Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[…].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.

****

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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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Flüstern

Paul, ich möchte Deinen armen schönen Kopf nehmen und ihn schütteln und ihm klarmachen, dass ich sehr viel damit sage, viel zu viel für mich, denn du mußt doch noch wissen, wie schwer es mir fällt, ein Wort zu finden. Ich wünsche mir, dass Du alles aus meinen Zeilen herauslesen könntest, was dazwischen steht.

(aus einem Brief Bachmanns an Celan (aus: Herzzeit))