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Review: Eye of the Times, by Paul Celan

Norman Jope, Tears in the Fence, Autumn 2022

Thinner, Unknowable, Finer

Eye of the Times by Paul Celan (selected, translated and introduced by Jean Boase-Beier: Arc, 2021)

This review follows my review of A Sand Book, a collection by Ariana Reines, which appeared in the previous issue. As it explained, Reines took the title of her collection from a phrase in an untitled late poem by the German-language poet Paul Celan.

I encountered Celan’s work for the first time in April 1978, a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday, when I purchased a copy of his Selected Poems — for 30p! — at the long-defunct Chapter and Verse Bookshop in Plymouth. That volume was in English translation only, in the Penguin Modern European Poets series — it was another two years before Carcanet published an expanded bilingual edition — but Celan’s poetry captivated me from first acquaintance.

It was already clear, from his inclusion in the series shortly after his death, that his reputation was a strong one. Four decades later, his status as the outstanding European poet of the mid-twentieth century appears secure. And yet, his poetry still seems somehow out of reach, present in the world but remote from it and difficult to emulate — perhaps even to learn from in a poetic sense.

Indeed, to write like Celan, without producing an inferior pastiche of Celan, appears to be a difficult challenge. Reines, despite namechecking Celan in the title of her book, displays little or no influence — instead, she appears to have alluded to the above mentioned poem in the context of their shared Jewish heritage and as a statement of her own ambition.

And yet it would be a crucial omission, for anyone who wants to understand the course of twentieth-century European poetry and history not to read Celan — which is where this slender book comes in. It’s an attempt by Jean Boase-Beier, an experienced literary translator from the German, to introduce his work to a new audience via a representative selection of ten poems (in both English and the original German).

As Boase-Beier explains briefly, and as other writers have done so at length — notably John Felstiner in his powerful and sympathetic biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew — Celan’s life was as personally tragic as it was creatively fertile. It came to an end in April 1970, when he drowned himself in the Seine at the age of 49. He had felt himself compelled, as a survivor of the Shoah/Holocaust who had lost both his parents to the Nazis, to try to come to terms with what had happened in his work. Despite the acclaim his poetry received, he experienced mental distress which grew steadily more extreme.

It’s hard to think of a worse poetic fate than to be compelled to revisit something so utterly traumatic as that — returning to the time and place of one’s devastation over and over again, as a witness to a crime that could never be erased or transcended. And Celan’s vehicle for doing so was the very language of both the Nazi death-dealers and of the German poetic tradition that he inherited — particularly the visionary aspects of that tradition, as exemplified by Hölderlin, Trakl and Rilke.

In a celebrated public utterance, the ‘Meridian’ speech of 1960, he compared poems to ‘messages in bottles’ that could either come ashore or not. And it’s been my experience that, whilst some poems seem to come clear immediately, and others on repeated readings, there are also poems that become less and less clear over time — perhaps ‘thinner, unknowable, finer’ in Celan’s own words as translated by Boase-Beier (from the poem ‘Sprich auch Du’ or ‘Speak, you too’).

However, Boase—Beier’s renditions are strong poems that, in so far as my limited German can tell, remain faithful to the originals. Whilst it’s a brief selection, it’s carefully chosen and covers both Celan’s earlier work — including his most famous, but subsequently disowned, poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’) — as well as later, much more attenuated pieces such as the untitled ‘Stehen, im Schatten...’ (‘Standing, in the shadow...’). There are also three poems unknown tome before now, including ‘Argumentum e silentio’, which is dedicated to René Char — Celan translated his friend and French Resistance hero’s poems — and a longer poem, ‘Wolfsbohne’ (‘Wolf’s-Bean’), which Celan removed from his 1963 collection Die Niemandsrose (‘The No-one Rose’) but which (as Boase-Beier correctly affirms) is an outstanding example of his work from that time.

It’s hard to summarise what I want to say about Celan in such a brief piece as this, and my intention in any case is to draw the reader’s attention to these new translations — particularly any younger reader who hasn’t encountered Celan’s work. But forty-four years after my first encounter, when I read Celan it still feels as though I’m reading a contemporary — the curiously impersonal, quasi-scientific imagery he often deploys and the ways in which he disassembles and reassembles the German language makes his work read as if, in his translated words from the 1967 collection Atemwende (‘Breath—reversal’), it originated in a singular place that is somehow ‘north of the future’ rather than in the past. And yet, if he had lived improbably up until now (either in Paris or in Israel, as seemed fleetingly possible towards the end of his life), Celan would now be past his 101st birthday.

Indeed, whilst his work responds to a plethora of past influences — not least through his prolific activity as a translator — it only seems dated in its earnestness and lack of postmodern irony. But, at the time when Celan wrote, there appeared to be no expectation that irony should infuse every single literary text. And that stance, in any case, seems more and more frivolous as we move into increasingly dangerous times for human survival, the product of what Nietzsche might have called ‘a miserable ease’.

Ernest Becker concluded his classic study, The Denial of Death, by asking ‘who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching’. Clearly, many have drawn insight from Celan’s anguished searching — perhaps what his work succeeds in doing above all else, much as with Beckett’s, is to strip everything down to a zero point from which a more authentic and more human life might possibly emerge (or not).’This can apply even if the protagonist of that searching has chosen to opt out of life prematurely, as it can create a space for others to dwell in.

Boase—Beier has performed a significant service in introducing this small, yet carefully judged, selection of Celan’s work to a new community of readers. As such, it courts a similar audience to the Penguin Modern European Poets series, but in a context in which the Anglophone bias of the poetry shelves of mainstream bookshops is regrettably all too evident.

Indeed, it’s hard to find anything in translation these days more recent than Rilke and Neruda — the two twentieth-century poets who seem to crop up most frequently, born in 1875 and 1904 respectively — and it’s salutary that, when I purchased the Penguin Celan, he would have still been in his fifties if he had lived. There’s still a wealth of translated material out there from specialist presses such as Arc and Shearsman, but a contemporary equivalent to the Penguin series, with a truly global reach this time, is long overdue.