In the Midst of Losses

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

John Felstiner
Yale University Press, 344 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan

translated from the German by John Felstiner
Norton, 426 pp., $29.95

Glottal Stop: 101 Poems

Paul Celan, translated from the German by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh
Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England 147 pp., $24.95

Breathturn

Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris
Sun and Moon Press, 261 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Threadsuns

Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris
Sun and Moon Press, 272 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Paul Antschel was born in 1920 in Czernowitz in the territory of Buko-vina, which after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 had become part of Romania. Czernowitz was in those days an intellectually lively city with a sizable minority of German-speaking Jews. Antschel was brought up speaking High German; his education, partly in German, partly in Romanian, included a spell in a Hebrew school. As a youth he wrote verse, revered Rilke.

After a year (1938–1939) at medical school in France, where he encountered the Surrealists, he came home on vacation and was trapped there by the outbreak of war. Under the Hitler– Stalin pact Bukovina was absorbed into the Ukraine: for a brief while he was a Soviet subject.

In June of 1941 Hitler invaded the USSR. The Jews of Czernowitz were driven into a ghetto; soon the deportations commenced. Apparently forewarned, Antschel sought hiding the night his parents were taken. The parents were shipped to labor camps in occupied Ukraine, where both died, his mother by a bullet to the head when she became unfit for work. Antschel himself spent the war years doing forced labor in Axis Romania.

Liberated by the Russians in 1944, he worked for a while as an aide in a psychiatric hospital, then in Bucharest as an editor and translator, adopting the pen name Celan, an anagram of Antschel in its Romanian spelling. In 1947, before Stalin’s iron curtain came down, he slipped away to Vienna and from there to Paris. In Paris he passed his examinations for the Licence ès Lettres and was appointed lecturer in German literature at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, a position he held until his death. He married a Frenchwoman, a Catholic from an aristocratic background.

The success of this move from East to West was soon marred. Among the writers Celan had been translating was the French poet Yvan Goll (1891– 1950). Goll’s widow Claire took issue with Celan over his versions, and went on to accuse him publicly of plagiarizing certain of Goll’s German poems. Though the accusations were malicious and perhaps even crazy, Celan brooded over them to the point of convincing himself that Claire Goll was part of a conspiracy against him. “What must we Jews yet endure?” he wrote to his confidante Nelly Sachs, like him a Jew writing in German. “You have no idea how many should be counted among the base, no Nelly Sachs, you have no idea!… Should I name names? You would stiffen with horror.”

His reaction cannot just be put down to paranoia. As postwar Germany began to feel more confident, anti-Semitic currents were again beginning to flow, not only on the right but, more disturbingly, on the left. Celan sensed, not without reason, that he had become a convenient focus for the campaign for the Aryanization of German culture that had not given up in 1945, merely gone underground.

Claire Goll never relented in her campaign against Celan, pursuing him …

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