Paul Celan, like Tadeusz Borowski and Primo Levi, was a writer and survivor who committed suicide many years after leaving the horrific universe of the Nazi death camps. Celan is not as widely known as Levi — his work is far too fearsome in its depth and obscurity to ensure a wide readership — though he is considered by discerning critics to be one of the central poets of the modern age. The recent appearance of the collection Snow Part from Sheep Meadow Press, in a translation by Ian Fairley, only underscores that fearsomeness — and that centrality.
Celan was born in 1920 in Czernowitz, Bukovina, on the far eastern edge of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. His name then was Paul Antschel, and he was the only child of German-speaking Jewish parents who exposed him, from an early age, to as much German culture as possible. But, as his biographer and translator John Felstiner has pointed out in another context, immersion in "Goethe and Schiller and Bach and Schubert and his German mother tongue formed no safeguard against what was to come."
Antschel's education followed the normal trajectory for a young man of his place and time. He had a natural aptitude for languages. which made it easy for him to master Hebrew (his father was a committed Zionist and hoped his son would be, too) and Romanian, since, by the time of his birth, Bukovina had become part of Romania.
As for his politics, once he entered his adolescence, they turned understandably to the left. With what was happening in the world as he came of age, it is not surprising to learn that he abandoned his earlier Zionism and joined an anti-Fascist group, taking up the Spanish republican cause by 1936.
Throughout it all, his biographer has noted, the young Antschel was "possessed" by poetry, whether it was by Rilke or Verlaine or Shakespeare. While in his teens — again, not surprisingly — he began writing verse in the Symbolist style while also trying his hand at translations from the French, English and Romanian.
Once the Hitler-Stalin pact was sealed, Soviet troops occupied Czernowitz. Antschel was soon disabused of his Communist "certainties," but began studying Russian nonetheless. Then, in July 1941, the Nazis arrived and, abetted by their Romanian assistants, set about destroying "a centuries-old Jewish culture," as Felstiner describes it, "by plunder, burning, murder, the yellow star, ghetto, forced labor, deportation. In late June 1942, his parents were picked up in an overnight raid and sent over the Dniester and Bug Rivers into western Ukraine. [Antschel], away for the night, came home to find the door sealed … . He never recovered from that abrupt loss, however much his words, his voice, might probe."
From July 1942 to February 1944, the young man was imprisoned in several brutal labor camps throughout Romania. And, in time, he learned of his parents' fate: His father had died of typhus, while his mother was shot either in the fall or winter of 1942 or '43.
Liberated by the early advance of the Red Army, Antschel returned to the — Soviet-occupied — city of his birth. By then, he was what Felstiner calls "a raw orphan with literally nothing left but his mother tongue." After a time, he could not bear remaining in an area that held so many memories. He moved first to Bucharest, then to Vienna, where his early poems began to appear. (He signed them with the name Celan.) In 1948, he made the important decision to settle in Paris, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
There, he married the graphic artist Gisele de Lestrange, with whom he had a son, Eric, in 1955. He earned a living teaching German at the École Normale Supérieure and by doing translations.
According to Felstiner, the problem for Celan as a poet was how to find the words for what had happened to him as a young man, for what he and his family and so many other suffered during what we call the Shoah — "how to speak of and through the 'thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech' in a mother tongue that had suddenly turned into his mother's murderers' tongue." Put yet another way: How does one "engage atrocity with art. … Though his rhythms might later compact or rupture, his words grow strange or few … [he] kept up the wrestle with language" to the very end.
Perhaps Celan's most famous poem is "Todesfuge" or "Deathfuge," whose first stanza, in the Felstiner translation, reads as follow:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
The simplicity of the language here makes it seem almost endearing, despite the terrible imagery, when compared to the hard, unyielding assemblages of words that make up the poems in Snow Part or Schneepart. Celan is never a transparent or comforting poet, but rather, a difficult and always forbidding one. The herculean task that Ian Fairley has taken up here doesn't make Celan any easier to comprehend. But he must be approached, even in small bites, if readers are to understand some of the most important currents — both literary and historic — of the 20th century.
The 70 poems that make up Snow Part, according to Fairley's introductory remarks, were written between December 1967 and October 1968. That they are very dark poems he does not deny. "Their synaptic density is one in which 'reference' is most vitally a matter of Celan's re-articulation both of German speech and writing, and of Jewish-German memory and experience, making for a poetry which is at once dark and lucid, dark and legible." The fact that these poems where written when he was living apart from his family — at his wife's insistence — after his discharge from a psychiatric hospital, following a suicide attempt in early 1967, may also explain their brooding quality and seeming illogic.
Here is Fairley's brief explication of one of these pieces titled "Ein Leseast" ("A reading branch"), which was written in late August 1968. The translator states that the poem "moves from oblique recollection of this attempt on his life ('vorm/Blutklumpenort': 'before the/bloodclot point') to a projection of and identification with Czech independence of mind: that of a 'capital not to/be seized,' where the resistance to occupation described by the poem's closing 'unbesetzbare' has to do with consciousness as much as country. Neither Soviet nor any other Besetzung (in Freudian translation, 'cathexis') can hold sway for this 'Meerstück,' or stretch of littoral, which so recalls a 'sea-coast of Bohemia.' "
Easy Celan is not.
And yet, even when the sense can seem remote, his language and imagery, even in translation, can bring you up short. Take these two brief examples, which bear no titles:
world. All doubles.
accord the cleft hour
You, clamped in your deepest,
climb out of yourself
I hear the axe has flowered
I hear the place can't be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.
As Fairley writes: "To read Celan's poetry is to wonder what to make of it. Asked after, our understanding may stall in its answer, but the possibility, like the necessity, of reading and translating nonetheless remain."
In April 1970, Celan, suffering from one of his repeated depressions "and dreading the medical treatment for these incurable wounds," disappeared into the Seine River late at night, unobserved.
According to his biographer, he had begun a poem a week earlier. The last word he'd written was "Sabbath."