Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann: Correspondence

Bachmann, Ingeborg; Paul Celan (2008), Herzzeit: Der Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42033-1

[English translation: Bachmann, Ingeborg; Paul Celan (2010), Correspondence, Seagull Books
Translated by Wieland Hoban
ISBN 9781906497446]

2023. That’s the year until which the legendary correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann was supposed to be blocked not just for publication but even for scholars. In biographies, the relationship of the two most important German post-war poets used to be a mysterious affair. Everybody knew about it, people knew when it started and when it ended, but the details, how and why it broke off, for example, were shrouded in mystery. Everybody waited for 2023, including yours truly. Thus, when the heirs decided to publish the exchange of letters in 2008, it was nothing less than a literary sensation, one of the most exciting publications of the decade, and probably one of the bestselling volumes of letters published in recent German literary history. The book Herzzeit: Ingeborg Bachmann-Paul Celan. Der Briefwechsel. consists of every extant letter between the two, plus all the letters that Bachmann and Celan’s wife Gisèle Celan-Lestrange exchanged and the handful of letters between Celan and Bachmann’s lover of four years, Max Frisch. Together, all these letters paint a vivid and devastating picture of two writers, who were both perfect for one another, and utterly wrong. Toward the end of their lives, both suffered from depressions, both were institutionalized for one reason or another, and when they died, they died alone. Celan chose to kill himself in 1970, and Bachmann burned in her apartment in 1973, numbed by her addiction to pills and booze. Neither death is part of the Bachmann/Celan letters, although the decomposing breath of despair is audible behind quite a few of the passionate, dark, extraordinary words between these two masters of literature.

Instead, we witness two great writers rising to fame, neither able to escape public detractors and critical backlashes in a German and Austrian culture that Bachmann, in the title of one of her best known stories, described as “between murderers and madmen”. Bachmann’s travails as a woman in a male-dominated society and Celan’s as a Jew writing in the language of those who murdered his parents were forcibly different, however, as was their pain. The letters chart two lonely lives and a relationship destroyed by misunderstandings, suspicions and a deep-seated bitterness. There is no word to describe what a moving and utterly engrossing reading experience this book provides, especially if you are partial to Bachmann’s or Celan’s work. Lucky for those who can’t read German, this searing, magnificent book has now been translated into English as Correspondence by Wieland Hoban, and contains, like the German edition, the Bachmann/Celan letters as well as the Celan-Lestrange/Bachmann letters and the letters between Max Frisch and Celan (though, hopefully, the commentary and endnotes are better than those in the German edition). This book is highly recommended. You cannot possibly be disappointed by it, especially if you are familiar with these writers’ literary output, each of which left the world a completely original, masterful, and highly influential body of work. The letters move from youthful heartbreak and poetical exuberance to the destructive later exchanges between two people who cannot trust one another although they are, until the end, drawn to each other. It’s not a book you read and shelve. It’s a book to read and reread, a book to treasure.

Paul Celan, primarily a poet, published more than seven collections of poetry that are unequaled among German 20th century poetry. He also translated poetry, from French poets like Rene Char or Rimbaud to Russian ones like Yesenin and Mandelstam. In the collected works, his translations add up to two thick volumes, and are consistently amazing, almost overpowering, every bit as strong as his poetry. The third kind of work that Celan is known for is poetological prose, especially his Meridian speech which he held upon receiving the prestigious Büchnerpreis. Celan was a poet through and through. Incapable of doing much other work, he threw himself into writing (and late in his life, teaching), publishing his first book in 1948. Celan was a survivor of the Shoah, originally from the Romanian province of Bukovina, a region where, due to the fact that until 1918 it had been part of the Austrian Empire, German-speaking immigrants lived. Shortly after the Germans invaded, the Jews in the province were rounded up and shipped to internment camps and labor camps. Celan’s parents died in the camps while Celan survived and eventually moved to Vienna. In Vienna he met the 21-year old Ingeborg Bachmann, at the time studying philosophy, psychology and German literature (in 1949, at 23, she published her dissertation on Martin Heidegger) and the two hit it off almost immediately. The first letter in the book is a poem by Celan dedicated to Bachmann on her 22nd birthday, called In Ägypten, one of his most beautiful early poems.

Their love affair didn’t last, it ended in 1951, for reasons that none of the two spelled out in the letters, but reading closely, one finds, in these letters and the heartbroken, bitter ones that followed, the same net of accusations and suspicions that would continue to haunt their relationship. When, in 1957, Celan (who was by that time married to Gisèle Lestrange) and Bachmann resumed their affair, it ended for very similar reasons and was followed by the same incriminations, the same bitterness, although this time, it was laced with a despair that was to be deadly to both. From the start, Bachmann and Celan were wildly attracted to one another, but wary of the passion and the darkness they sensed in the other and in themselves. Meetings were postponed, letters were not sent for fear of creating misunderstandings, for fear of crowding or overwhelming the other. Hot intimate letters were often answered by cold, distant, careful letters, regardless who wrote which. We as readers find, in the thicket of letters, two people who see each other’s hurt and pain, and want to help one another, but neither knows the best means to go about it. One aspect is especially remarkable: from the start, these letters are all about Celan. With a few, very moving exceptions, most of the letters discuss Paul Celan and his mental problems or public issues. As early as November 1949, Bachmann writes of the “lostness” of Celan who “drifts out into a great ocean”. This is the ocean of a traumatized survivor who uses his murderers’ language to construct a new life in poetry, and who uses poetry as a place to encounter other people, a lostness that never left him, and that led to the end of not only both of their affairs but also of their friendship. Loneliness was Celan’s fate, despite his insistence, as a poet, on the power of poetry to connect people.

Poems, for Celan, are places where people meet, and his use of language in the poetry is less a matter of stylistics than a reconstruction of reality in language. Celan’s writing is incredibly direct, and possessed of an almost obsessive honesty and concreteness. This is the reason why it hurt him so much when, in the course of the so-called Goll-Affair, he was eventually publicly attacked not as a person, but as a poet, and his work derided as cheap second-rate imitations. Published in Germany, a country that was governed by a former member of the Nazi party, his poetry, starting in the mid-1950s, became a target for bigots and antisemites of all stripes, and the angrier and more desperate Celan became, the more he rejected friends and acquaintances unless they shared his anger to the letter. The climate at the time didn’t just affect him: bigotry and philistinism was on the move and a great many brilliant, sensitive people suffered. A year after Celan’s suicide, fellow survivor, friend and brilliant critic Péter Szondi, for example, chose to kill himself as well. In Celan’s post-war life, as his professional career and fame as a poet started to gain traction, winning him some of the most prestigious prizes of German literature, selling well, his personal life started to deteriorate; more exposure came to mean more attacks, until he finally, as his wife wrote in a letter to Bachmann, chose “the loneliest death”.

Celan, though often wrongly thought to be obscure and unreadable, combined Jewish and German literary traditions, restacked the stock of German vocabulary, reached for archaic words as well as combined words into a new creation. He was sincerely interested in language and its power to convey an image of a world gone awry, a world standing on its head, feet into the air (this image, from his Meridian speech, is borrowed from Büchner’s Lenz). But Celan’s humanity doesn’t ‘walk on air’. The air beneath our feet is threatening, destabilizing. Pascal wrote “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie”, and this is the kind of air he refers to. In the 1960s, he couldn’t be further from contemporary phenomena like postmodern irony. He wrote with a straight face, recognizing the urgency of poetry and the need for a common language between people in a disintegrating world. His work, highly dependent on the work of such thinkers as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, and integrating rather than excising the influence even of writers like Martin Heidegger, didn’t shy away from mysticism, but religion and spiritual content didn’t lead Celan’s poetry away from the real world. Instead, as his work became denser with mystical and linguistic difficulties, it also became more precise. He shed the rhetorical flourishes of his romantic early poetry and aimed straight for truth, refining his language and his poems into small, concentrated doses of signification. Poetry, for Celan, was not about saying things in a beautiful way, but about saying things, as good and precise as possible, and colloquial language just wasn’t precise enough. As his work moved toward denseness and a difficult clarity, it also moved from the melancholy of his first book into the despair and bitterness of his last books.

In his Meridian speech, Paul Celan references Büchner’s Lenz, the eponymous character of Büchner’s astonishing novella. Lenz’ story is one of constant decline, he’s shown to be a man at odds with reality and yet obsessed by it, a man with a murderous fantasy who tries to kill himself repeatedly. Lenz ends with a statement of resignation that is among the most searing and affecting in literary history. Lenz lives on, empty, seemingly rational and social, but really hollowed out and finished, living on because he can’t die, finishing the business of life, completely and utterly resigned. It is his search for truth, his passionate madness that precedes this resignation, however, that has entranced and inspired writers for decades. The Lenz figure also unites Celan and Bachmann. Bachmann, in her own acceptance speech for the Büchnerpreis made use of Büchner’s novella, as well, and also used the image of walking on one’s head. This is not even remotely the only connection of Bachmann’s and Celan’s writing, but it is the only aspect where the two meet as equals, equal thinkers and writers. References, as with the whole exchange of letters in Correspondence, are mostly slanted towards Celan. Celan’s weight as a genius poet is obvious everywhere. His metaphors surface time and again in Bachmann’s work, especially in her only finished novel Malina and her early poem Dunkles zu sagen. The latter is most significant as far as these letters in Correspondence are concerned. It is a poem dealing with the Orpheus and Eurydike myth. But while in the myth, the man comes to retrieve the woman from death’s grasp and loses her when he looks back to ensure she follows him out of the underworld, Bachmann reverses the roles. The poem begins with the words “Like Orpheus, I…” And indeed, in their relationship, it is, time and again, Bachmann, who reaches back to drag Celan into the light.

We know how the darkness encroached upon Bachmann in the 1960s, how she had to deal with attacks and depression, but in Celan’s letters, there’s not a trace of this. He is the demure, sensitive part while Bachmann organizes meetings, fights for his reputation, calls publishers and, letter after letter, tries to assuage his worries and anxieties. Her own poetry, far more than his, often has a skewered hymnal bent to it. It seems like public poetry, poetry that asks to be declaimed, small, volatile declarations from a vanished world. The poems themselves are sometimes rhymed, sometimes not, but are all deeply and explicitly rooted in a German literary tradition that contains both Romantic poets such as Klopstock and Eduard Mörike, and such modern poets as Wilhelm Müller, Georg Trakl and Stefan George. All these poets are highly important for her work, but she’s more elusive. Her poetry (as Celan’s) is often called “hermetic”, by which critics mean to say that you need a ‘clue’ to ‘unlock’ the meaning. Alas, that is not the case, but one can see the difficulty of her work in the fact that her poems seem supple and beautiful and clear on the surface, but are actually composed of layered, almost imaginistic, metaphors, which, like small explosive devices, detonate the more often one rereads her work. Between her first and second volume, this denseness of metaphor increased, and that second volume is a complex, shifting, thorny, but completely alluring piece of poetry. And it is, like Celan’s fully committed, as art, but also as a personal statement. In one of the few post-1961 poems, she writes

This sentence is not written by someone
who doesn’t underwrite

(note that the last word in German is unterschreibt and is actually closer to the word “(to) sign”). Young as she is (she published the second (and last) volume when she was only 30 years old), she created, in her 70-odd poems, an influential, original, extraordinary body of work.

In Celan’s letters, there’s nothing of this. Bachmann frequently alludes to or talks about his work, but he does nothing like that. When Celan talks about Bachmann’s poetry, he treats it as an extension of her person, its beauty an aspect of Bachmann’s, like her hair. He isn’t the only man in her life to do this, in fact. As we read her letters, and Max Frisch’s and see the facsimile of a broadsheet that Hans Weigel, a former friend and lover put out with the intent of attacking her, we gain the impression of her as an embattled but strong woman, looking, like Celan, for a true language, but despairing of finding it. Nowhere in the whole book does Celan reflect this problem, her troubles; he never speaks to her as an equal, never helps her, consoles her, attempts to drag her into daylight. Instead, he finds something to reproach her with whatever she does, especially after they break up for the second time, and the public detractors of his work become more vocal. Without debate, without an attempt to make it up to her, he just expects her to support him, and he expects her to do it in the exact way he tells her to. The public attacks on Celan’s work really take off with a review of his 1959 volume Sprachgitter by a critic called Böcker, a review that Celan, his wife and many other readers (including yours truly) considered implicitly antisemitic and explicitly bigoted. It referred to as well-worn antisemitic clichés as the homeless Jew. Böcker explicitly denied that poems like Todesfuge have any relationship to reality beyond the author’s (Jewish) cleverness. It’s a short review, crammed with resentment and idiocy, by a critic who shouldn’t have written about literature in the first place. But stupid critics abound, as do hateful ones, and a few kind words by his friends might have floated Celan’s boat here, so Celan, hurt and anguished, sent a copy of the review to his friends in the hope of obtaining support and succor. The answers of his friends were not as expected, however.

When he did not receive an immediate reply from Bachmann, who was busy and en route from one engagement to the next, he wrote to Max Frisch, with whom Bachmann had entered a relationship shortly before. Max Frisch is arguably the most important Swiss post-war writer, whose vast work includes journals, novels and plays, but he’s in many ways the antithesis to Celan. Although he’s certainly interested in politics, he’s far more of a postmodern trickster and ironist, his best work discussing the vicissitudes of modern identities (the title of one of his best novels (Mein Name sei Gantenbein) could be translated as “Let’s assume my name is Gantenbein”, etc.). He’d published plays with a facile moral fiber and two layered, well-composed journals discussing art, writing and the issues of the day. Just this year (March 2010) drafts for a third volume of journals has been published posthumously (called Entwürfe zu einem Dritten Tagebuch). I mention this new journal, because a surprisingly large portion of it is devoted to his ambiguous feelings towards Jews and Israel, and he spends many pages justifying his latent antisemitism; Celan would not have been surprised by these ambiguities: Frisch’s peculiar answer to Celan’s questing, anxious letter for help against Blöcker and his antisemitic cohorts caused Celan to call his attitudes towards Jews “dubious”. This answer of Frisch’s, of which Correspondence offers two earlier drafts, too, is a well-written, eloquent exercise in noncommittal sophistry, a reply that stunningly turns the tables in the matter and puts Celan on the defense. Instead of discussing Blöcker’s malfeasance, Frisch interrogates Celan’s reaction.

I treat this matter at length because this short exchange has subsequently caused all ties between Bachmann and Celan to be severed beyond repair, and Frisch, who keeps referring to Bachmann in a condescending way and would leave her devastated a few years later, is an important part of the whole downward spiral that ensues. Mind you, there are letters that follow this exchange, but Celan would never forgive Bachmann’s mild attitude towards Frisch (and, by implication, towards Böcker’s review) and as the second, far more harmful and aggressive wave of attacks washed over Celan, he regarded any silence, any hesitation on Bachmann’s part as proof of her enmity, of her tacit support of the generally hostile critical air. This second wave is the so-called Goll-Affair, engineered by the widow of the poet Yvan Goll. The widow, the infamous Claire Goll, had started, in the early 1950s, a thorough attempt to smear Celan as would-be plagiarist of Goll’s work. To achieve this she undertook a series of crude forgeries, serving up transparent lies and frighteningly effective appeals to the base instincts of German reviewers. Her lies, obvious though they were and badly though they were argued, managed to sway legions of critics who kept publishing articles about Celan the “shyster” and “crook”. Celan, shy survivor, felt persecuted again, and with some justification, blamed the residual antisemitism that regained strength at the time. He was, to take up Bachmann’s early letter, no longer just adrift on the ocean, but drowning in it. Although, by 1967-9, the ire and the lies had abated somewhat, Celan’s integrity and his will to write, live and create were damaged beyond repair. This poet whose poetics were primarily social, about encounters and other people, this poet felt deserted by his publisher, by friends and, yes, by Bachmann, his other, his love, whom he appeared to never cease loving even when they were apart, and just friends. It might have been just this feeling of desolation that led to his death in the hungry waters of the Seine in April 1970.

On the other hand, his deep sorrow and his obsessions threatened to engulf Bachmann, drag her down with him. Notwithstanding her own problems, she never stopped trying to save him, trying to keep him from being overwhelmed by his darkness. A draft for a letter, written late in 1961, shows how much his coldness, his suspicions and his deep despair affected her, as well. 1961 was a time where she tried to find a new way of writing. This was a time when she ceased, almost, to write poetry, and turned to prose almost exclusively. Before her death, she went on to publish two volumes of stories and a dark, haunted novel, Malina. Contrary to the suggestions of critics such as Marjorie Perloff, she didn’t quit poetry because it was dominated by a “male voice”. German Lyrik is a genre that provided a safe space for female writers, from Annette von Droste-Hülshoff to Marie Luise Kaschnitz, it was an allowed mode of writing that enabled male critics to read these female poets’ work as artfully crafted precious pieces. Celan’s reaction that read Bachmann’s poetry as an extension of his loved mistress wasn’t surprising, he reacted like many other writers and critics. And Bachmann was a runaway success as a poet. She sold extremely well, won many prizes and became almost a household name. Ingeborg Bachmann was a poet. Everyone knew that. But behind that facade, something else grew. Bachmann grew tired of the roles she was assigned, tired of condescension and allowed ways of expression and so she launched into writing prose. In 2000, a stunning collection of Bachmann’s unpublished poems and fragments was published, called Ich weiß keine bessere Welt (~ I don’t know a better world), where we can see the poet fighting to regain control over her means of expression. She twists and turns small phrases and images and castigates herself for not finding the right metaphor, the fitting phrase. These fragments show us a poet wrestling with her art, a poet ceasing to be a poet, a writer discovering prose.

In the 1961 letter, which she never sent, she demands of Celan the courage to believe in his own strength, to disregard the feeble public opinion. “The world can’t and won’t change, but you can”, she writes and admits “you might say I demand too much of you for your own sake. You’re right, I do” and adds the observation “but I demand [the same] of me, for my own sake, which lends me the courage to tell you this.” The edition contains a facsimile of this letter, which is typed in a feverish manner, letters tumbling against one another, words bumping into others, testament of her inner turmoil. Bachmann, readers of her work know, fought to change, fought against a tide of negative criticism: between 1961 and her death in 1973, she was almost constantly assailed for her deviation from the public image critics had cherished so much. Her work was attacked for being a “fall from grace” and “verging on trivial”, befuddling assessments for today’s readers. But between 1961 and his death, Celan wrote all of two letters to Bachmann, the last one a distanced note of thanks for her role in securing him a translation assignment. On the other hand, there are no letters of Bachmann, either. Contact with Celan, however much she had loved him, was harmful to her, he demanded too much of her and as her own psyche started to give way, it’s likely she didn’t have the surplus energy to buoy Celan again. In all the preceding letters there’s nothing to indicate that Celan would have been a help in any way. In 1962 she was left by Max Frisch and later that year she was briefly institutionalized. Her last ten years, from all we know, were a constant struggle, but the book is silent about it, as it is about Celan’s troubles.

In 1963 he writes enigmatically “I have a few not quite pleasant years behind me”, and the next thing we learn is in Gisèle Celan-Lestrange’s letter to Bachmann, telling her “la terrible nouvelle”, the horrible news about Celan’s death. Her regretful conclusion “Je n’ai pas su l’aider come je l’aurais voulu” holds true for both women. The silences towards the end of the book are terrible, and one can’t help but think of Bachmann’s poem Reklame, a satire of modern advertising upbeat hopefulness, and its final lines

but what happens […]
when a dead silence

occurs.

Correspondence is highly recommended; it’s a no-brainer for fans of either of these two genius writers’ work, but moreover I urge everyone who isn’t a reader of Bachmann’s and Celan’s work, to become one. Take the opportunity to read Celan’s or Bachmann’s poetry, read Bachmann’s novel or stories. Both writers have been widely translated into English and French, there is no conceivable reason not to have read them. Essential as their work is for German post-war literature, their greatness makes these books required reading for every reader of poetry or literary prose. One is tempted to call this collection of letters just as essential. It’s not. But it’s a great read, a moving, inspiring book that I have been reading and rereading constantly ever since I acquired it, a book that you will love even if you have read nothing of either writer’s excellent work. I cannot overpraise this book. It’s that good.

*

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12 thoughts on “Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann: Correspondence

  1. A wonderful review! Fascinating reading although I did not learn anything from it.These ‘starcrossed lovers’ from the time of their meeting in Vienna after WWII to their untimely deaths has laways held something of a modern Greek tragedy for me.
    Thank you for this.

  2. Pingback: Ingeborg Bachmann / Paul Celan: Herzzeit - World Literature Forum

  3. Thanks so much for posting this wonderful summary. I’d love to know how you became interested in Paul Celan and Bachmann. I’ve been reading and studying them for over 15 years now. I agree about Correspondences — it’s an amazing book. Wieland Hoban read from it at the London Review of Books in June.

  4. I am expecting my copy to arrive any day now. Thank you for the wonderful presentation that is itself a perspective on life’s powerful and destructive attractions. The attraction of life to its death through love.

  5. Thanks for this passionate review.

    I had the great fortune of being introduced to Celan’s work by Michael Hamburger in the early 1970s (shortly after his suicide). Hamburger gave a reading of “Todesfuge” in Boston, followed by a reading of his translation (Hamburger’s Celan translations are still the best).

    But I don’t agree entirely that Celan is not obscure. In his later poems of Atemwende and Lichtzwang it is almost as if he lost faith in language as it exists and had to invent an entirely new one – one not easy to understand.

    Now I am anxious to re-read Bachmann thanks to your review.

  6. Pingback: the lostness of Celan who drifts out into a great ocean « African Alchemy

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  8. Wow! I just read this again and it made me feel like I discovered these poets one more time. I just bought the book on amazon. Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

    Nabeel

  9. Thank you so much for what I have no other choice to call a brilliant review. I finished the book within a week, and was absolutely moved by it. Your review is passionate and at the same time critical and thorough. As a Celan reader for over 20 years now, I’ve learned quite a bit from it. I purchased DARKNESS SPOKEN a few years ago but haven’ the chance to read it, but I certainly will. Both Bachmann an Celan come out of these exchanges as the truly great writers they are, but also as the deeply troubled souls that opened new ways for contemporary art.

    Hail!

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