So much of the Second World War is unimaginable, but constant depictions have made us grow used to its horrors. For me at least, this makes parts of its aftermath more unimaginable still. In 1948 Paul Celan fled Communist Romania for occupied Vienna. Celan’s father died of typhus, his mother was shot, both in internment camps, Celan himself spent much of the war in labour camps:
On arrival in Cernăuți July 1941 the German SS Einsatzkommando and their Romanian allies set the city’s Great Synagogue on fire. In October, the Romanians deported a large number of Jews after forcing them into a ghetto, where Celan translated William Shakespeare’s Sonnets and continued to write his own poetry. Before the ghetto was dissolved in the fall of that year, Celan was pressed into labor, first clearing the debris of a demolished post office, and then gathering and destroying Russian books. (taken from Celan’s entry in Wikipedia)
It is impossible to say that the war ended in 1945 in anything more than historiographical terms, if its survivors carried it within them for the rest of their lives. And is peace peace, if three years after the end of the war, Celan was stateless in Vienna?
There he met Ingeborg Bachmann and they began a friendship or, for two short periods in 1948 and in 1957-58, a relationship. Their correspondence was published in Germany in 2008 as Herzzeit, which also includes the letters between Celan and Max Frisch (Swiss author and Bachmann’s later partner) and Bachmann and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (Celan’s wife and widow).
It is a correspondence of floods and lacunae. There are long silences from one side or the other: writing is difficult for Ingeborg, especially. She cannot bring herself to reply to Paul in the first years of their friendship: it seems the feelings and the pain are too deep. There are letters abandoned halfway through and later sent enclosed within others:
My silence means above all that I want to preserve those weeks are they were, I wanted nothing more than to receive a letter from you every now and then, to prove that I was not dreaming, that everything was real, as it was. I was fond of you, quite unchanged, on a plain “beyond the chestnut trees”.
„Mein Schweigen bedeutet vor allem, dass ich die Wochen behalten wollte, wie sie waren, ich wollte nichts, als eben ab und zu durch eine Karte von Dir die Bestätigung bekommen, dass ich nicht geträumt habe, sondern alles wirklich war, [wie] es war. Ich hatte Dich lieb gehabt, ganz unverändert, auf einer Ebene, die „jenseits der Kastanien“ war.“
—Ingeborg Bachmann to Paul Celan, Vienna, 24 August 1949, sent as an insert on 24 November 1949
This difficulty in writing letters occurs later in her novel, Malina. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see the life reflected in the work. But here it goes further: a fascinating part of Hans Höller and Andrea Stoll’s commentary is how even during the silences of their writing, Bachmann’s poetry speaks and responds to Celan’s. For example, Celan’s poem the line “we spoke of dark things to each other/wir sagen uns Dunkles” in Celan’s ‘Corona’ influences Bachmann’s poem ‘To Speak of Dark Things/Dunkles zu sagen’ where the speaker, like Orpheus, knows only how to speak of dark things. And in the quotation, “beyond the chestnut trees” is from Celan’s poem ‘Drüben (Over There)’.
They grow apart over time and the correspondence peters out by the beginning of the 1960’s. This is when Celan is criticized in some (anti-Semitic) parts of the German press and is subject to plagiarism accusations, both spend times in psychiatric clinics. Maybe banally, Bachmann’s last letter to Celan is a Christmas card in 1961, but she continues to react or respond to Celan: in 1967 she leaves her publisher in protest at a decision to publish translations of Akhmatova by a translator with a Nazi past, rather than Celan’s. But, of course, neither of them could know they only had so much time, that Celan would commit suicide in the Seine in 1970, that Ingeborg would die in 1973. Thoughts, feelings and pain unwritten leave no trace. Should we be surprised that their letters read like fragments?
Bachmann and Celan are two of my favourite poets of post-war German literature, and I suppose it is inevitable that I would be fascinated by their letters, but I had not expected to be so moved by the friendship that develops between Ingeborg and Gisèle, especially after Paul’s suicide, “the most anonymous and solitary of deaths”. Gisèle’s letters often refer to Ingeborg’s acts of kindness, such as sending Gisèle flowers on Celan’s birthday, half a year after his suicide.
Over the next few years, it becomes clear that these gestures, phone calls, the meeting of the two in Rome become an important support for Gisèle. Ingeborg’s difficulty in writing is just as much the case here: in a 1959 letter to Gisèle, she wrote “I fear letters more and more because they regard us with such inflexibility, when all one seeks is a living word – or even a living contradiction” (« Je crains de plus en plus les lettres parce qu’elles nous regardent inflexiblement, quand on ne cherche que la parole vivante – et même la contradiction vivante »).
In search of the “living word”, Ingeborg phones, while Gisèle appears to be writing into silence. This and history (their future) made it difficult not to be overwhelmed by their melancholy—it is hard not to see this last letter to Ingeborg (2 January 1973) as desperately sad:
“I am still moved by your call yesterday evening: I was almost paralysed with the surprise, the distance, that you represent for me and I could not find the words that I wanted to say to you –
I am so touched by how much you care about me, I feel so deeply that it matters to you that I am well and that I find my own path. Thank you for such warm thoughts.
You know, you know … the hardships that one has with oneself, with life. One tries, one is mistaken, one finds paths that lead nowhere. One takes steps that are not always the right ones and finds oneself again at a dead end…”
« Je suis encore toute émue de votre appel d’hier soir : j’étais un peu paralysée par la surprise, la distance, ce que vous représentez pour moi, et je n’ai pas pu trouver les mots que j’aurais voulu vers vous –
Je suis très touchée par l’attention que vous me portez, je sens si fort que cela vous importe que j’aille bien et que je me trouve un chemin, merci de ces pensées si chaleureuses.
Vous savez, vous savez … les difficultés que l’on a chacun avec soi-même, avec la vie. On essaie, on se fourvoie, on trouve des chemins qui ne mènent nulle part. On fait des pas qui ne sont pas toujours les justes et on se retrouve à nouveau dans ses impasses… »
—Gisèle Celan-Lestrange to Ingeborg Bachmann, Paris, 2 January 1973
There is nothing more. I could only imagine time coursing towards Ingeborg’s own death on 17 October of the same year.
Ingeborg Bachmann/Paul Celan, Herzzeit: Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008