Celan (Antschel), Paul

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CELAN (Antschel), PAUL

CELAN (Antschel), PAUL (1920–1970), Romanian-born German poet. Celan grew up in Czernowitz, Bukovina, the only child of middle-class, partly assimilated Jewish parents. He learned Romanian at school, studied Hebrew until his bar mitzvah, and after a year in France, began studying Romance philology in 1939. During the Nazis' June 1942 deportations from Czernowitz, Celan fled but his parents were sent to Transnistria and soon were killed. He spent 18 months at forced labor and returned home in 1944, shortly before the Soviets annexed northern Bukovina. In 1945 Celan left his homeland for Bucharest, fled in 1947 to Vienna where he published his early poems, Der Sand aus den Urnen ("The Sand from the Urns," 1948), and in 1949, he settled in Paris. He married the artist Gisèle de Lestrange in 1952, had a son, taught German at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and continued writing poetry.

The bitter "Todesfuge" ("Deathfugue"), in his first major collection Mohn und Gedächtnis ("Poppy and Remembrance," 1952), made a great impact in Germany. He won the Bremen Prize in 1958, the Büchner Prize in 1960, and others, publishing eight books of poetry and many translations from French, Russian, and English. In 1960 a groundless plagiarism charge against Celan, triggered by Claire *Goll, widow of Yvan *Goll, acutely afflicted the poet and increased his fear of a new era of National Socialism and antisemitism which would target him and his work. At the same time he succored his friend Nelly *Sachs, also undergoing a nervous crisis. Celan's most pervasively Jewish writings emerged from this period, in Die Niemandsrose ("The No-One's-Rose," 1963). He visited Israel in 1969, appeared intensely affected by it, and considered settling there. This journey became a turning point and gave him the opportunity to reconsider his life. His experiences in Israel are mainly reflected in the poems of the volume Zeitgehöft. But in late April 1970, aged 49, he drowned himself in the Seine.

"Todesfuge" (1944–45) remained Celan's best-known work (particularly in German school books). "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at dusk," a voice begins, "we shovel a grave in the sky." A commandant orders Jews to "strike up for the dance," then writes home to his beloved Margarete. The poem ends by counterpointing her "golden hair" with "your ashen hair Shulamith."

Celan's writing never dismissed the Jewish dead, personified in his mother, or neutralized the shock of the Holocaust on articulate existence – even when he explored wholly different regions: geology, geography, botany, physiology. What critics called obscurity in his later verse, Celan insisted was exemplary clarity. "The Meridian" (1960), his major speech on poetry, says "Go with art into your very self-most straits. And set yourself free."

Celan's last poems, issued posthumously as Zeitgehöft ("Homestead of Time," 1976), aim at a final yet originative point of rest. The collection includes 20 lyrics inspired by Celan's visit to Israel, expressing a fitful hope "that Jerusalem is," that "we're finally there." The last poem he wrote, ten days before his death, speaks of vinegrowers digging up "the dark-houred clock," and ends with a stone – usually a sign of muteness, blindness, and death for Celan – now resting not upon but "behind the eyes – it knows you, come the Sabbath."

Celan's literary translations reached the height of that art. He made ingenious versions from Rimbaud, Valéry, and other French poets, did the German script for Resnais' Night and Fog (1956), and translated Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar." Having learned Russian during the war, Celan in 1957 began translating Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Esenin, and Osip Mandelshtam. In Mandelshtam he recognized a brother, affecting him in ways that tested and deepened his own poetic identity. Celan also responded to the taut, tragic vision of Emily Dickinson, and to Shakespeare's sonnets on beauty and death in German visions that often intensify their original.

While Celan's affinities with Hölderlin, Rilke, Heidegger, and others ally him to German tradition, the strain of Jewishness marks his writing in the mother tongue: "Circumcise the word," pleads a poem on Kafka and the golem. His prose "Conversation in the Mountains" (1959) voices in quasi-Yiddish cadences a Jew's search for himself and lost kin, for "the love of those not loved." Throughout Celan's work Jewish terms persist, including Hebrew and Yiddish, amid many other references. Gershom Scholem's Kabbalah studies heightened Celan's mystical, messianic sense of language, and the addressable "Thou" his poems sought reflects his reading of Buber. He felt a lifelong kindredness with Kafka, leaning toward East European Judaism yet at odds with Orthodox spirituality: "Apostate only am I faithful."


Text u. Kritik 53/54 (19842) and Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, 8:1 (1983) include bibliographies; D. Meinecke (ed.), Über Paul Celan (1970); P. Szondi. Celan-Studien (1972); J. Glenn, Paul Celan (1973); B. Böschenstein, Leuchttürme; von Hölderlin zu Celan (1977); I. Chalfen, Paul Celan: Eine Biographie seiner Jugend (1979); L. Olschner, Der feste Buchstab: Erläuterungen zu Paul Celans Gedichtübertragungen (1985); J. Derrida, Schibboleth: Pour Paul Celan (1986). add. bibliography: P. Celan, Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden (2000); Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe (2003); G. Celan-Lestrange, Briefwechsel (2001); P. Celan, N. Sachs. Briefwechsel (1993), B. Wiedemann, Paul Celan: Die Goll-Affäre. Dokumente zu einer Infamie (2000); P. Celan – I. Shmueli, Briefwechsel (2004); P.l Celan – R. Hirsch, Briefwechsel (2004); C. Bohrer, Paul Celan-Bibliographie (1989); J. Glenn, Paul Celan. Eine Bibliographie (1989); P. Gossens, "Bibliographie der Übersetzungen Paul Celans," in: Celan-Jahrbuch, 8 (2001/02), 353–89; Celan-Jahrbuch, 1 (1987) – 8 (2001/2002); Text u. Kritik, 53/54, (19842, 20023); J. Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (1995); L. Koelle, Paul Celans pneumatisches Judentum (1997); A. Gellhaus et al. (eds.), Fremde Nähe: Paul Celan als Uebersetzer (1997); W. Emmerich, Paul Celan (1999); U. Werner, Textgräber: Paul Celans geologische Lyrik (1998); J. Bollack, L'Ecrit: Une poétique dans la poésie de Celan (1999); A. Eshel, Zeit der Zäsur: Juedische Dichter im Angesicht der Shoah (2000); G. Bevilacqua, Letture Celaniane (2000); P. Gossens and M.G. Patka, Displaced: Paul Celan in Wien (1947/48) (2001); T. Buck, Celan und Frankreich. Celan-Studien, 5. (2002).

[John Felsteiner /

Peter Gossens (2nd ed.)]