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by Bamber Gascoigne

Paul Celan (1920-1970) - pseudonym for Paul Antschel


Poet, translator, essayist, and lecturer, influenced by French Surrealism and Symbolism. Celan was born in Romania, he lived in France, and wrote in German. His parents were killed in the Holocaust; the author himself escaped death by working in a Nazi labor camp. "Death is a Master from Germany", Celan's most quoted words, translated into English in different ways, are from the poem 'Todesfuge' (Death Fugue).

"A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the – not always greatly hopeful – belief that somewhere and sometime it could was up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something."

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel, the only child of German-speaking Jewish parents in Cernauti, in Bukovina, a part of northern Romania (earlier Czernowitz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Chernovtsy, Ukraine). Bukovina held speakers of Ukrainian, Romanian, German, Swabian, and Yiddish. It was relatively free from religious discrimination; nearly half of the inhabitants of Czernowitz were Jews – the city was called "Little Vienna." Celan's parents spoke German at home and with his mother, Fritzi, Celan shared a passion for German poetry; especially the influence of the Romantic tradition from Novalis to Rilke is seen in his early verse. At the age of six, Celan entered a liberal, German-language elementary school and he was then sent to a Hebrew school, the Safah Ivriah.

After his bar mitzvah in 1933, Celan joined an anti-Fascist youth group, which published a mimeographed Marxist magazine called Red Student. He studied medicine in Paris in 1938 and then Romance philology at the University of Czernowitz. The Russians invaded Bukovina in 1940 and two years later the Nazis started to deport Jews to labor camps. Celan was taken to forced labor to the Prut River, to haul dirt and stones for the reconstruction of a bridge. Before the war, students met on the banks of the river, and discussed art and literature.

Celan's parents refused to go into hiding and they were taken to death camps. According to some sources, Celan's father died of typhus and his mother was killed by a shot in the back of the neck, somewhere in the Ukraine. Celan's poem, 'Winter,' which was devoted to her, asked about his own death: "What would come, Mother: wakening or wound – / if I too sank in the snows of the Ukraine." ('Radnóti, Celan, and Aesthetic Shifts in Central European Holocaust Poetry' by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, in Comparative Central European Culture, edited by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, 2002, p. 63)

By chance, Celan himself was away from home when his parents were arrested; he was in the hideout. Despite the inhuman conditions, he still found time for poetry. Later Celan was sent to repair roads and bridges, hundred miles south of his hometown, until the labor camp was closed due to heavy snow in February 1944. The Red Army liberated Czernowitz in April, after which Celan worked as a medical auxiliary in a psychiatric clinic and then resumed his studies at the university.

In 1945, Celan moved to Bucharest, where he made his living as a translator and editor at an publishing company and continued reading such great German lyric poets as Georg Trakl and Rainer Maria Rilke. A year after receiving the news of his parent's deaths, Celan wrote: ''And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time, / the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?'' Celan had lost his mother, and his German mother tongue, the Muttersprache, reminded him of the loss constantly. Like many Central European Jews, Celan had viewed Germany as a nation of writers and thinkers.

Rebuilding a new identity in the aftermath of the war, Celan changed his name to Paul Aurel, then to Paul Ancel, and finally to Paul Celan. In 1947 escaped from the Communist-controlled Bucharest to Vienna and immigrated next year to Paris, where he became a teacher of German language at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1952 Celan married the graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, a non-Jew. They had met in Paris in 1951 and during the following 19 years they wrote over 700 letters. The correspondence, edited by their son Eric Celan, was published in 2002. Celan's and Ingeborg Bachmann's Poetische Korrespondenzen came out in 1997. Gisèle Celan-Lestrange knew about their love affair, but although it caused her much pain, she eventually accepted it. Celan's Vienna poems mostly address Bachmann. At that time she was writing a dissertation on Heidegger. Throughout her life, Bachmann evoked  the figure of Celan, in both her fiction and non-fiction.

Celan established his reputation first in West Germany. His first poems started to appear in avant-garde periodicals in the late 1940s. Already at that time, before his first book was published, Celan was confident that he would be the greatest modern poet in Australia and in Germany as well. However, when Der Sand aus den Urnen (The Sand from the Urns) came out in Vienna in 1948, he felt disappointed. Moreover, the book was printed on poor quality paper and had misprints. His second book, Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952, Poppy and Memories), was brought out by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, a Stuttgart publisher. Its central piece, the 36 lines long Todesfugue (Deathfugue), is the most cited poems of the Holocaust. It has been required reading for generations of German students,  numerous composers has set it to music, and the line "der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" ("Death is a master from Germany)" has become an iconic phrase. Eventually, Celan refused requests to read the poem in public and withdrew his work from further anthologizing – he did not want it to be internalized as an attempt to "dissolve that which is irreparable . . . to erase the dark image of horror and shame." ('Poetry after Auschwitz' in Aesthetics and World Politics by Roland Bleiker, 2009, p. 104)

Todesfugue, often compared to Picasso's Guernica for its impact on the public mind, describes with nightmarish, surrealistic images the Jewish experience under Nazism. It begins with the lines (translated by Michael Hamburger): ''Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown / we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night / we drink it and we drink it / we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined / " (Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends / wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sic nachts . . .) 

Death is a gang-boss aus Deutchland his eye is blue
he hits you with leaden bullets his aim is true
there's a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky
he cultivates snakes he dreams Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

(from 'A Death Fugue,' translated by Jerome Rothenberg)

Celan's friends René Char, Nelly Sachs, and other poets felt the restrictions placed on them by their identity, the "death-bringing speech", and by the history that the Holocaust represented. Celan argued that language must be set free from the surrounding social-historical world; he aimed at creating poetry that was pure in its self-reflection, "so that the speechless, the unspoked, could be spoken and affirmed again." ('Paul Celan: Suffering in Translation' in Suffering and the Remedy of Art by Harold Schweizer, 1997, p. 149).

"I went with my very being toward language," he once said. In the 1950s Celan's work was becoming known for its broken syntax and radical minimalism, expressing his perception of the shattered world in which he lived. Celan concentrated on transformg silence into words, or circumscribe its boundaries. When he received the Bremen Prize for German literature he explained: "Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through." Die Niemandsrose (1963) marked Celan's return to the theme of the meaningless of human suffering, in which the "clubfoot of the gods" stumbles over mountains of corpses.

Ein Nichts
waren wir, sind wir, werden
wir bleiben, blühend:
die Nichts-, die

(from 'Psalm')

When Claire Goll, the widow of the German Jewish refuge poet Yvan Goll, accused Celan of plagiarizing some of his husband's work, Celan suffered a nervous breakdown. He had visited the couple in Paris and translated some of Goll's poems; Claire Goll claimed that the translations were bad. The accusations lived from the 1950s to 1960s. Erhard Schwandt showed in the article 'Korrekturen zum Bericht von Reinhard Döhl' (1966, in Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung –  Jahrbuch) that there were parallels between Goll's poem 'Chant des invaincus' (in German translation "Schwarze Milch des Elends / Wir trinken dich / Auf dem Weg ins Schlachthaus / Milch der Finsternis") and Celan  ("Schwarze Milch der Frühe / wir trinken sie Abends . . . ") (Hot Property: The Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality by Françoise Meltzer, 1994, p. 65)  Celan also translated works from such writers as Cocteau, Michaux, Mandelstam, Ungaretti, Pessoa, Rimbaud, Valéry, Char, du Bouchet, and Dupin. In 1960 Celan received Georg Büchner Prize. He suffered from bouts of depression throughout the 1960s and his style of writing changed. Critics considered his language to be too difficult and hermetic.

"Celan is sick – hopelessly," said the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who met the poet in 1967. Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and after the war he was forbidden to teach for some years. He never openly apologized his past. Celan had studied thoroughly Heidegger's major work, Being and Time (1927) and in 1957 he had wanted to send him the poem 'Schlieren'. Heidegger had followed Celan's work since the 1950s and had long wished to meet him. After reading at Freiburg University Celan visited Heidegger's famous cabin in Todtnauberg, but what they talked about is unknown. Celan's entry in the logbook was ambiguous: "Into the cabin logbook, with a view toward the Brunnenstern, with hope of a coming word in the heart." However, Celan left Freiburg in high spirits, and wrote the poem 'Todtnauberg' with the lines: "a hope, today, / of a thinking man's / coming (un- / tarryingly coming) / word / in the heart."

Celan's relation to Judaism was complicated. He drew from the heritage of European Symbolism, but his work was rooted in the Jewish-Hasidic tradition, he often brought Jewish themes into his work, and he wrote also in Hebrew some ''pained scrawlings'', apparently during a month-long psychiatric stay in 1965. A year before his death, Celan visited Israel, where he met Ilana Shmueli, his childhood friend and last great love. Celan died by his own hand: he drowned himself in Seine on May 1, in 1970, at the age of 49. In his pocket calendar he had written: "Depart Paul." Before his death Heidegger had planned to guide him through the Hölderlin landscape of the Upper Danube. The three books Celan left unfinished at his death appeared in 1986 under the title Last Poems.

For further reading: Celan und der Holocaust: neue Beiträge zur Forschung, edited by Ruven Karr (2015); Western Art and Jewish Presence in the Work of Paul Celan: Roots and Ramifications of the "Meridian" Speech by Esther Cameron (2014); Paul Celan's Encounters with Surrealism: Trauma, Translation and Shared Poetic Space by Charlotte Ryland (2010); Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951-1970 by James K. Lyon (2006); Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan by Ulrich Baer (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Martin Heidegger by R. Safranski (1998); Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner (1995); The Art of Hunger by Paul Auster (1992); Erinnerungen an Paul Celan by Gerhart Baumann (1992); Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth by I. Chalfen (1991); Paul Celan by Amy Colin (1991); Geschichts- und sozialkritische Dimensionen in Paul Celans Werk by L.A. Pretzer (1980); Paul Celan: Magie der Form by W. Menninghaus (1980); Vom Engagement absoluter Poesie by M. Janz (1976); Über Paul Celan by D. Meinecke (1973) - Suom.: Runo Kuolemanfuuga (Totesfugue) on ilmestynyt suomeksi Parnassossa 1959 ja muita runoja teoksessa Niin kuin kivelle puhutaan (1993), suom. Jukka Koskelainen. Holocaust, see also: Elie Wiesel

Selected works:

  • Taranii / Anton Chekhov, 1946 (translator, into Romanian)
  • Un eroual timpalu / Mikhail Lermontov, 1946  (translator, into Romanian)   
  • Chestinnea Rusa / Konstantin Simonov, 1947  (translator, into Romanian)
  • Der Sand aus den Urnen, 1948 (The Sand from the Urns)
  • Edgar Jené und der Traum vom Traume, 1948
  • Mohn und Gedächtnis, 1952
    - Poppy and Memory (translated by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Lehre vom Zerfall / E.M. Cioran, 1953 (translator)
  • Von Schwelle zu Schwelle, 1955
    - From Threshold to Threshold (translated by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Die Zwölf / Alexander Blok, 1958 (translator)
  • Das Trunkene Schiff / Arthur Rimbaud, 1958 (translator)
  • Gedichte / Osip Mandelstam, 1959 (translator)
  • Sprachgitter, 1959
    - Speech-Grille, and Selected Poems (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1971)
  • Die Junge Parze / Paul Valéry, 1960 (translator)
  • Gedichte / Sergey Essenin, 1961 (translator)
  • Im Bereich einer Nacht / Jean Cayrol, 1961 (translator)
  • Der Meridian, 1961
    - The Meridian (translated by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Gedichte, 1962
  • Die Niemandsrose, 1963
    - The No-One's-Rose (translated by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Maigret und die schrecklichen Kinder; Hier irrt Maigret / Georges Simenon, 1963 (translator)
  • Dichtungen / Henri Michaux, 1966 (translator)
  • Einundzwanzig Sonette / William Shakespeare, 1967 (translator)
  • Gedichte / Jules Superville, 1968 (translator)
  • Vakante Glut: Gedichte / André du Bouchet, 1968 (translator)
  • Das verheissene Land / Giuseppe Ungaretti, 1968 (translator)
  • Atemwende, 1967
    - Breathturn (translated by Pierre Joris, 1995; John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Fadensonnen, 1968
    - Threadsuns (translated by Pierre Joris, 2000; John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Lichtzwang, 1970
    - Light-Compulsion (tr. by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Schneepart, 1970
    - Four Poems (translated by Pierre Joris) / Snow-Part (translated by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000) / Snow Part (bilingual edition, translated by Ian Fairley)
  • Nineteen Poems, 1972 (translated by Michael Hamburger)
  • Selected Poems, 1972 (translated by Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton)
  • Gedichte II, 1975
  • Zeitgehöft: Späte Gedichte aus dem Nachlass, 1976
    - Homestead of Time (translated by John Felstiner, in Selected Poems and Prose, 2000)
  • Prose Writings & Selected Poems (translated by Jerry Glenn and Walter Billeter)
  • Paul Celan: Poems, 1980 (bilingual edition, selected, translated, and introduced by Michael Hamburger)
  • Gedichte 1938-1944, II, 1985
  • Last Poems, 1986 (includes Force of Light, Snow-Part and Farmstead of Time, translated by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin)
  • Collected Prose, 1986 (translated by Rosmarie Waldrop)
  • Poems of Paul Celan, 1989
  • Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel, 1993 (ed. by Barbara Wiedemann)
    - Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence (translated by Christopher Clark, 1995)
  • Ingeborg Bachmann und Paul Celan: Poetische Korrespondenzen, 1997
  • Werke in sieben Bänden, 2000
  • Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan, 2000 (translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh)
  • Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 2000 (translated by John Felstiner)
  • Paul Celan, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange: Briefwechsel 1-2, 2002 (edited by Eric Celan and Bertrand Badiou)
  • Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band, 2003 (edited by Barbara Wiedemann)
  • Frühe Gedichte: historisch-kritische Ausgabe, 2003 (edited by Andreas Lohr)
  • Briefwechsel / Paul Celan, Ilana Shmueli, 2004 (edited by Ilana Shmueli and Thomas Sparr)
    - The Correspondence of Paul Celan and Ilana Shmueli  (translated by Susan H. Gillespie, 2011)  
  • "Mikrolithen sinds, Steinchen": Die Prosa aus dem Nachlaß, 2005 (ed. by Barbara Wiedemann and Bertrand Batiou)
  • Verstreut gedruckte Gedichte. Nachgelassene Gedichte bis 1963, 2006 (edited by Holger Gehle und Thomas Schneider)
  • Paul Celan, Edith Silbermann: Zeugnisse einer Freundschaft: Gedichte, Briefwechsel, Erinnerungen, 2010 (edited by Amy Diana Colin, Edith Silbermann)
  • Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan, 2013 (translated by Susan H. Gillespie)   
  • Prosa: historisch-kritische Ausgabe, 2014-2017 (3 vols., edited by Axel Gellhaus, et al.)

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