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Herzzeit: Ingeborg Bachmann - Paul Celan. Der Briefwechsel.

Herzzeit: Ingeborg Bachmann - Paul Celan. Der Briefwechsel.

By Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan

Suhrkamp Verlag, ISBN 978-3-518-42033-1, Hardback 399pp, € 24.80.
Series 3 No.11 - Frontiers

The letters themselves are by turns fascinating and rather humdrum, full of charges and confusions we can’t quite understand, tantalizingly incomplete despite the detailed commentary.

Review by Charlie Louth

Mit den Briefwechseln zwischen Paul Celan und Max Frisch sowie zwischen Ingeborg Bachmann und Gisèle Celan-Lestrange.  Edited and annotated by Bertrand Badiou, Hans Höller, Andrea Stoll und Barbara Wiedemann.

The year that saw the publication of the correspondence between perhaps the two most important American poets since the war, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, also saw that of the letters between almost certainly the two most important German-language poets of the same period, though neither of them was German. When Paul Celan arrived in Vienna late in 1947 he had come, via Bucharest and Budapest, from Czernowitz, once an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire where his parents were part of a German-speaking enclave. Ingeborg Bachmann had then been in Vienna for just over a year, studying philosophy, having come herself from the provincial town of Klagenfurt not far from the Slovenian border. She was six years younger than Celan (Bishop was six years older than Lowell). By May 1948 they had met and were in love, and as this book shows, they remained in close touch until the beginning of the sixties, when, as happened with so many of Celan's friendships, the spurious charges of plagiarism brought against him by Claire Goll and what he saw as the insufficient response by his friends unravelled the ties which should have helped to dismiss the charges as irrelevant fictions. (A last stray note from Celan to Bachmann in 1967 thanks her for recommending him as a potential translator of Akhmatova – Bachmann left her publishers when they instead commissioned a version by someone who had been the author of a Nazi song.) This book makes it easier to understand why Celan was so affected by the charges, but it also gives us an unbearably sad picture of missed opportunities and exhausted hopes. Whereas plenty was known about the relationship between Bishop and Lowell, not much was about Bachmann and Celan’s before these letters were released. The facts are startling but far from complete, and the overwhelming feeling the letters leave you with is sadness.

In some ways it was always going to be fraught relationship: Celan’s parents had both died in Nazi concentration camps; Bachmann’s father had been a member of the NSDAP. A poem Celan gave to Bachmann before leaving Vienna contains the lines ‘You shall say to Ruth, to Miriam and to Naomi: / Look, I’m sleeping with her!’. ‘The surrealist poet Paul Celan whom I met just the other evening together with Weigel at the artist Jené’s and who’s really fascinating has fallen gloriously in love with me’, is how Bachmann announced the beginning in a letter to her parents. ‘Unfortunately he’s off to Paris in a month’s time. My room at the moment is like a poppy-field, that being the kind of flower he likes to shower me with.’  If we’re interested, and it’s hard not to be, we can trace the rest of their relationship through the letters, with the help of the detailed chronology given at the end of the book: Bachmann visited Celan a few times in Paris, they met once at a meeting of the Gruppe 47 in Germany, but in 1952 Celan married. Then in 1957 it all started up again at another literary event, Celan sending her poems and letters and making several trips to her in Munich: ‘You were, when I met you, both things for me: the sensuous and the spiritual. That can never come asunder, Ingeborg.’ 

Whether it did or not, this phase of their relationship ended the following year, though the ensuing letters seem to be full of regrets and unresolvedness. After that meetings were few, and usually to do with literary business. Then towards the end the correspondence is invaded by the so-called ‘Goll affair’. There are lots of gaps, as is natural, lots of references to telephone calls which seem to have played a bigger role in this distance relationship than the letters. The letters themselves are by turns fascinating and rather humdrum, full of charges and confusions we can’t quite understand, tantalizingly incomplete despite the detailed commentary. Bachmann comes out of the correspondence better than Celan. In one long letter that like several others was never sent (27 September 1961) she gives an amazingly clear-sighted account of Celan’s situation, of why he is ready to ‘let himself be buried’ by the false criticism levelled against him. And she also says: ‘Of all the many injustices and hurtfulnesses I have been exposed to thus far the worst are those that have come from you . Who am I for you after so many years? A phantom, or a reality that no longer corresponds to that phantom? A lot has happened to me and I want to be the person I am, today. Do you even perceive me now? That’s what I don’t know, and it makes me desperate.’  After Celan’s death in 1970 Bachmann inserted a dream sequence into her novel Malina in which she has a figure learn of the death of her ‘lover’, who is easily identifiable as a version of Celan. The figure says: ‘he was my life. I loved him more than my life.’

Charlie Louth

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