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Celan, Paul (1920–1970)

CELAN, PAUL (1920–1970)


Poet writing in the German language.

Paul Celan's poetry is unquestionably difficult. It is also lively, despite a muted quality, with an inspiration or a form of lyricism that is highly personal but that makes it uniquely identifiable and universally comprehensible. For Celan, in fact, poetry was a communicative act, one of these "gifts, which bring destiny with them"; he also stated that he saw "no basic difference between a handshake and a poem" (Celan, 1986, p. 25).

Paul Celan was born within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Bukovina, "a region inhabited by people and books" (Celan, quoted in Chalfen, p. 4) in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine); along with the poetess Rosa Ausländer (1901–1988), he is one of this town's major literary figures. Czernowitz with a linguistically varied population, situated at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, was part of Romania after World War I. Paul Celan was therefore born a Romanian citizen. His real name was Paul Antschel and he was of Jewish origin. Almost half of the town's population was Jewish. Otherwise, the region itself was highly multiethnic: Romanians, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Germans, Hungarians, and Poles lived side by side, sometimes for better and at other times for worse.

Paul's father, a former soldier, was a wood merchant and the family lived modestly. Paul, the only son, received "a conventional middle-class education, in which Judaism served as a moral structure rather than as a religion" (Chalfen, p. 37), although his parents were believers and respected the traditions. At home, the family spoke German, according to the custom in "good" families. After an initial schooling in German Celan's father moved him to a Zionist Hebrew school. He also had to learn Romanian. He always preferred German, even after the Holocaust, when he continued to write his poems in German, thereby addressing "his poems written in a counterlanguage to a counterpublic," as Bertrand Badiou commented (Celan, 2001, vol. 2, p. 9; translated from the French).

In 1930 he entered secondary school, where he proved a highly able pupil. In 1934 he changed school because of the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism of the teachers. At around fifteen to sixteen years old he began to write poems and associated with a "circle" of young and antifascist enthusiasts of the arts and literature. He started to teach himself English in 1937 in order to read Shakespeare in the original. In 1938 he passed his baccalaureate and enrolled as a medical student. The agreements between Romania and France enabled him to go and study in Tours. On his way he stopped in Paris and visited its museums and theatres.

He returned to Czernowitz in June 1939 when, caught unawares by the war that started in September, he was then unable to return to France. He then enrolled to study Romance philology in Czernowitz. The Red Army occupied the town in June 1940 and the occupying forces sovietized the university. It was at this time that Celan learned Russian in a matter of weeks in order to act as an interpreter. That year he met the actress Ruth Lackner, his first great love and the inspiration for many of his poems. In June 1941 the Soviets deported four thousand people from Czernowitz to Siberia, including some of Celan's friends. The following month, the Romanians, soon followed by the Germans, took control of Czernowitz. The Nazi night then fell upon the city. The first systematic massacres of Jews—after pillaging and pogroms—carried out by the deployment group Einsatzgruppe D and the SS under Otto Ohlendorf's (1907–1951) command, began two days after the town was captured. In October 1941 a ghetto was established. Deportations then followed. Paul's parents were deported to a camp in the Bug River region and in 1942 his father probably died of typhus and his mother was murdered. Paul himself was sent to a labor camp. From then on his poetry was haunted by the tragic fate of the Jews and by death. In 1944 he returned to Czernowitz, where he rejoined his friend Ruth, but their romantic relationship dwindled as it mutated into deep friendship. That year he also made the acquaintance of Ausländer. The Soviets occupied the town again.

Celan assembled his poems with a view to their publication. A first selection was in fact published in 1947, when he took "Celan" as his pseudonym. In 1945 he left his town, which was now part of Soviet Ukraine, for Bucharest, where he worked as a translator. There he associated with poets and artists and, in particular, Gherasim Luca (1913–1994) and the Romanian surrealists.

At the end of 1947 he finally carried out his plan to travel to Vienna. He secretly left Romania, going through Budapest, and stayed in Vienna for about six months. There he met the poetess Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973), with whom he was to have a romantic relationship, which started again in 1950 and then in 1957. In 1948 he settled permanently in Paris. His first collection, Der Sand aus den Urnen (The sand from the urns), with a print run of five hundred, has since disappeared. He embarked on some studies and lived on grants and various jobs. He also began to translate to commission (for example, Georges Simenon's [1903–1989] Maigret novels) and to earn his living from translation. Translation then came to represent a very important dimension of his work. He turned his hand to translating the greatest French poets. They included Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), Paul Valéry (1871–1945), Henri Michaux (1899–1984) and others, some of whom—such as René Char and André du Bouchet—became his friends. He also translated from other languages: English (particularly Emily Dickinson [1830–1886] and William Shakespeare [1564–1616]), Russian (particularly Osip Mandelstam [1891–1938]), Romanian, Hebrew, Italian, and Portuguese.

His next volume, Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952; Poppy and memory), won him serious acclaim in the literary circles where he was beginning to build a reputation and where he already had many friends. Unfortunately, he also had some enemies, such as anti-Semitic critics. Also, Claire Goll (1891–1977), Yvan Goll's (1891–1950) widow, following a dispute about a translation, seems never to have tired of slandering Celan and accusing him of plagiarism. This was a baseless accusation that left a severe and enduring mark on Celan. It is in Mohn und Gedächtnis that some of the poet's most frequently quoted lines appear—those of the Todesfugue (Death fugue) written in May 1945 in Bucharest: "a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete/your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents/He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany" (Celan, 1995, pp. 63–65).

Some critics at the time compared these lines to Pablo Picasso's 1937 painting Guernica. What is certainly true, as Celan's friend Jean Bollack observes, is that from then on "the murder camps are rarely the object of reference in the poems; more indirectly and more powerfully, they bring a 'meaning,' their shadow, to every altered significance and to every word" (p. 7; translated from the French). In a sense, Celan's work is a response to Theodor Adorno's (1903–1969) statement that writing poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.

Celan was then regularly invited to Germany—he once participated in a meeting of the Gruppe 47—and to German-speaking countries, for literary conferences or lectures. He also received many prizes.

In 1952 he married Gisèle Lestrange (1927–1991), a twenty-five-year-old artist and engraver whom he had met one year earlier. The two artists often collaborated. The following year, the couple lost their first child, François, following a difficult labor. Their second son, Eric, was born in 1955.

In 1956 Celan was working as a substitute teacher at the École Normale Supérieure. In the same year Alain Resnais's film about the concentration camps, Night and Fog, for which Celan translated the text, was shown in Germany. Three years later Celan obtained the post of German lecturer at the É cole Normale Supérieure, which he held until his death. In 1959, he published a further collection, Sprachgitter. In 1960, he won the Georg Büchner Prize, one of the most important German literary prizes. From the 1960s onward he suffered from psychiatric disorders and murderous or suicidal impulses that forced him to have himself committed on several occasions. This did not prevent him from writing and publishing some collections that are among his finest: Die Niemandsrose (1963; No one's rose), Atemkristall (1965; Breathcrystal), Atemwende (1967; Breathturn), and Lichtzwang (published posthumously in 1970; Lightduress).

On the night of 19 April 1970 Paul Celan threw himself into the Seine, probably from the Pont Mirabeau. His body was not found until 1 May. His wife, Gisèle, disappeared in 1991.

See alsoGermany; Guernica; Holocaust.


Bollack, Jean. Poésie contre poésie: Celan et la literature. Paris, 2001.

Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Translated by Rosemary Waldrop. Manchester, U.K., 1986.

——. Werke. 14 vols. Frankfurt am Main, 1990–2005.

——. Selected Poems. Translated with an introduction by Michael Hamburger. London, 1995.

Celan, Paul, and Celan-Lestrange, G. Correspondance, edited with a commentary by Bertand Badiou and Eric Celan. 2 vols. Paris, 2001.

Chalfen, I. Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth. Translated by Maximilian Bleyleben with an introduction by John Felstiner. New York, 1991.

Nicolas BeauprÉ

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