BOOK REVIEW / The long shadow of almonds

PAUL CELAN: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner, Yale University Press pounds 19.95
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POETIC obscurity comes in different shades; apocalyptic, surreal, symbolist, ... all of which terms have been applied to the writing of Paul Celan. Such attributes were destined not to endear him to the post-Larkin generation. When faced with translations of Celan, British reviewers have resorted to weak labels such as "mysterious" and "spell-binding", and left it at that.

However, Celan stressed that his work was "absolutely not hermetic", and Felstiner's exploration of Celan's life and work attempts to retrieve the poet from the continental philosophy departments where he has been harboured. Without balking at such lines as "Mould-green is the house of oblivion. At each of its blowing gates your beheaded minstrel goes blue", he tweezes out Celan's presence from the nooks and crannies of his poems.

Born Paul Antschel in 1920, Celan saw his home province of Bukovina in the Austro-Hungarian Empire swallowed, successively, by Germany, Romania and the Soviet Union. The Germans invaded in June 1940 and two years later Celan's parents were deported and eventually killed: a loss that was to haunt his life and his poetry.

Celan spent the rest of the war in a labour camp, but was freed by the advance of the Red Army. From 1945 he was in Bucharest where he changed his name to Ancel, and then Celan. But he fled again in 1947 when the People's Republic was declared, carrying only a rucksack of poems. When Celan finally settled as a German poet and translator in Paris, his point of origin had been completely erased.

Celan's work takes up the great German romantic tradition of Holderlin and Rilke, with lyrics built around natural imagery and a sorrowful longing for transcendence. But the romantic landscape of birch trees, pines, huts and wells had irrevocably become the landscape of concentration camps. The northern symbols are braided with hair, mould, ash, and corpses.

"Todesfuge" (Deathfugue), Celan's best-known poem, has itself become a monument to the Holocaust. Felstiner calls it "the Guernica of post- war European literature". Fusing the language of Genesis, Wagner, Heine and the Song of Songs, it shows the lyric tradition crash-landing in the hellish landscape of genocide.

Celan was adamant that "only in the mother tongue can one speak one's own truth". But the German language had passed through the "thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech". In an attempt to wring horror out of the mother tongue, the poems became small residues of expression, as if the language was being sifted for just one pristine word. He began to invent strange new compounds - "honeycomb-ice", and "thread-suns".

As he gained recognition in the Sixties, Celan became paradoxically more isolated. His poetry was constantly misunderstood, and when "Todesfuge" became de rigueur in German classrooms, he felt he was being used to assuage the national conscience. More disastrous still was an unfounded charge of plagiarism from the wife of Yvan Goll, an expressionist poet whom Celan had translated. In 1965 he was twice admitted to a psychiatric clinic.

The late poems are compact and opaque like small stones. On 20 April 1970 Celan jumped from the Pont Mirabeau, near where he lived, into the Seine. He "drowned unobserved". At his desk was a biography of Holderlin, open at an underlined passage: "Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart".

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. For instance, his recurring use of the word "Mandel" (almond) reveals bitterness, sweetness, the Levantine eye, the upturned eye of a corpse or the poet Mandelstam. 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.