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(12/12/2007) Paul Celan: Selections by Paul Celan. Berkeley. 2005. University of California Press. Various Translators From The German. Editied & With An Introduction by Pierre Joris. Poets For The Millenium. keywords: Literature Poetry Germany Translated. 231 pages. 0520241681.

FROM THE PUBLISHER -

   The best introduction to the work of Paul Celan, this anthology offers a broad collection of his writing in unsurpassed English translations along with a wealth of commentaries by major writers and philosophers. The present selection is based on Celan’s own 1968 selected poems, though enlarged to include both earlier and later poems, as well as two prose works, The Meridian, Celan’s core statement on poetics, and the narrative Conversation in the Mountains. This volume also includes letters to Celan’s wife, the artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange; to his friend Erich Einhorn; and to René Char and Jean-Paul Sartre--all appearing here for the first time in English. CONTENTS - Introduction: ‘Polysemy without mask’; Key to Translators; I. POEMS - from Romanian Prose Poems (c. 1947); from Mohn und Gedächtnis/Poppy and Memory (1952); from Von Schwelle zu Schwelle/From Threshold to Threshold (1955); from Sprachgitter/Speech-Grille (1959); from Die Niemandsrose/The Noonesrose (1963); from Atemwende/Breathturn (1967); from Fadensonnen/Threadsuns (1968); from Lichtzwang/Lightduress (1970); from Schneepart/Snowpart (1971); from Zeitgehöft/Timehalo (1976); II. PROSES - Conversation in the Mountains (1959); The Meridian (1960); III. DOCUMENTS - from the Correspondence - Letter #1: To Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1952); Letter #2: To Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1952); Letter #3: To René Char (unsent) (1962); Letter #4: To Erich Einhorn (1962); Letter #5: To Jean-Paul Sartre (unsent) (1962); Letter #6: To Erich Einhorn (1962); Letter #7: To Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1965); Letter #8: To Eric Celan (1968); Letter #9: From Gisèle Celan-Lestrange to Paul (1969); Letter #10: To Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1970); Das Stundenglass, tief (facsimile); Uber dich hinaus (facsimile; Es wird etwas sein, später (facsimile); IV. ON PAUL CELAN - Paul Celan and Language-Jacques Derrida; Encounters with Paul Celan-E.M. Cioran; For Paul Celan-Andrea Zanzotto; On Paul Celan in Neuchâtel-Friedrich Dürrenmatt; The Memory of Words-Edmond Jabès; Selected Bibliography.

Paul Celan (November 23, 1920 – approximately April 20, 1970) was the most frequently used pseudonym of Paul Antschel, one of the major poets of the post-World War II era. Celan was born in 1920 into a German-speaking Jewish family in Cernauti, Bukovina, then part of Romania (now part of Ukraine). His father, Leo Antschel, was a Zionist who advocated his son’s education in Hebrew at Safah Ivriah, an institution previously convinced of the wisdom of assimilation into Austrian culture, and one which favourably received Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization in 1927. His mother, Fritzi, was an avid reader of German literature who insisted German be the language of the house. After his Bar Mitzvah in 1933, Celan abandoned Zionism (at least to some extent) and terminated his formal Hebrew education, instead becoming active in Jewish Socialist organizations and fostering support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. His earliest known poem, titled Mother’s Day 1938 was an earnest, if sentimental, profession of love. In 1938, Celan travelled to Tours, France to study medicine (the newly-imposed Jewish quota in Romanian universities and the Anschluss precluded Bucharest and Vienna), but returned to Cernauti in 1939 to study literature and Romance languages. His journey to France took him through Berlin as the events of Kristallnacht unfolded, and also introduced him to his uncle, Bruno Schrager, who later was among the French detainees who died at Birkenau. The Soviet occupation in June 1940 deprived Celan of any lingering illusions about Stalinism and Soviet Communism stemming from his earlier socialist engagements; the Soviets quickly imposed bureaucratic reforms on the university where he was studying Romance philology, and the Red Army brought deportations to Siberia, just as Nazi Germany and Romania brought ghettos, internment, and forced labour a year later. On arrival in July 1941 the German SS Einsatzkommando and their Romanian allies burned down the city’s six-hundred-year-old Great Synagogue. In October, the Romanians deported a large number of Jews after forcing them into a ghetto, where Celan translated William Shakespeare’s Sonnets and continued to write his own poetry, all the while being exposed to traditional Yiddish songs and culture. Before the ghetto was dissolved in the fall of that year, Celan was pressed into labor, first clearing the debris of a demolished post office, and then gathering and destroying Russian books. The local mayor strove to mitigate the harsh circumstances until the governor of Bukovina had the Jews rounded up and deported, starting on a Saturday night in June 1942. Accounts of his whereabouts on that evening vary, but it is certain that Celan was not with his parents when they were taken from their home on June 21 and sent by train to an internment camp in Transnistria, where two-thirds of the deportees perished. Celan’s parents were taken across the Southern Bug and handed over to the Germans, where his father likely perished of typhus and his mother was shot dead after being exhausted by forced labour. Later on, after having himself been taken to the labour camps in the Old Kingdom, Celan would receive reports of his parents’ deaths earlier that year. Celan remained in these labour camps until February 1944, when the Red Army’s advance forced the Romanians to abandon them, whereupon he returned to Cernauti shortly before the Soviets returned to reassert their control. There, he worked briefly as a nurse in the mental hospital. Early versions of Todesfuge were circulated at this time, a poem that clearly relied on accounts coming from the now-liberated camps in Poland. Friends from this period recall expression of immense guilt over his separation from his parents, whom he had tried to convince to go into hiding prior to the deportations, shortly before their death. Considering emigration to Palestine and wary of widespread Soviet antisemitism, Celan left Soviet-occupied territory in 1945 for Bucharest, where he remained until 1947. He was active in the Jewish literary community as both a translator of Russian literature into Romanian, and as a poet, publishing his work under a variety of pseudonyms. The literary scene of the time was richly populated with surrealists — Gellu Naum, Ilarie Voronca, Gherasim Luca, Paul Paun, and Dolfi Trost —, and it was in this period that Celan developed pseudonyms both for himself and his friends, including the one he took as his pen name. A version of Todesfuge appeared as Tangoul Mortii (‘Death Tango‘) in a Romanian translation of May 1947. The surrealist ferment of the time was such that additional remarks had to be published explaining that the dancing and musical performances of the poem were realities of the extermination camp life. Night and Fog, another poem from that era, includes a description of the Auschwitz Orchestra, an institution organized by the SS to assemble and play selections of German dances and popular songs. (The SS man interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his film Shoah, who rehearsed the songs prisoners were made to sing in the death camp, remarked that no Jews taught the song survived. As Romanian autonomy became increasingly tenuous in the course of that year, Celan fled Romania for Vienna, Austria. It was there that he befriended Ingeborg Bachmann, who had just completed a dissertation on Martin Heidegger. Facing a city divided between occupying powers and with little resemblance to the mythic city it once was, which had harboured the then-shattered Austro-Hungarian Jewish community, he moved to Paris in 1948, where he found a publisher for his first poetry collection, Der Sand aus den Urnen (‘Sand from the Urns’). His first few years in Paris were marked by intense feelings of loneliness and isolation, as expressed in letters to his colleagues, including his longtime friend from Cernauti, Petre Solomon. It was also during this time that he exchanged many letters with Diet Kloos, a Dutch chanteuse. She visited him twice in Paris between 1949 and 1951. In a published edition of these letters, near the end of the exchange, Celan seems to be entertaining an amorous interest in her. In 1952 Celan received an invitation to the semiannual meetings of Group 47. At a 1953 meeting he read his poem Todesfuge (‘Death Fugue’), a depiction of concentration camp life. His reading style, which was based on Hungarian folk poems, was off-putting to the German audience. His poetry was sharply criticized. When Ingeborg Bachmann, with whom Celan had an affair, won the Group’s prize for her collection Die gestundete Zeit (The Extended Hours), Celan (whose work had received only six votes) said ‘After the meeting, only six people remembered my name’. He was not invited again. In November 1951, he met the graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, in Paris. He would send her many wonderful love letters, influenced by Franz Kafka’s correspondence with Milena Jesenska and Felice Bauer. They married on December 21, 1952 despite the opposition of her aristocratic family, and during the following 18 years they wrote over 700 letters, including a very active exchange with Siegfried Lenz and his wife, Hanna. He made his living as a translator and lecturer in German at the École Normale Supérieure. He was also a pen friend of Nelly Sachs, who later won the Nobel Prize for literature. Celan became a French citizen in 1955 and lived in Paris. Celan’s sense of persecution increased after the widow of his friend the French-German poet Yvan Goll accused him of plagiarising her husband’s work. Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river in late April 1970.

Pierre Joris is the author of many books of poetry as well as a range of anthologies and translations; he recently published A Nomad Poetics, a volume of essays. In 2003 he was Berlin Prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is Professor of English at the State University of New York, Albany.

 

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