Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Stepping into the poem: the Celan Bachmann Correspondence

This week I finished reading the Ingeborg Bachmann Paul Celan Correspondence in Wieland Hoban's translation presented in Seagull Books' smart, square edition. If there is a review to be written, Shigekuni has written it, and more. So go there for his clearer reading. I will write something else.

It was not the collection I had expected. There is little discussion of poetry and only brief references to works in progress or responses to published work. Unlike the first volume of Beckett's letters, there is little to make the reader pause to copy down lines or phrases. To mine for quotations would probably discolour the character of reading the correspondence as it follows the arc of a lifelong friendship. Reading across over twenty years of haphazard communication is to share in what we may call an infinite holding-between between two lovers now separated for ever. It is an uncomfortable sharing, even more so than Kafka’s loving and distressed letters to Felice, though perhaps only because of the proximity in time. For the most part, however, the letters are reticent approaches by two people who maintain long-term relationships with other partners and express no wish to end them, yet who also remember the brief flaring of an affair as if it expressed the essence of something purer, perhaps of poetry itself. Much is discussed in the letters in a context that can only be guessed at, so impressions like mine are inevitable and, to their credit, the editors do not attempt to report the background any more than evidence allows.

Despite the lack of poetry, the first letter is in fact an original poem: Celan sends In Ägypten (you can read a translation via the link) and dedicates it to Ingeborg on her 22nd birthday. Andrea Stoll describes it as "a love poem that announces nine commandments of love and writing after the Shoah". Later Celan says: "Every time I read it, I see you step into the poem: you are the reason for living, not least because you are, and will remain, the justification for my speaking."

Perhaps we can appreciate from these words the real, physical grip of Celan's terrible bind and therefore why poetry was so important to him. Put crudely then, Bachmann, the daughter of a Nazi party member, a Heidegger scholar and German poet, represented both Celan's love for the German language and hope for its homeland's atonement. In his letters, the progress of his writing stands for the health reports one might read anywhere else. He is often afflicted by silence due to private or professional hurts. The cumulative effects of both erupt late in the correspondence and turn the book into something much more harrowing than the reader had come to expect from what had preceded it. This is what has become known as The Goll Affair, a scandal in which the widow of the poet Yvan Goll accused Celan, who had translated his work into German, of plagiarism. Benjamin Ivry explains how "some postwar German literary critics took up cudgels on [Goll's] behalf, scorning Celan in reviews that reeked of subtle and not-so-subtle antisemitism, and alluding to his supposed greed for money or to his lack of originality".


Celan understood this as his personal Dreyfus Affair because he was as innocent of plagiarism as Dreyfus was of treason. It was later shown the widow had forged manuscripts to suggest direct thefts from Goll's work had gone into The Sand from the Urns, Celan's first collection. While Bachmann moved to defend him, Celan was nonetheless deranged by the persistent accusations. (We still await a translation of the book containing all documents relating to the case). It is unclear whether anyone could have counselled Celan before he too served a sentence at Devil's Island; what ever had been said by Goll and her supporters did the intended damage. Celan sees this as evidence of something perhaps worse than Nazis refusing to apologise. In 1959, he tells Bachmann:
I also think to myself, especially now, having garnered experiences with such patented anti-Nazis as [Heinrich] Böll or [Alfred] Andersch, that someone who chokes on his errors, who does not pretend he never did any wrong, who does not conceal the guilt that clings to him, is better than someone who has settled so very comfortably and profitably into the persona of a man with a spotless past, so comfortably that he can now – only 'privately', of course, not in public, for that, as we all know, is harmful to one's prestige – afford to indulge in the most shameful behaviour. In other words: I can tell myself that Heidegger has perhaps realized some of his errors; but I see how much vileness there is in someone like Andersch or Böll.
While it is understandable for Heidegger's philosophy to be still treated with contempt by narrow minds like Emmanuel Faye and his dupes, it is perhaps more shocking that Celan also receives condescension from a modern-day Böll or Andersch such as Clive James. Duncan Law summarises James' piece on Celan in what apparently passes for great essay writing in this country.

The volume ends with Gisèle Lestrange's warm letters to Bachmann following her husband's suicide aged 50. Bachmann herself would die in tragic circumstances three years later. Thinking over my experience of reading these letters armed with such knowledge, I recognised the dangers of writing in a literary world policed by gatekeepers like Clive James. I also wondered if this is perhaps necessary for writing such as Celan's to make its way into our lives. Let me explain: think of Georg Bendemann writing to his Russian friend in Kafka's The Judgement and how this unhurried, sunday morning politeness is disturbed when his father questions Georg's habitual dissembling to his innocent friend and denounces his betrayal of his mother's memory by getting engaged to that "nasty creature" who lifted her skirts. Georg's only means to continue, he realises, is to throw himself from the nearest bridge and to drown in the river. By continuing, he lives on in the real world, but it is a continuation borne on the pain of terrible transformation. And this is, of course, as I now realise, Paul Celan's story.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating information. I'm re-reading Celan now after a break of almost fifty years - now I'm at the age - 70+ - of understanding Celan's well-deserved paranoia. Thanks!

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