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An Act of Silence : Jewish poet expresses himself in the language of his tormentors--his language : PAUL CELAN: Poet, Survivor, Jew, By John Felstiner (Yale University Press: $30; 344 pp.)

June 11, 1995|RICHARD EDER

A slate pencil, Paul Celan once said of himself, "skips across the blackish earth . . . looks around, spots nobody, goes on wandering, writes."

Jewish survivor of a Romanian labor battalion in World War II, orphan of a mother and father who perished in a Nazi camp in the Ukraine, a poet who from infancy lived and breathed German and whose world was murdered by those who lived and breathed it, Celan fought an ever more desperate internecine battle against the very language in which he wrote.

He contorted it, tormented it and ended by trying to lop off the awful splendor that he--one of the great German poets of the century--could not help bringing to it. In his later stages, when his writing had knotted and starved itself into what was virtually an act of silence, it was poetry as suicide. Celan did, in fact, drown himself in the Seine at the age of 49--an ending mirrored years later by the apparent suicide of Primo Levi, another great voice of the Holocaust.

Celan's splendor has been brought to life, and his silence brought to speech, by a book that is a labor not just of love but of passion. John Felstiner, a professor of English and Hebrew studies at Stanford, came upon Celan's poetry in 1977. "I knew," he writes, "I would have to find my way into it before doing anything else."

It was a long way in, and--he was not a German scholar--he came from a long way off. It is the long way that makes "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew" such a revelation to readers barred by the poetry's double inaccessibility (it is in German, and it is difficult for Germans). "Critical biography" is the book's label; in fact it is a pilgrimage to a hard place by a pilgrim who does all the walking we do and, astonishingly, gets us up there.

Celan was born in 1920 in Chernovitsythen in Romania and now in Ukraine, to a German Jewish family. His father, a Zionist, stressed the Jewish part and sent him unsuccessfully to Hebrew school. His mother steeped him in German poetry. It was his mother he identified with; many of his most tragic poems address her, explicitly or implicitly. What she loved and taught him to love killed her when the Germans invaded.

"And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time/the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?" he wrote in an agonizing mimicry of the saccharine jingle of sentimental German verse. It is a quality that Felstiner's translation cruelly captures.

Celan survived life in a forced labor battalion. Many other Jews who survived had few doubts about identity: It had been brutally chosen for them and they emigrated to Israel when they could. But for Celan, to renounce German meant renouncing his mother's life in art, and his own; to write in German meant renouncing his mother's life in the flesh, and his own. He lived torn until he was unable to, and out of the breach came a piercing voice that shredded, eventually, as it pierced itself.

In 1947 Celan, who had begun to write poetry in the labor camps, moved to Vienna. A year later, despite some early success and recognition--"How would they have treated a Jew two years earlier?" he wondered--he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life. He earned money by translating, married a French artist from an aristocratic family, published his poetry in Germany, won prizes and made a series of trips there in growing acclaim and torment. Sometimes he was praised for grotesquely wrong reasons: a terrible juxtaposition was comfortingly read by some--not all--as a reconciliation. "You are Hell!" the Jew cried out to his German audience in the German that was his only voice. "What wonderful forgiveness!" was what he seemed to hear back.

Celan was reticent, even secretive, about himself. He was guilty about surviving, and subject to spells of sometimes violent depression that took him to hospital and, in 1970, into the Seine. In the words of the mysterious protagonist of Werner Herzog's film, "The Story of Kaspar Hauser," nothing lived less in him than his life.

Nothing lives less in Felstiner's book--in less detail, rather--than his subject's life. Although Celan's widow spoke freely to him and made her husband's archives available, she is never quoted; among the photographs there are none of her. Nor are the friends' accounts that Felstiner gathered used to flesh out a portrait.

We can feel it as a loss, but it is part of the author's unusual conception of what he was after. His book acquires Celan's poverty of life and his reticence as a way of conveying him. It is paradoxical, in a way, and it works.

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