Paul Celan, who committed suicide in 1970, drowning himself in the Seine in Paris, is widely acknowledged as the foremost German-language poet of the postwar period and one of the leading European poets of the twentieth century. His increasingly cryptic verse, dense with neologisms and word-fragments, always haunted by the Holocaust, has inspired a vast and still steadily growing secondary literature. Only gradually, however, has a picture of Celan’s life—and of the links between his life and his art—begun to emerge.
Israel Chalfen’s invaluable book sketches Celan’s life from his birth (as Paul Antschel) in 1920 through the late 1940’s, when he settled in Paris. Like Celan, Chalfen was born in Bukovina, in the city of Czernowitz, then part of Romania (it was absorbed by the Soviet Union during World War II). In preparing this biography, Chalfen spoke or corresponded with many people who knew Celan. The result is a portrait not only of the young poet but also of a vanished culture.
Celan is a fascinating and difficult subject for a biographer: brilliant, exceptionally handsome, enigmatic, self-absorbed. Chalfen himself seems spellbound by Celan’s genius and charm, to a degree that will repel many readers. For an acid-edged contrary view of Celan, see the memoir by the poet and translator Edouard Roditi, “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality” (WORLD LITERATURE TODAY, Winter, 1992).
Whatever its flaws, however, Chalfen’s biography adds significantly to our understanding of the matrix in which Celan’s extraordinary poetry was born.