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Encounters with Paul Celan

Précis de décomposition, my first book written in French, was published in 1949 by Gallimard. Five works of mine had been published in Romanian. In 1937, I arrived in Paris on a scholarship from the Bucharest Institut francais, and I have never left. It was only in 1947, though, that I thought of giving up my native language. It was a sudden decision. Switching languages at the age of thirty-seven is not an easy undertaking. In truth, it is a martyrdom, but a fruitful martyrdom, an adventure that lends meaning to being (for which it has great need!). I recommend to anyone going through a major depression to take on the conquest of a foreign idiom, to reenergize himself, altogether to renew himself, through the Word. Without my drive to conquer French, I might have committed suicide. A language is a continent, a universe, and the one who makes it his is a conquistador. But let us get to the subject...

The German translation of the Précis proved difficult. Rowohlt, the publisher, had engaged an unqualified woman, with disastrous results. Someone else had to be found. A Romanian writer, Virgil lerunca, who, after the war, had edited a literary journal in Romania, in which Celan's first poems were published, warmly recommended him. Celan, whom I knew only by name, lived in the Latin quarter, as did I. Accepting my offer, Celan set to work and managed it with stunning speed. I saw him often, and it was his wish that I read closely along, chapter by chapter, as he progressed, offering possible suggestions. The vertiginous problems involved in translation were at that time foreign to me, and I was far from assessing the breadth of it. Even the idea that one might have a committed interest in it seemed rather extravagant to me. I was to experience a complete reversal, and, years later, would come to regard translation as an exceptional undertaking, as an accomplishment almost equal to that of the work of creation. I am sure, now,  that the only one to understand a book thoroughly is someone who has gone to the trouble of translating it. As a general rule, a good translator sees more clearly than the author, who, to the extent that he is in the grips of his work, cannot know its secrets, thus its weaknesses and its limits. Perhaps Celan, for whom words were life and death, would have shared this position on the art of translation.

In 1978, when Klett was reprinting Lehre vom Zerfall (the German Précis), I was asked to correct any errors that might exist. I was unable to do it myself, and refused to engage anyone else. One does not correct Celan. A few months before he died, he said to me that he would like to review the complete text. Undoubtedly, he would have made numerous revisions, since, we must remember, the translation of the Précis dates back to the beginning of his career as a translator. It is really a wonder that a noninitiate in philosophy dealt so extraordinarily well with the problems inherent in an excessive, even provocative, use of paradox that characterizes my book.

Relations with this deeply torn being were not simple. He clung to his biases against one person or another, he sustained his mistrust, all the more so because of his pathological fear of being hurt, and everything hurt him. The slightest indelicacy, even unintentional, affected him irrevocably. Watchful, defensive against what might happen, he expected the same attention from others, and abhorred the easygoing attitude so prevalent among the Parisians, writers or not. One day, I ran into him in the street. He was in a rage, in a state nearing despair, because X, whom he had invited to have dinner with him, had not bothered to come. Take it easy, I said to him, X is like that, he is known for his don't-give-a-damn attitude. The only mistake was expecting him.

Celan, at that time, was living very simply and having no luck at all finding a decent job. You can hardly picture him in an office. Because of his morbidly sensitive nature, he nearly lost his one opportunity. The very day that I was going to his home to lunch with him, I found out that there was a position open for a German instructor at the Ecole normale superieure, and that the appointment of a teacher would be imminent. I tried to persuade Celan that it was of the utmost importance for him to appeal vigorously to the German specialist in whose hands the matter resided. He answered that he would not do anything about it, that the professor in question gave him the cold shoulder, and that he would for no price leave himself open to rejection, which, according to him, was certain. Insistence seemed useless. Returning home, it occurred to me to send him by pneumatique, a message in which I pointed out to him the folly of allowing such an opportunity to slip away. Finally he called the professor, and the matter was settled in a few minutes. "I was wrong about him," he told me later. I won't go so far as to propose that he saw a potential enemy in every man; however, what was certain was that he lived in fear of disappointment or outright betrayal. His inability to be detached or cynical made his life a nightmare. I will never forget the evening I spent with him when the widow of a poet had, out of literary jealousy, launched an unspeakably vile campaign against him in France and Germany, accusing him of having plagiarized her husband. "There isn't anyone in the world more miserable than I am," Celan kept saying. Pride doesn't soothe fury, even less despair.

Something within him must have been broken very early on, even before the misfortunes which crashed down upon his people and himself. I recall a summer afternoon spent at his wife's lovely country place, about forty miles from Paris. It was a magnificent day. Everything invoked relaxation, bliss, illusion. Celan, in a lounge chair, tried unsuccessfully to be lighthearted. He seemed awkward, as if he didn't belong, as though that brilliance was not for him. What can I be looking for here? he must have been thinking. And, in fact, what was he seeking in the innocence of that garden, this man who was guilty of being unhappy, and condemned not to find his place anywhere? It would be wrong to say that I felt truly ill at ease; nevertheless, the fact was that everything about my host, including his smile, was tinged with a pained charm, and something like a sense of nonfuture.

Is it a privilege or a curse to be marked by misfortune? Both at once. This double face defines tragedy. So Celan was a figure, a tragic being. And for that he is for us somewhat more than a poet.


E. M. Cioran, "Encounters with Paul Celan," in Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France, edited by Benjamin Hollander (San Francisco: ACTS 8/9), 1988): 151-52

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