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Celan, Paul

(Paul Antschel; 1920–1970), poet. Considered one of the most important post–World War II European poets, Paul Celan was born in Czernowitz, in Bucovina, the easternmost province of the former Habsburg monarchy, which had been incorporated into Romania in 1918. Though he learned and spoke Romanian at school, German remained Celan’s primary cultural language and Vienna his cultural lodestar.

Raised in an assimilated albeit somewhat religiously observant home (he attended Hebrew school unwillingly), Celan abandoned Judaism immediately after reaching the age of bar mitzvah and did not return to his religious roots until decades later. Being multilingual, he studied medicine in France for one year (1938–1939) before returning home. After Germany and Romania occupied Czernowitz, Celan’s parents were deported and died. Celan himself endured a year and a half (1942–1944) of forced labor. After hearing reports about the death camps, in May 1945 he wrote the poem “Todesfuge” (Deathfugue), considered by many to be the most powerful representation of the Holocaust in any language.

Working in Bucharest from 1945 to 1947, the young poet adopted the nom de plume Celan, an anagram of his last name (Antschel, or Ancel). Fleeing Bucharest in late 1947, he settled briefly in Vienna, where he hoped to write for a German-speaking audience. He continued on to Paris, working at odd jobs while completing his studies in German and linguistics at the Sorbonne in 1950. As he was fluent in French and German and comfortable in at least five other languages, Celan earned a living translating works into German and, later, through his poetry, by speaking in public. He was awarded several literary prizes in Germany.

In 1952, Celan married Gisèle Lestrange, a graphic artist and daughter of an aristocratic French family. Remaining in Paris until the end of his life, they had two sons; the first died at birth in 1953, and the second was born in 1955.

Celan had written poems since his youth, but when his first volume, Der Sand aus den Urnen (The Sand from the Urns), appeared in Vienna in 1948, he withdrew it from circulation, allegedly because of numerous errors. Several poems from this volume, including “Todesfuge,” reappeared in his collection Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory; 1952), a text that exposed his poems to his first wide German-speaking audience. This publication was followed in 1955 by Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold) and in 1958 by Sprachgitter (Speech-Grille), both of which, with few exceptions, were well received critically. In 1960, Celan wrote one of his few prose pieces, Gespräch im Gebirg (Conversation in the Mountains), which he claimed was prompted by a missed encounter with another Jew, Theodor Adorno. Upon being awarded the Büchner Prize in 1960 from the German Academy of Language and Literature, he delivered an address entitled Meridian that outlined his own “phenomenology of literature,” now considered one of the most significant aesthetic treatises on poetry of the last half of the twentieth century.

Groundless charges of plagiarism that first surfaced in the 1950s exacted a severe toll on Celan’s fragile mental state, and from 1962 until the end of his life he had to be hospitalized repeatedly, although he continued to write poetry. His 1963 collection Die Niemandsrose (The No One’s Rose) revealed his Jewish heritage more openly than any previous volume. The influence of Nelly Sachs, Martin Buber, and Gershom Scholem was unmistakable in these poems. In 1967, he published another collection called Atemwende (Breathturn), followed by Faddensonnen (Threadsuns) in 1968. Three additional volumes that he had prepared for publication appeared posthumously: Lichtzwang (Light Compulsion), which appeared in 1970, shortly after his suicide; Schneepart (Snow Part; 1971); and Zeitgehöft (Homestead of Time; 1976).

In a speech delivered in 1958 after he was awarded the Bremen Literature Prize, Celan spoke of “the landscape from which I come, [which] is likely to be unknown to most of you. . . . It was a region inhabited by people [Menschen] and books.” His poetry makes it clear that emotionally he had never completely left that region, and that it had not left him. Images drawn from that landscape—fountains, trees, and flowers—recur throughout his poems. He told a poet friend in Paris that “you are at home, inside your reference points and language, but I’m outside.” Having left Czernowitz, Celan lost his stable world, yet this dislocation, coupled with the emotional distress of surviving the Holocaust, generated some of the most important German-language (and Holocaust) poetry written in the 50 years following World War II.

Suggested Reading

Israel Chalfen, Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth, trans. Maximilian Bleyleben (New York, 1991); Amy Colin, Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness (Bloomington, Ind., 1991); John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven, 1995); Ilana Shmueli, Imri she-Yerushalayim yeshnah: Reshimot ‘al Paul Tselan (Jerusalem, 1999); Petre Solomon, Paul Celan: Dimensiunea românească (Bucharest, 1987).