The Romanian-born writer Paul Celan, who was born in Czernowitz in 1920 and committed suicide in Paris in 1970, has long been a poet’s poet, attracting as English translators such poets as Michael Hamburger, Joachim Neugroschel, John Felstiner, Rosmarie Waldrop, Jerome Rothenberg, and Christopher Middleton. Among the numerous critics who have attempted to elucidate Celan’s difficult poetry are Beda Allemann, George Steiner, Peter Szondi, Jerry Glenn, Bernhard Böschenstein, Israel Chalfen, Lawrence Langer, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Klaus Weissenberger, Siegbert Prawer, Alvin Rosenfeld, James Lyon, Alan Udoff, and Jacques Derrida. In this distinguished group Amy Colin (University of Pittsburgh) occupies an important place, for she has now followed Argumentum e Silentio (1986), the proceedings of a Celan symposium she organized at the University of Washington, with the most extensive exploration of the poet’s cultural background and the most searching analysis of his work to have appeared in English, and possibly in any language. By virtue of her own background and education (she was born in Bucharest, lived in Germany after age thirteen, studied German literature and comparative literature at Yale University, and is fluent in Romanian, German, and French as well as English), Colin is an authoritative guide to the world and work of Paul Celan, a scholar uniquely equipped to provide cultural and poetic road maps to a largely unfamiliar territory and clarify an authentic and searing voice of what W. H. Auden has described as “the age of anxiety.” The author’s uncle and aunt, the Silbermanns, were close friends of Celan in his native city, and it was Jakob Silbermann who persuaded the poet to change (or reverse) his family name, Antschel, to Celan. In addition to presenting a great deal of cultural lore and firsthand information, Colin was able to draw on early versions of poems and other rare documents.
Displaying a becoming sense of the impossibility of providing definitive interpretations of Celan’s enigmatic poetry, the author likens the bleak landscape limned in Celan’s innovative poems to holograms that disclose a disturbing universe of suffering and sadness. (Holography is, as the author explains, a photographic method that uses laser beams to produce three- dimensional images which move and change with a spectator’s shifting perspective). For most of his tragically brief adult life Celan struggled to fashion a survivor’s response to the extermination of his fellow Jews in his German mother tongue, which was also the language of the murderers of his people. Realizing that the magnitude of the Holocaust defied expression, Celan exploded linguistic and poetic traditions and searched for a different idiom, one that might refute Theodor W. Adorno’s breathtaking dictum that after Auschwitz the writing of poetry was impossible, or at any rate barbaric. As Amy Colin states at the outset, Celan’s “enigmatic verses unsettle myths of the past, disturb dreams of the future, and prompt readers to reflect upon the impact of the Holocaust on human existence,” and she concludes that “Celan’s late work accomplishes what Adorno believed to be impossible: it uncovers within the music of poetic language the horror, the dissonance of a human existence overshadowed by Auschwitz.”
The first section of the book, “At the Crossroads of Tradition: Paul Celan’s Native Contextuality,” is particularly valuable, for in addition to offering readings of the poet’s early German and Romanian writings, it concerns itself with the German-Jewish component of the cosmopolitan culture of the Bukovina. From the latter part of the eighteenth century till 1918 the Bukovina was an Austrian province, but after the fall of the Habsburg empire it became part of Romania. In 1910, two years after Czernowitz had been the site of the first international Yiddish conference, attended by literary luminaries, the city’s Jews, who constituted more than one- third of its population, were recognized as an ethnic as well as a religious group. Paul Celan ultimately discovered the meridian that mysteriously and ineluctably bound him to the traditions of his native region—a blend of Austrian-German, Ruthenian (or Ukrainian), and Romanian elements as well as the lure of German Expressionism and Franco-Romanian Surrealism. This confluence of four cultures in the “region where books and people lived,” as Celan put it, encouraged Bukovinians to become linguistic and cultural mediators. Thus Immanel Weissglass translated both parts of Goethe’s Faust into Romanian; Alred...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)