Paul Celan is a strange and magical poeta Jew who survived the Holocaust and yet did not; a writer who could use at least seven languages but could write poetry in only one, German, the language of the death camps. He was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Romania and grew up speaking German and Romanian. His parents died (his father from typhus, his mother by shooting) in work camps in the Ukraine. He himself was forced to work in labor camps between 1942 and 1944, but survived. Survivor guilt is one of his recurring themes. When the war was over, after some moving around he relocated in Paris. He was attempting to distance himself from German society, yet he taught German literature in France. He even changed his name, first to Ancel, and eventually to Celan, an anagram of Ancel that sounded more French.
He is perhaps best known for his widely anthologized poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), which tells of the horrors of the Holocaust with eerie rhythms and repetitions, suggesting his personal losses as well as evoking the entire machinery of destruction. In “Todesfuge,” translated into many languages, “Golden-haired Margarete” contrasts with “ashen-haired Shulamith”the Aryan ideal woman and the canceled Jewish woman, associated with his mother. The “black milk of sunrise” that the “we” drink in the poem and the miasma of ashes that accompanies his lines re-create the nightmare landscape of the camps. There are numerous references to smoke and ashes throughout Celan’s poem, to the extent that the poems seem to bathe the reader in the ashes of his destroyed people.
In Paris, Celan married the artist Gisele de Lestrange, but the poet was never able to get away from the torment of the Holocaust and his fortuitous survival in the labor camp. The wonder and delight he experienced through his son Eric appears in some of the work in Snow Part, but these emotions were not enough to outweigh his past. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine in 1970, after leaving in his diary the comment, “Depart Paul.”
Celan’s poems are haunted and haunting. Language, death, and silence are their subjects. Celan’s earlier poems are fairly direct, but as he got older and kept on struggling with his ghosts and the German language, the poems became knotted, enclosed in themselves. It was as if he and the language were engaged in a struggle to the death. He invented words, putting together combinations that can barely be translated because of the multiple meanings of his neologisms, and the poems became so dense as to be almost impenetrable. Still, the sense of total loss and absolute despair are the same in Snow Part as in the first poems. There is no escape for Celan, and there is none for the reader.
Snow Part contains Celan’s last work and is very difficult indeed. The first five sections of the book comprise “Snow Part,” poems written during and around the poet’s breakdown in 1967. The last section, “Other Poems,” includes some unpublished work. Celan’s concentrated intensity communicates even when the poems resist paraphrase or explication. Each poem appears in German with a facing translation. The introduction is very helpful, as the translator, Ian Fairley, explains some of the historical events referred to in the poems that may not be in the reader’s frame of reference and provides some basic principles of his translation; also, Fairley places the writing of these poems in the context of Celan’s life. The conclusion, a brief biography of Celan, is useful as well as interesting and sends the reader to full biographies of this tragic figure.
Most of the poems in this collection are short, some only a few lines; Celan has left behind him the expansiveness of “Todesfuge.” The themes and subjects are much the same as in his earlier poems. However, the casual reader would not want to enter Celan’s work by this gatethese poems are too compressed, too interior for those who have not followed his other work. They do have a few new directions; they include, for instance, the poems to his son Eric, which seem...
(The entire section is 1692 words.)