The story of Paul Celan, born Ancel (Celan is an anagram), is not unlike that of many creative survivors of the Holocaust. Primo Levi, the brilliant Italian memoirist and essayist, recorded his suffering at and liberation from Auschwitz with a searing honesty that earned for him the awe and admiration of thousands of readers. Nevertheless, he finally took his own life many years after World War II. So did Jean Amery, and so did Paul Celan. All three wrote about the Holocaust and seemed to rise above their ordeal through the power of their literary art, but finally some irresistible force called them back to the suffering of their fellows in the darkest hour of Jewish experience. They were able to make art out of memory, but memory could not be purged. As has been said of Celan, he achieved “radiance without consolation.”
John Felstiner has labored hard and long to map Celan’s tragic quest. Felstiner gets readers to believe in the terrible earnestness of Celan’s desperate attempt to memorialize the suffering of his people not by belaboring the sadness and despair and even madness that plagued Celan the man but by looking closely and intently at Celan the poet. His mother’s murder by the Nazis haunted Celan all his life. She was shot at a labor camp when she proved too sick to work; his father died at the same camp. Celan’s mother had brought him up to love the German language and its literature; in Czernowitz, at the eastern border of the old Hapsburg empire, where Celan was born, Jews with cultural aspirations strongly identified with the German language. It was Celan’s fate, as a poet, to be locked into the same language that was used for the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will make you free) over the gates of Auschwitz. In a strange way, this paradox committed him to a purification of the German language, which had been contaminated by Nazi jargon and racist thinking. It is a supreme irony that this Romanian Jew, a survivor of the Holocaust who lived in Paris, should have become the outstanding German poet of the later twentieth century.
In Felstiner’s book, readers learn how Celan escaped from a labor camp and after the war made his way to Vienna and finally Paris; how he married a French artist whose parents were Catholic reactionaries; how Celan dealt with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose Nazi past revolted him but whose philosophy of being proved vital to the development of his own ideas; how Celan and Nelly Sachs, an- other great German Jewish poet, came to a mutual understanding of their mission as survivor-poets; how Martin Buber, the great German Jewish philosopher, fell short of Celan’s expectations—primarily because Buber seemed almost facile in his willingness to make “peace” with Germany; how in the last decade of his life Celan submitted to electric shock therapy; how he finally had to live apart from his wife and child because of acute depression; and how, late in April of 1970, Celan, a strong swimmer, jumped into the Seine. His body was discovered a week later by a fisherman seven miles downstream.
Readers learn all these things in Felstiner’s narrative, but they are never allowed to drift very far from the poetry. Felstiner makes clear that from the very beginning of Celan’s life as a poet after World War II, he was totally committed to revealing the essence of what the Jews had suffered. This meant questioning and exposing the Christian values of hope and redemption, which, ironically, many Gentiles believed to be at the heart of his work. Celan used...
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