Inge and Paul

Herzzeit

Herzzeit

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

The Brilliance of Ingeborg

Her brilliance; we are sitting in front of a Roman estate agent, who is renting the apartment of a baronessa and gives us to understand, the baronessa may prefer an American diplomat as a tenant, DOTTORE, she says aghast, like a king’s daughter gone unrecognised, and she hesitates, SENTA, she says, SIAMO SCRITTORI, and the apartment is ours; terrace with a view over Rome. Often she is away for weeks; I wait in her Rome. Once, when I knew she had already set out for Rome, I could not wait another hour, so drive out before the city and keep watch at a bend in the road; I wait for her blue Volkswagen. To welcome her. Just in case, the driver does not see me on the road, my car is ready to start facing ROMA/CENTRO. Volkswagens pass again and again, blue ones too, so I wave. Perhaps she is still dining in Siena, RISTORANTE DI SPERANZA, I have time. Now she has not recognised me, but it does not take me long to catch up with her; I can see her round head from behind, her hair. She clearly does not understand my hooting, and it takes a while until I can drive up the way the police drive up to another car to stop it, and then she is frightened. I am a fool and I know it. Her freedom is part of her brilliance.

— Max Frisch, Montauk

Remembering Ingeborg Bachmann in Frisch’s Montauk, as I start a novel I’ve always been ashamed to say I haven’t read: Bachmann’s only novel, Malina, published in German in 1971, two years before her awful death.

And two writers who should be more widely available in English.

Preview, Rear View

Best of 2014

Well yes, the tradition is to do this before the year is out, but I do a fair bit of reading between Christmas and New Year and it would be, of course, disingenuous to exclude what could have been included as one of the best books I read in 2014—and indeed, the book in question almost was.

It was the year of finally catching the Dante bug (after studying and just not really getting it at university), spending months reading the Purgatorio and Paradiso (Inferno was last year), reading around in Boethius, Augustine, the Vita Nuova, Cavalcanti, and wondering if the modern equivalent of Dante looking down on the world from Paradise would be the Pale Blue Dot photo that the Voyager mission took of Earth as it left the Solar System.

But it was also a year of reading wider and wider in Brazilian poetry from the colonial inconfidents, to modernists, concretists and marginal down to contemporary writers.

For 2015

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Sneak Preview

Well, more Brazilians, more Central Europeans (after a fantastic online course by the UK Poetry School in final months of 2014), more British and Americans, re-readings and plenty of writers I’m sure I barely know exist right now. Right now, the pile by the bed includes Ingeborg Bachmann, William Gerhardie, Joan Margarit, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Toby Martínez de las Rivas, Tomasz Różycki, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki and Louis Zukofsky.

And the best

So here is my list of what I read and re-read and loved in 2014: Read more of this post

Yet Another Year in Review

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Well, everyone else is doing it, so I feel like I must too. As always at this time of year, it feels like staying up-to-date is the hardest thing to do. As I look back over what I read over 2013, I find all these readings and rereadings from other centuries that make me feel the vaguest twinges of guilt that while I vaguely manage to read contemporarily in Anglo poetry, I try and fail with other literatures and genres. The list of books to read gets longer and the print dates get older.

It’s been a year of going back a decade to the German and Italian I studied at university (Boccaccio, Calvino, and Benjamin, Bachmann, Celan and Frisch) or the other books I was reading at the time (Hemingway). It’s been a year of reading into Luso and Brazilian literature (Pessoa, Lispector and Domeneck, others on other lists). There are wonderful poets like Nasser and Madzirov (from Jordan and Macedonia) who barely fit anywhere. And of course, there are the English-language writers, who make up most of the rest of the list—foremost among them Michael Symmons Roberts and Anne Carson, who wrote complex and engrossing poetry in 2013.

Here are the books I’ve most enjoyed reading or rereading over 2013:

  • Ingeborg Bachmann, Die gestundete Zeit / Mortgaged Time
  • Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße / One-Way Street
  • Emily Berry, Dear Boy
  • Elizabeth Bishop, Poems
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
  • Italo Calvino, Le cosmicomiche / Cosmicomics
  • Anne Carson, Red Doc>
  • Paul Celan, Ausgewählte Gedichte / Selected Poems
  • Julio Cortázar, Bestiario
  • Ricardo Domeneck, Sons: Arranjos: Garganta
  • Diego Doncel, Porno ficción
  • Max Frisch, Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän / Man in the Holocene
  • Federico García Lorca, Romance gitano / Gypsy Ballads
  • Jorie Graham, P L A C E
  • Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises
  • James Joyce, Ulysses
  • Clarice Lispector, A Paixão segundo G. H. / The Passion According to G. H.
  • Nikola Madzirov, Remants of Another Age
  • Helen Mort, Division Street
  • Paul Muldoon, Poems 1968-1998
  • Amjad Nasser, Shepherd of Solitude
  • Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap
  • Fernando Pessoa, Poesia completa de Alberto Caeiro / Complete Poems of Alberto Caeiro
  • Sam Riviere, 81 Austerities
  • Michael Symmons Roberts, Drysalter
  • Wislawa Szymborska, Poems
  • William Wordsworth, The Prelude

Langscape

My [redacted] is enough for business transactions, for humour: I say what the language wants, not what I want. Her laughter. I am the victim of my small vocabulary.

Homo faber, Max Frisch

Anyone who knows me will know I speak more than a couple of languages. Living as a foreigner in Brazil, this comes up most days and it often doesn’t take long for someone to ask me how it is I speak Portuguese “so well”. It’s a mystery to me, as much as to them[1]. This post might sound from a boastful enumerator, but I hope it doesn’t: I’m far more an embarrassed tallier.

Language is a landscape—and each one is different.

Mountains upon mountains  (Jardín, Colombia)

Mountains upon mountains
(Jardín, Colombia)

There’s one I used to speak, can no longer understand, that’s like a faded winter leaf: I can remember words, no meanings, but the intricate mathematical grammar hangs in its skeletal lace. Another sits in a jar of formaldehyde.

Another one, Russian, I worked in once and read in sometimes, but never without a dictionary for half the words. It feels like a misty hillside with a plain below where the slow-blown air sometimes clears and sometimes closes in. Or perhaps it’s like that scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, staring out over a snowy Breughelian vista.

The ones I feel I speak best, the irony and minor keys of German or arid, intricate, yet lush Spanish, are so much topographical, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting or the early sun over the Colombian cordillera, where ridge upon green ridge stretches to the horizon with the regularity and crunch of collapsing Toblerones.

Portuguese is different: I have a compass and a car, I am a navigator and have travelled far, but I know I’m on a wide savannah, where half my made-good turns were flukes.

Perhaps it’s familiarity and experience, perhaps it’s the mind-bending visions that come from literature, perhaps I have a synesthetic perception of these things. Or maybe it’s the range of lived emotion that spreads these maps of altitude: the most important relationships of my life (family, friends, lovers, partners) have been in English, German, Spanish. These are the languages that have made me ecstatic, made me cry. Will the same happen with Portuguese? Perhaps, or maybe it will always be a language on the flatlands, where words start to fade as soon as they’re touched and turn into gabbling shadows that sound, at a distance, like English, German or Spanish.


[1] The biggest mystery of all is how some people hear an accent from Portugal, where I’ve not been for 15 years and where I’ve never spoken Portuguese.

The cordillera(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

The cordillera
(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

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