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Book Reviews

Searching for Reality

Mark Glanville  |  Spring 2005  -  Number 197


Paul Celan (translated from the German by Pierre Joris, Lightduress (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005, $12.95)

Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost, Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (Princeton University Press 1999; available as an e-book download from at £6.25)

Lichtzwang (Lightduress in Pierre Joris’s new translation), though written between June and December 1967, did not see the light of day as a collection until July 1970, three months after Paul Celan’s suicide by drowning. It was the last collection to be seen through publication by the poet himself. Lichtzwang is also the last of three collections connected with what Celan termed his poetic Wemde (turn) that began with Atemwende (‘Breathturn’), a word, Joris informs us in the excellent Introduction to his translation of Atemwende, that was first coined by Celan seven years earlier in his 1960 Buchner Prize speech:

Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath . . . is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange [fremde] from the strange?

Celan’s new style was to be drier and terser than before, increasingly elusive and allusive. ‘Todesfuge’, the frequently anthologized Holocaust poem that had put him on the map, he rejected as speaking too directly and explicitly about things that could not be said.

‘Human kind can not bear very much reality,’ Eliot famously declared. Celan was a poet who talked about being wounded by and seeking reality (wirlichkeitswund und wirklichkeit suchend), a wounding that in his case was both literal and figurative. In January 1967, after a chance encounter with Claire Goll, widow of the poet Yves (who years earlier had caused Celan’s almost total breakdown by falsely accusing him of plagiarizing her husband’s work), he tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself through the chest with a knife, missing his heart by only an inch. After subsequently being interned for a period in a psychiatric hospital, he became separated from his wife, the artist Gisèle Lestrange, in April. It is against the background of these events that the latter part of Fadensonnen (‘Threadsuns’), and most of Lichtzwang were written.

For Celan, German was a language ‘gagged with the ashes of burned-out meaning’. In order to be able to employ the tongue of his parents’ murderers he had to reinvent it. Celan’s German, to quote Joris,

strongly distances itself from any use that language was put to, both in literature and as a vehicle for spoken communication, either before or during his lifetime.

Dialect and medieval words, vocabulary from geology, mineralogy, anatomy and medicine combine with neologisms to present the reader with a language that has already been translated and seems foreign even to native speakers. ‘Reality is not simply there, it must be searched for and won,’ wrote Celan. Difficult conditions, one imagines, for a translator to operate in.

Celan himself was a prolific translator. In fact, he produced a number of versions from Shakespeare’s Sonnets during the time he was writing Lichtzwang, but these translations, whose style for the most part remains unquestioningly his own, fascinate most for what they add to our knowledge of the poet Celan, and are of limited use to any German keen to become better acquainted with the Bard. Such indulgence is not yet available to those who would translate Celan’s enigmatic late verse, much of which we are only beginning to understand. Pierre Joris, himself a poet, has already produced complete versions of Atemwende and Fadensonnen, the other works associated with Celan’s Wemde, and is thus making an important contribution towards plugging the gap for non-German speaking readers eager to access the work of arguably the greatest European post-war poet, who until recently have had to make do with selections (principally Michael Hamburger’s excellent edition, (Manchester: Carcanet, 1988). Like Hamburger, Pierre Joris opts for versions that accurately mirror the rhythm and structure of the original, rejecting the temptation to unpack the meaning that other translators, notably Katherine Washburn and Margret Guillemin (Last Poems, 1986) have succumbed to. All translations of Celan benefit from being studied side by side with the original, even by readers with little German, but Celan’s dictum, ‘Reality is not simply there, it must be searched for and won’, particularly applies to Lichtzwang, and help is needed to reveal the layers and references that might come more readily to a native speaker. In Lightduress, though the fine translation is accurate and evocative of the original, the Introduction is as terse as the poetry (one is referred to the much fuller prefaces to Joris’s previous translations), the commentary highly selective and, overall, insufficient. It would be useful, for example, to be told that the phrase ‘Lichtbänder stecken mich an’, which Joris correctly translates as ‘lightbands set me on fire’, can also, crucially, mean ‘lightbands infect me’. In one of only thirteen footnotes we are curiously referred to a ‘somewhat far-fetched suggestion’ that the Lichtzwang of the title that appears in the poem ‘Wir lagen schon’ ‘may well refer to the requirement of the roof of the ritual hut’, yet left to our own devices when confronted in ‘Schwanengefahr’ with

you, clawed Yakut-Puschkin:
Hei, Chebeldei, Chebeldei

though a quick reference to Barbara Wiedemann’s excellent recent German commentary (Paul Celan, Die Gedichte, 2003), perhaps unavailable to Joris at the time he was translating Lichtzwang, explains the nomadic origins of the Siberian Yakut, and the interesting possibility that ‘Chebel’ derives from Hebrew Chevel (grief) and ‘di’ from the Hebrew di (enough). Granted other translations, including Hamburger’s, arrive with no notes at all; but though, as Joris informs us, Celan tells us where we have to knock and ask for entry before the word, with poetry as difficult but potentially rewarding as this, it helps to have someone with you who knows the language we must ask in and, ideally, a few phrases to schmooze the guard with.

According to Marx, Anne Carson informs us in her fascinating study, money is not like language, but like translated language:

Ideas which have first to be translated out of their mother tongue into a foreign [fremde] language in order to become exchangeable.

We recall that Celan once described poetry as a turning of the breath that might sort the strange (fremde) from the strange. The analogy lies in the foreign quality or strangeness (Fremdheit) of language. Paul Celan, Anne Carson reminds us, ‘is a poet who uses language as if he were always translating’. Analogously, the ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides, who appeared at a time when money was beginning to replace the old system of barter and exchange, was like someone listening to a simultaneous translation of a text that lies before him in the original. For me, sometime Classicist, one of the great joys of this book was to be introduced to an important and unjustly neglected ancient Greek writer with whom I had previously been unfamiliar. In an original and illuminating study that teases and extracts parallels between two poets who are by no means obvious bedfellows, Carson (a very fine poet in her own right) derives insights that enhance the enjoyment and understanding of them both.

In ‘Schaltjahrhunderte’ (in Lichtzwang), written on the occasion of Celan’s forty-seventh birthday, the poet refers to

Lesestationen im Spätwork
Am Himmel

which is translated by Joris as ‘reading stations in the late-word, economical ignition points in the sky’. In his highly illuminating and superbly researched study, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (London: Yale, 1995), Johm Felstiner glosses this with a quote from Celan, who once described his poems as ‘an I clarifying itself in the process of writing’, but who, as Carson reminds us, tragically ended in despairing of the task. ‘Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the well of the heart’ was the sentence found underscored in a biography of Holderlin left open on his desk the day he took his life. Carson quotes another poem from Lichtzwang written several weeks before ‘Schaltzjahrhunderte’ in which he appears to describe his own sinking down, ‘Die Ewigkeiten’, which is translated by Joris:

The Eternities went
for his face and beyond

slowly a blaze put out
everything candled

‘We cannot assimilate this despair but we should study it,’ claims Carson.

For a poet’s despair is not just personal; he despairs of the word and that implicates all our hopes. Every time a poet writes a poem he is asking the question, Do words hold good? And the answer has to be yes [Carson’s italics]: it is the contrafactual condition upon which a poet’s life depends.

Nine years earlier, in a speech given at Bremen, Celan had declared:

Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.

In the terse economy of Lichtzwang language has become as constricted as the divine light captured in the kabbalistic kelippot (shells) that Celan alludes to elsewhere, and to which the title of this collection might well refer. We are aware of the poet’s battle against the dying of the light, one he eventually lost, but the quality and nature of the struggle is such as to leave us with a body of work by which we continue to be illuminated and inspired.

Mark Glanville is a freelance writer and singer. His first book, The Goldberg Variations, was shortlisted for the JQ-Wingate non-fiction prize and the National Sporting Club award.

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