Paul Celan


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Poet, Survivor, Jew

John Felstiner

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Paul Celan, Europe's most compelling postwar poet, was a German-speaking, East European Jew. His writing exposes and illumines the wounds that Nazi destructiveness left on language. John Felstiner's sensitive and accessible book is the first critical biography of Celan in any language. It offers new translations of well-known and little-known poems—including a chapter on Celan's famous "Deathfugue"—plus his speeches, prose fiction, and letters. The book also presents hitherto unpublished photos of the poet and his circle.

Drawing on interviews with Celan's family and friends and his personal library in Normandy and Paris, as well as voluminous German commentary, Felstiner tells the poet's gripping story: his birth in 1920 in Romania, the overnight loss of his parents in a Nazi deportation, his experience of forced labor and Soviet occupation during the war, and then his difficult exile in Paris. The life's work of Paul Celan emerges through readings of his poems within their personal and historical matrix. At the same time, Felstiner finds fresh insights by opening up the very process of translating Celan's poems.

To present this poetry and the strain of Jewishness it displays, Felstiner uncovers Celan's sources in the Bible and Judaic mysticism, his affinities with Kafka, Heine, Hölderlin, Rilke, and Nelly Sachs, his fascination with Heidegger and Buber, his piercing translations of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Mandelshtam, Apollinaire. First and last, Felstiner explores the achievement of a poet surviving in his mother tongue, the German language that had passed, Celan said, "through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech."

John Felstiner teaches English and Jewish studies at Stanford University. He is also the translator of Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan.

"An important book. Celan is indeed a very great poet, Felstiner’s English translations of the poems are remarkably accurate and effective, and the argument of the book is both persuasive and informative."—Cyrus Hamlin, Yale University

"I have been eagerly awaiting this book. John Felstiner’s brilliant and illuminating talks and articles about Celan, with the translations of his poems which they incorporate, have been of great interest to me for the past several years; and now we are provided with the comprehensive study toward which these were working. Felstiner is that increasingly rare thing, a critic who loves his subjects and enables readers to share that love by guiding them into a deeper understanding of their resonances. This is especially valuable in the case of Celan, whose work is at once so inward and such a quintessential artifact of history."—Denise Levertov

"Felstiner’s book is, on every level, superb: it is essential to anyone interested in the work of one of the greatest and most moving Jewish poets of our turbulent time."—Elie Wiesel, Boston University

"Felstiner has done the impossible--integrated Celan’s life and poetry without stinting either. The full weight and agony of the poet’s fate as Jew and survivor are captured. Felstiner translates with care and caring the major poems and makes them accessible by a commentary that scrupulously records the occasions to which they are linked and the literary allusions they encode. The scholar becomes a poet writing about the greatest of the post-war German poets."—Geoffrey Hartman, Yale University

"This is an absolutely essential study of one of the genuinely great, and in so many ways enigmatic, poets of our time, a literary biography in the best sense, informative and penetratingly interpretive. Felstiner’s fine translations of Celan’s often very difficult poetry arise from, and are worked seamlessly into, the stuff of his chronicle, and they are of immense value in their own right. A book of this kind has been long overdue: this authoritative instance of it now appears to have been well worth waiting for."—John Hollander

"Felstiner’s critical biography of Celan is a literary event of the first order. . . . The most definitive account of Celan in any language. . . . The author sheds new light on virtually every aspect of Celan’s life and work and has identified so profoundly with his subject that the reader throughout feels the impossible weight of Celan’s effort to speak poetically for the victims of the Holocaust."—Choice

"In his luminous new study, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, Felstiner deftly weaves together the events of Celan’s life and the poems that erupted in its wake. Felstiner’s translations of Celan’s poetry (the process, as he describes it, of "voicing a poem anew") are remarkably successful—sensitive, often brilliant. . . . Felstiner’s superb book helps us decipher the enigmatic, oblique messages this anguished poet manages to leave for us before he hurled himself into the Seine in April 1970."—Susan Miron, Dimensions

"This is a deeply moving, impressively learned, highly rewarding book."—Joseph Grange, International Studies in Philosophy


"[Felstiner’s] book acquires Celan’s poverty of life and his reticence as a way of conveying him. It is paradoxical . . . and it works."—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Celan’s splendor has been brought to life, and his silence brought to speech, by a book that is a labor not just of love but of passion. . . . A pilgrimage to a hard place by a pilgrim who does all the walking we do and, astonishingly, gets us up there . . . brings us within living, breathing reach of the original."—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Felstiner masterfully interweaves Celan’s poetry with his life experience in a way that enriches our understanding of both. The book also offers new translations of well-known and little-known poems. This biography brings out the poettt’s intense affinities with Kafka, Heine, Rilke, Buber, and others. The result is a moving portrait of a courageous and troubled man whose life cannot be separated from his poetry."—Menorah Review Supplement

“This long-overdue study illuminates the rich biographical meaning behind much of Celan’s spare, enigmatic verse.”—New Yorker

John Felstiner's excellent biography is full…of the poems themselve, both in German and in Felstiner's own excellent English translations.

"[Felstiner’s] biography of Celan is the first critical biography of the poet in any language—valuable for that reason alone—but it is also an unusually personal work. . . . [We] remain grateful to John Felstiner for bringing Paul Celan so forcefully to our attention."—Paul Preuss, San Francisco Review of Books

"Felstiner’s study is admirably attentive to Celan’s work. Phrases are traced to ghetto folksongs, to scriptural passages, to lines from Goethe or Heine. Such attention to the associations and jarrings of words unpack the hidden facets of Celan’s history . . . The poems are not a hermetic code, but reveal the criss-crossed paths of memories. Felstiner’s careful tracing of these paths is an attempt to reconstitute not just Celan’s voice, but the geography of a lost and impossible culture."—Matt Ffytch, The Independent on Sunday

"Felstiner is clear, intelligent and quietly erudite. Nor does he neglect the poetry while narrating this harrowing life story; his translations are sensitive to the infinite nuances of Celan’s formidably introspective verse. This will surely remain the definitive work on him."—Daniel Johnson, The Times (London)

"First and foremost, [Felstiner] is a reader of Celan equipped, both in a scholarly way and in sensibility, to apprehend the Judaic centre . . . He does so by virtue of his personal commitment to the exact arts of translation . . . by virtue of his patient fervour for poetry and his critical good sense. This volume has been long and justly awaited. It is the finest approach to the Celan-world so far available. The very riches provided by Felstiner’s study point towards much which remains to be understood."—George Steiner, Times Literary Supplement

"At last, Paul Celan has received a treatment that does him justice, making his work accessible to those who don’t know German—and, as it happens, to Germans, too. . . . The poetry is magnificently there; no longer will Celan be lost in translation."—Voice Literary Supplement

"[A] masterly book. . . . Rich in insights."—Nathaniel Tarn, Voice Literary Supplement

"As a reader, I am simply grateful for Felstiner’s careful and moving translations, his patient, often word-by-word analysis, and the wealth of Biblical and linguistic expertise he brings to bear on so many otherwise enigmatic poems... In Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew John Felstiner teaches us how to pay better attention to one of the most serious and rewarding poets of our time."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

“The book is at once a biography of Celan, a study of his poems, and an account of the author’s struggle with translation.”—Robert Hass, Washington Post Book World

"[When] Paul Celan’s biographer, John Felstiner, calls the latter “Europe’s most compelling postwar poet,” surely few can argue. Like most books on the Romanian Celan, Festiner’s “Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew” . . . underlines how his wartime experience in a forced-labor camp (while his parents perished in an internment camp) molded his stunningly inventive use of the German language: his mother tongue and a murderer’s tongue."—Benjamin Ivry, Forward

Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award

Chosen as a best book of 1995 by Village Voice

Chosen as a best book of 1995 by the Times Literary Supplement

Chosen as a best book of 1995 by the Philadelphia Inquirer

Winner of the 1997 University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin

Chosen as a best book of 1995 by Choice magazine
ISBN: 9780300089226
Publication Date: February 8, 2001
368 pages, 5 x 8
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