines jeden von uns / dein Leib, Herr. // Bete, Herr, / bete zu uns, / wir sind nah.’ This is ferocious, terrifying in its insistence, and not a letter – the ‘e’ in ‘nahe’ – out of place. Michael Hamburger’s version goes:
We are near, Lord,
near and at hand.
Handled already, Lord,
clawed and clawing as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.
pray to us,
we are near.
Felstiner has it:
Near are we, Lord,
near and graspable.
Grasped already, Lord,
clawed into each other, as if
each of our bodies were
your body, Lord.
pray to us,
we are near.
Hamburger’s fifth line is inelegant, and he loses the thudding ds and the gathering movement of ‘at hand’ to ‘handled’; then again, ‘handled’ is really not adequate for ‘gegriffen’, and Felstiner saves a little more of Celan’s terrifying dactylic metre. But where he really scores is in his sourcing of the poem in Scripture and theology, and, still more, of its fourth line, ‘ineinander verkrallt’ to the German translation of The Final Solution by Gerald Reitlinger, which Celan had been reading and which describes a cluster of Jews pressed against the gas chamber door, ‘even in death clawed into each other’. Here and elsewhere, Felstiner shows Celan as a harsh and knowing poet, and any idea of him as advancing Jewish-Christian or Jewish-German reconciliation is not only half-baked but deliberately, even viciously untrue.
In this instance, the reader might perhaps have intuited what was behind Celan’s phrase, but elsewhere Felstiner shows things that are off the charts. At the time of Celan’s third book, Sprachgitter (Speech Grille), he and his wife visited her mother who had retired to a nunnery and spoke to them, literally, through a grille. Near the end of the long poem ‘Engführung’, variously ‘Straitening’ or ‘Stretto’ in translation, is a little stanza: ‘Chöre, damals, die / Psalmen. Ho, ho- / sianna.’ (‘Choirs, back then, the / Psalms. Ho, ho- / sanna.’) It’s not a problem to translate – a lot of Celan isn’t – but it’s numbing to read, without the help of Felstiner: ‘ “Hosanna” shouts welcome and praise, like the glorious Osanna in excelsis in Bach’s B Minor Mass. But in Psalms the Hebrew term means “Save [us] please!” (118:25). “Ho, ho- / sanna” reduces to a stammer or derisive laughter, with echoes of the German marching song “For we are Hitler’s brown-clad host – Huzza, ho-ho!” ’ A late poem called ‘Frankfurt, September’ is about the Book Fair – Freud and Kafka, both published by Fischer, as was Celan, still – but who would know it: ‘The simulate- / jackdaw / breakfasts. // The glottal stop / sings.’ In German, the two ks in ‘Kehlkopfverschlusslaut’ (‘glottal stop’) signal Kafka, as does the jackdaw, ‘kafka’ in Czech. A poem written after Celan’s visit to Jerusalem goes, in its entirety: ‘Ich trink Wein aus zwei Gläsern / und zackere an / der Konigszäsur / wie Jener / am Pindar. // Gott gibt die Stimmgabel ab / als einer der kleinen / Gerechten, // aus der Lostrommel fällt / unser Deut.’ Here, the Wash-burn/Guillemin translation ends: ‘God turns over the tuning-fork / alone of the small / just ones, // from the fate-engine falls / our measure.’ From that the reader gets the usual vaguely and comfortingly doomy feeling, but they’ve got the verb wrong, the ‘alone’ construction wrong, and have approximated the ending. Not only does Felstiner offer a much better translation –
I drink wine from two glasses
and plough away at
the king’s caesura
like that one
God turns in his tuning-fork
as one among the least
of the Just
the lottery drum spills
our two bits
– he also offers a page of outstanding commentary, relating the poem to Celan’s quandary about whether to remain in France or go and live in Jerusalem (hence the two glasses, the caesura and the tuning-fork, and the inspired ‘two bits’ at the end). Felstiner ends: ‘With God diminished, the lovers’ fate falls to chance. A lottery spills out unser Deut – our “doit”, a coin not worth a farthing, implying Deutsch as well as Deutung (“interpretation” – our “cents” of things?). My “two bits” gets only a little of that’. This is extremely persuasive, but also so enlivening and so much fun it makes the reader want to chance his own arm: what about ‘turning in your tuning-fork’ (die Stimmgabel abgeben) as something you do when you no longer have a voice, or vote (die Stimme abgeben), or even as a version of den Löffel abgeben, to ‘turn in your spoon’, slang for ‘die’?
My only reservation about Felstiner is that he succeeds too well. Being guided by him through Celan is an experience that is nothing like what I have when I read Celan on my own, and must surely boggle the minds of readers who can approach him only through translation. And to me there’s something wrong about that: these things shouldn’t be so utterly distinct. A commentary ought to be an extension or a deepening of a reading, not essentially, the recovery, revelation, or possibly invention of a poem (although I hasten to add that I follow and believe John Felstiner wherever he goes). By the same token, a translation should be able to do more than just slide the words and punctuation across the page, losing practically everything en route and still leaving the reader utterly baffled as most Celan translations inevitably and unapologetically do. Celan provides the terrain – we are talking about his words – but the authority, the creativity, the freedom and the space all belong to the exegetes: they are the ones who are giving him to us. With other poets, these things are shared out in some measure: the poet does more work on himself, the reader can do more, the translator does more. With Celan’s extremely idiosyncratic, compressed, meta-linguistic poetry, there is even a case for saying there is no point in translating him at all. The syllogism which proposes that, since Celan is just as strange in German and to German, he might as well be translated into English or anything else – and he used to do translations himself too – is just nonsense. His words are defined by – they exist in – their relation to German, their separation from German. Even the very lightest translation – just a sort of Englishing-over, one coat with a camel-hair brush – takes him away. And what sort of translating is that anyway? A translator wants, at some point, to make a difference, to be something other than an autopilot. But how can one aspire to ‘make a difference’ with Celan? The temerity! Even Joseph Brodsky’s argument in favour of ‘bad translations’ – they won’t mislead the reader by any qualities of their own, but will leave his intuition to engage with the original – doesn’t work, because all translations of almost anything by Celan are bound to be ‘bad’, and intuition – or, in Michael Hamburger’s phrase, ‘the gesture of the poem as a whole’ – is all we have to go on anyway. The only possible translation, it seems to me, is the kind practised by John Felstiner in the last two lines of ‘Deathfugue’ (elsewhere, too, he speaks movingly about his success in replicating a break between stanzas). I really think an English reader might as well sit down with the original text and a dictionary, and look up every single word.
‘Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch’, Celan famously inscribed a book for Michael Hamburger: ‘absolutely not hermetic’. That insistence – which utterly fails to square with most people’s experience of reading him – finds an explanation in Felstiner: ‘if his poetry was seen as magically sealed off from understanding, that would relieve its readers of responsibility.’ That is in part a serious argument. When Celan read at a Hölderlin celebration shortly before his death, one of the attending academics reported that ‘philologists precisely informed ... on particular obscurities in Hölderlin shook their heads, rejecting the man up there and his word.’ That obscurity is of our choosing, it is we who make it so. Celan’s is of a different order; in Felstiner’s words, he ‘was not dealing in a universal currency, like Yeats’s Byzantium, Pound’s Cathay, Eliot’s Augustine and Lowell’s Ahab, to which we all (we’re told) have access.’ It’s a good point, and we need, as Celan says, to listen our way in with our mouths. But beyond the Jewish themes and buried history in the poems, there are other, more recalcitrant difficulties. ‘Attention ... the natural prayer of the soul’ (Celan quoting from Malebranche) – a tag that the translations like to pass on to their readers in lieu of instructions for use – often isn’t enough. Even Felstiner says at one point: ‘It was all very well for Celan in 1961 to advise someone, “Read! Just keep reading, understanding comes of itself.” ’ Celan’s dealings with postwar Germany were unbearably and continually wounding: the reviews, the way that ‘Todesfuge’ was taught in schools, the accusation of plagiarism from Claire Goll. Writing was partly revenge – on ‘those football players’ of the Gruppe 47 who took him up and called him hermetic, on that ‘something rotten in the state of the D-Mark’, as he exquisitely said. His two acceptance speeches, for all their hesitancy, were subliminal – and sublime – instances of ‘Publikumsbeschimpfung’ (Handke’s title), ‘insulting the audience’. And then the poems, designed, I would almost say, to compel but not to be read, tying down armies of Germanists.
Celan perfected a style of writing that was able to absorb unprecedented quantities of reality: so much so that the poems don’t require to be read so much as reconstituted. But they have become – and I wonder whether Celan intended this – ideal objects of exploration and explanation, ‘gestures’ so complicated that they can’t possibly be copied, only described. These descriptions, then, are for me the most worthwhile part of Celan translations: in essence, that is the case with Felstiner. Pierre Joris sandwiches his loyally stiff versions between a brilliant Introduction and some helpful and appealingly modest notes; and the Washburn/Guillemin Last Poems, with fallible translation (Celan’s magical verb ‘stand’ – ‘survive’ or ‘endure’, harking back to Rilke’s ‘überstehn ist alles’ – given four times as ‘was’ in one poem, ‘Kolbenschlag’ translated as ‘stroke of the piston’ when I think a blow with the butt of a rifle is meant) and a perfumed Introduction, still has gorgeous quotes in it: ‘We are digging the pit of Babel’ from Kafka, and the amazingly Kafkaesque sentence, from Schönberg on Webern, ‘Though the brevity of these pieces is a persuasive advocate for them, on the other hand that very brevity itself requires an advocate,’ which one would be glad to see anywhere. I suppose in the end a translation should sound as though it understood, even in some sense compassed an original; it is ‘catching’ something and throwing it on to the reader. And I suppose no translator of Celan would have the hubris to say he had caught or could compass Celan: all he is doing is standing in very little light, and waiting to catch something of unknown dimensions.
I’m not sure how important Celan is to poetry in English. I think the American ‘deep image’ school, writing poems with a small vocabulary, may think they are doing something comparable. But I don’t understand how people with a basically uncomplicated relationship to their own blameless language can think they are learning from Celan. ‘What a game!’ he once said, of poetry.