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Paul Celan Meets Samuel Beckett

by John Felstiner

from The American Poetry Review

He does not meet him.

Living alone in March 1970 (with never-healing wounds) on Avenue Émile Zola just across from Pont Mirabeau, apart from his wife Gisèle and son Eric, this "true-stammered mouth," survivor of "the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech," has recently returned from a fortnight in Israel, his first visit, elated and drawn to move there but fearful of yet again losing his German mother tongue, his beloved mother's tongue seized as if overnight by her murderers. Franz Wurm, a poet-friend in Paris, invites him one afternoon to come along and meet Beckett, but Celan says No — to go unannounced at the last minute isn't right. That evening, given greetings from Beckett, he says: That's probably the only man here I could have had an understanding with.

American Poetry Review But hadn't there already been an understanding, hadn't they been meeting all along, those years in Paris — the older man a more-or-less voluntary Irish exile to France and French, the younger man, orphaned, homelandless, reaching Paris but cleaving to German: Beckett chipping away at silence with "this dust of words," Celan with his "gasping words," with the "prayer-sharp knives / of my / silence"? During the 1953 opening run of En attendant Godot, where Didi and Gogo go on "blathering about nothing in particular," Celan composed "The Vintagers," in which "bent toward blindness and lamed," a "latemouth" thirsts for wine, a "crookstick speaks into / the silence of answers."

Around that time, for his students at the École Normale Supérieure (where Beckett had taught English years earlier), Celan chose a passage from Beckett's novel L’Innommable (The Unnamable) to translate into German: "And yet I am afraid, afraid of what my words will do to me, to my refuge, yet again.... If I could speak and yet say nothing, really nothing? Then I might escape being gnawed to death."

Among thousands of books in Celan's private library, many reveal sharp marginal notes, underscorings, sidescorings, dissents, exclamatiens. Yet the Beckett volumes show none of these. Why? Did the author of Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape and Texts for Nothing cut too close to the bone for Celan to take a detached stance?

In 1961, hearing that his German publisher might be meeting Beckett at the Closerie des Lilas, Celan too goes to the café — but nothing comes of it. The years drive on: Celan's charged poems join him with Beckett as Europe's only authentic writers "after Auschwitz," in Adorno's view. Meanwhile his malaise harshens terribly.

Man hat mich zerheilt, "They've healed me to pieces," Celan writes an Israeli friend about the doctors' "simplistic" attempts to fix a psychic "damage reaching to the core of my existence." His last weeks, in late winter and early spring of 1970, seesaw between despair and determination.

"I have come to you in Israel because I needed to," Celan tells a group of writers there. While he's in Jerusalem, Beckett wins the Nobel Prize. Returning to "this cold city Paris," he tells a friend "It's gone quiet around me." He travels to Stuttgart to read at a Hölderlin celebration. German listeners reject his clipped, cryptic lyrics — in one poem the lines seem symptomatic: "Yet we could not / darken over to you." During a small seminar in Freiburg, he actually reproaches Heidegger for inattentiveness. Later: "Celan is sick — incurable," says the philosopher who'd claimed that "Being speaks German."

Stehend!, reads a one-word postcard to Gisèle from that German sojourn: "Standing fast," "Holding firm." Celan's last poem to his wife has a messianic ring:

There will be something, soon now,
that brims full with you
and lifts up
toward a mouth

Out of a shardstrewn
I stand up
and look upon my hand,
how it draws the one
and only

Late March 1970: Celan declines to go along and meet Beckett. At the ENS he has students translating Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus": "No one will read what I write here, no one will come to help me... My ship is rudderless, it's driven by the wind blowing into the nethermost regions of death." On April 12th he writes again to Israel, quoting Kafka's diary: "But happiness only if I can raise the world into the Pure, the True, the Immutable."

April 13: What will be Celan's last poem turns to words he'd always kept by him: "dig... dark... hour... deep... open... stone... eye... you... read," and closes in quiet anticipation:

the Open ones carry
the stone behind their eye,
it knows you,
am Sabbath,
"on the Sabbath" — or perhaps, "come the Sabbath."

April 16: He tells his 14-year-old son Eric he can't after all take him the next day, as planned, to a performance of Godot. Two tickets are later found in his wallet.

April 19: Reading a biography of Hölderlin, Celan underlines these words about his great mad predecessor: "Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart." He does not I (I noticed when I came on this book in his library) underline the rest of that sentence: "but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously."

April 19-20: Sometime during this night, Celan walks across from Avenue Émile Zola to Apollinaire's darling Pont Mirabeau and drowns in the Seine, though since his youth he's been a strong swimmer. April 20th, eve of Pesach the festival of freedom, is also Hitler's birthday.

May 1: Seven miles downstream a fisherman comes on Celan's body caught in a filter of the river. Beckett's longtime German translator, Elmar Tophoven, succeeds Celan as Reader in German at the École Normale Supérieure.

Celan me dépasse, Samuel Beckett will later confide to a friend, "Celan leaves me behind." But can that be so? Beckett, whom everywhere you go in our mind you meet on his way back? Beckett's trilogy opens with a mother's death and ends with The Unnamable's last words: "in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."

Six years before his suicide by drowning, Paul Celan had written this poem:


At night in crumbling rockmass.

In trouble's rubble and scree,
in slowest tumult,
the wisdom-pit named Never.

Water needles
stitch up the split
shadow — it fights its way
deeper down,
Since "shadow" is masculine in German, maybe those final lines are saying, "he fights his way / deeper down, / free."

The American Poetry Review

Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Arthur Vogelsang

Associate Editor: Elizabeth Scanlon

© 2004 by World Poetry, Inc.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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Selected books available by John Felstiner:
Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu — Paperback
Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew — Paperback
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan — Paperback

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