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PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 9: AT THE LATTICE
Paris, August 5, 1969
Dear Brigitte, dear Gertrud,
I am writing one letter to both of you because you both wanted to know how the conversation with Celan went. And it was really quite interesting, although little was said about the future of my translations.
At first, however, everything that happened was in complete harmony with Murphy’s Law, which states that whatever can go wrong will. I arrived on time at the BEA counter [at the airport in Berlin]; they had a record of my reservation, but not of the fact that I had paid for the ticket in advance. Luckily I still had enough money to finance myself as far as Paris at least. Good. I sat in the plane, thinking of what I’d tell the travel agency from a phone booth in Frankfurt, when I suddenly had the feeling that something wasn’t right with the way we were flying. And indeed, ten minutes later the stewardess informed us that for technical reasons we were returning to Berlin. Luckily we got another plane right away, or I’d never have made the connection for Paris. In Paris I got transportation to the hotel where the travel bureau had reserved a room for me. But that hotel– !! Perhaps I should have stayed there anyway. But: soiled red curtains in the office, the floor indescribably dirty and uneven. The whole family was sitting around. The grandmother was dressed like a gypsy; she and the mother wore little gold Jewish stars around their necks. The mother could not remember a reservation at first, but then she did find a room – on the sixth floor, of course no elevator. A little girl, very nice and friendly by the way, led me up the dirty, uneven stairs. The whole place was right out of a Kafka story. The room was about as elegant as you’d expect, of course no WC, and not cheap at that but terribly expensive. I felt, in the light of all the day’s events, most infamously persecuted by some anonymous conniving power. I unpacked my things, but then went down and said to the mother that I would like to pay for only one night, as I had been ill and really should not climb so many stairs. But the woman was quite extraordinarily helpful. She saw that I was exhausted and told someone to go upstairs and repack my things for me, and then telephoned to another hotel, run by the same family, where there was an elevator. I nearly wept with gratitude and relief. So I got to the other hotel – here, too, by the way, there are Jewish stars, but in the form of tags on the room keys. The young woman speaks a normal French, but the others a dialect unknown to me. There is evidently some kind of society – (or does Société just mean a firm?) – everything very enigmatic. But it is clean here.
By this time it was two o’clock. I dared not take time to get a proper meal, but I arrived at the meeting place at 2:30 and had to walk around. When I then arrived at exactly 3:00 at the entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, M. Celan was already there, walking up and down.
One thing I must correct. The École Normale Supérieure is not a high school, as someone told us, but an institute that trains university teachers, the elite among French students. M. Celan, as I understood him, has only a group of six students whom he teaches.
He is short, stocky, with rather small hands. He makes a very particular impression, but one that is hard to put into words – both strong (I would almost say: a subterranean force) and nervous, but above all reserved. He was quite charming in a way that reminded me of my dissertation professor, Politzer – which is odd, because with Politzer the effect is quite theatrical, and he is a very different person. We sat down in his office. He said that several people were already translating his poems, including one who had translated the whole of Sprachgitter quite well; he found my versions not bad either, but had already sent most of them to a friend who lives in America in order to get his judgment, as he does not feel sure of himself in English. I had thought that we would talk about his specific reservations, and he did mention a few small points, but preferred to speak in general about his work. I regretted that I had not had time in the last few days to reflect and get together some specific questions. And I did not feel mentally at my best. Still we talked for quite a long time. He did not have good things to say about most philologists, he felt that they aestheticize things and render them innocuous, in Fadensonnen he had wanted to make that a little harder for them. He said that the “Todesfuge” had become an “Alibi-poem” for many. But then when I wanted to interpret a couple of passages from Fadensonnen in this light – you know, Brigitte, “nekronym/ längst vor der Zeit (necronymous/ long before my time)”, he didn’t accept it! Although later he said he would look at the poem again. Evidently he regards language as something concrete and becomes immediately mistrustful of any abstract or symbolic interpretation. What interested him was the “resistance” of the poem. In the process of creation the poem is a unique event; “im Leeren stehend, wird es wieder vieldeutig (afterward, standing in the void, it can mean many things).” I had the feeling that here he was presenting things somewhat onesidedly, for pedagogic reasons so to speak, because so many people have generalized about his poems and compared them, but I was glad to hear him say it, because it corresponds to what interests me in his poems. I also mentioned the setting of the “Todesfuge” by Tilo Müller-Medek [a friend of Erika’s, who had asked me to inquire]. He said he had already received the tape, but had never played it, because he doesn’t have a tape recorder! In generally he did not seem enthusiastic about musical settings of his poems. As to my translations, I am tempted to write them off as a defeat, though I also have the feeling that he wants to exercise careful control over the publication of his poems in foreign languages, and also that he is a person who does not like to let others look at his cards.
After that he showed me a little of the old city. The house in the Rue de Touillers where “Malte Laurids Brigge” was written is not far away from the École Normale. At that point I could barely stand on my feet, so I couldn’t tell you the exact route, but we mostly went through the Marais and ended up in a café at the Place des Vosges. As we were crossing a bridge he pointed to a statue of Ste. Geneviève who saved the city from some horde or other. “And when is that supposed to have happened?” I asked. He said with a very sly look, “Damals (at that time).” He also asked me a lot about America; when I told him that in Berkeley every graduate student tries to be a poet he said with a little smile that I am almost tempted to characterize as smug: “It is something!”
When it was twilight he took the Metro, while I threw myself into a taxi – of which I felt a bit ashamed. It seems that he lives extremely modestly; at one point, when I came to speak of Bob Dylan, it turned out that he does not have a record player either. From that troglodytic strength that he – “radiates” isn’t quite the right word – I suspect that he works awfully hard. When I compare my own feeble, distractible way of living and temperament, it’s pretty clear to me why I am no poet.
By the way, Brigitte, the poems of Emily Dickinson he knows, and has even translated a few of them, though he could not tell me the dates of publication.
Well. I hope I have given you some kind of an impression. It was, all in all, a very strange day. I have the feeling as though all the preceding difficulties, and then that enigmatic hotel (and the stars!) were somehow connected with the interview, as though that ironic eye had been watching me all day. [...]
* * *
The letter, originally in German, was not sent, or maybe I sent a copy. There are also a couple of pages of notes on the same graph paper I’d used in Germany, probably written a few days later in Berkeley; they evidently represent an attempt to salvage from the conversation what might be useful for my thesis:
“M. Celan protested especially against the interpretation of his poems in the light of a system of symbols. At the moment of creation the poem is individual and unique; later, ‘im Leeren stehend, wird es wieder vieldeutig.’ He also expressed a resistance to the interpretation (and translation) of such words as ‘Steindattel (dateshell)’ as metaphors. At this point the word is a name, no longer metaphorical; this, evidently, is what he means by the programmatic statement that metaphors ‘ad absurdum geführt werden wollen (want to be carried ad absurdum).’ He also used the word ‘Verwerfung’ in the geological sense (this phenomenon is used in the dating of rocks) to describe this shift in the meaning of language. [Note: ‘Verwerfung’ means ‘displacement’ and also, ‘rejection, condemnation.’] He went so far as to say that a word like the English ‘limpet’ pleased him much more than “Steindattel” because it is only a name.
“However, it seems obvious that this is meant as a correction to the usual philogist’s tendency to dissolve and abstract; he admitted that such words as ‘Fruchtboden’ are also metaphors. His main point seemed to be that he was aiming at a poetry which would offer a ‘Widerstand (resistance),’ a ‘Gegenüber’ (vis-à-vis).’ This ‘opacity’ is especially prominent in Fadensonnen.
“This last volume was deliberately made so that philologists would find it difficult to range it among the classics (‘Ich schere mich zum Teufel um die ästhetische Konstruktion’). He does not like to be regarded as a ‘Klassiker der Moderne’; in particular he dislikes the use to which the ‘Death Fugue’ has been put; it is, he says, ‘an alibi-poem.’ At the same time, oddly enough, he did not confirm my interpretation of such phrases as ‘nekronym/ längst vor der Zeit.’ He called my attention in particular to the use of the many adjectives in -ig which have a very concrete meaning.
“He does not think it is possible to use rhyme any more, except thematically.
“He also resisted the idea that literature springs only from literature, citing with particular indignation Weinrich’s assumption that the title ‘Ich weiss (I know)’ is a quotation from Else Lasker-Schüler!
“’Jedes Gedicht is der Anti-Computer, auch das vom Computer Geschriebene (Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes).’
“In literature, he said, his greatest experiences were X and Y. X represents a ‘writer’s ethic’ (here I am not sure if I am quoting exactly). But these are not exactly influences; the contact with them is always critical. He denied being much influenced by French literature. I inquired about Buber’s Chassidic tales. He said that there was some common ground – ‘atmosphärisch’; he himself had studied Hebrew till the age of 16 at the wish of his father, but with great resistance – ‘ich war Kommunist.’ After the war he had begun to read about the Chassidim.
“The ‘Todesfuge,’ he said, had been misunderstood as a poem about Auschwitz. In reality it was ‘einfach heruntergeschrieben (I just wrote it down)’ and ‘gar nicht allusiv (not at all allusive).’
“In linguistics, he said, he had not gotten beyond de Saussure, who had influenced him for a while, but then that had gotten lost. Philologists? He was very negative about most but highly recommended Maurice Blanchot and Vladimir Markov. Also strongly recommended that I read Henri Michaux.”
* * *
That is what I wrote down while my memory was fresh. But I did not write down everything, in particular not the thing that affected me the most then and afterward. If I had not, in a moment of wanting to start afresh in 1971, thrown away a certain piece of paper in his hand, I would have concrete evidence. Perhaps he even wanted to give me such evidence. It is one of my major regrets; I feel a bit like Gilgamesh, who spilled the water of life on his way back from his journey to the underworld to obtain it. Even I myself cannot now be sure that my memory of his writing it is correct. Memory is deceitful; and I could not have borne it if at that interview nothing had happened. But I have one thing: a copy of Boris Zaitsev’s Russian translation of the Inferno – the title is the Russian word for Hell, “Ad” – which I acquired a year or so afterward, as though to assure myself that that translation, at least, existed.
And even if I could prove it – I told it to Nadine, and she didn’t doubt my word, but her reaction was “so what?” Anyone could allude to a name; he needn’t have meant anything by it at all; I was reading meanings into it that weren’t there. After all, given my state of mind at the time of the interview, it would have been difficult for him not to say some things my imagination could find significant at the time or elaborate on afterward, like the landlady in Kafka’s Castle, brooding over the tokens of her relationship with the Castle official. This state of mind bore no necessary relation to his intentions.
And yet, my impression of Paul Celan is that he was not a person to say things without a sense of how they would be received by his interlocutor. Nor was he someone who would willingly allow things to be “projected” upon him! I have the feeling that just as he wished to control the translations of his poems, so he also wished to exercise some control over how people understood him as a person. And more than one person who knew him more or less well has expressed the perception that for Celan nothing was ever really insignificant. Gerhard Baumann, a German academic who was evidently a close friend of his, wrote a book called Erinnerungen an Paul Celan (Memories of Paul Celan), in which he says:
“One of his peculiarities was the tendency to sense in [ordinary] incidents an ominous, perhaps unfathomable background. A critical sense for the givens accompanied a belief in the miraculous – Hasidic miracles in everyday life ... [such as] the unexpected retrieval of one of his irreplaceable sandals on the return from the Black Sea to Bucharest, or the fortunes of his watch, a present from his mother, which he always carried with him and had had to pawn in the days when he had had to work as a porter in Bucharest... In his narration everything acquired a legendary character and seemed to point to the hand of Providence.”
Moreover, Baumann writes: “He had a penetrating eye for his interlocutor’s origins and way of thinking; a single encounter sometimes enabled him to reconstruct an entire biography and spiritual history.”
Unfortunately, Baumann’s Erinnerungen contains very few concrete reminiscences, but mostly general and evidently many-times-processed impressions. Whether this reflected a respect for his friend’s reserve – a reserve that seems to stand in an unfathomably paradoxical relation to an urgent wish to communicate – or some discomfort of Baumann’s own, the book left me with the impression of a vast reservoir of perception and knowledge, now, alas, forever inaccessible. That is partly the reason for this book, which is something like a reconstruction of a lost work of art with different materials. Obviously, I don’t have the same experiences that Celan had, nor the same keenness and capacity of mind, but the incidents I am telling here are the kind of thing I think he might have found significant. My life and world as it might have appeared to that penetrating eye. Maybe it’s just an obsession. But after all one lives only one brief life and must decide what is important. I can’t help hoping that if I could reconstruct his way of seeing it could be useful to us all.
At any rate, following is the full account of the interview as I remembered it in 1980, when I did not have access to my earlier papers. I have corrected two or three details from the earlier accounts, as there is no point in repeating mistakes. From the letter I think some things in this later version are out of order, but that probably does not matter much. And the reader will note that whatever tricks my memory may have played on me, it did not cause me to suppress the one detail that seems least in harmony with the view I take of him: his dismissal of the subject of the Hasidim.
* * *
He was pacing in front of the college gate, looking at the ground, a rather short, stocky man in his late forties, wearing a dark suit, holding the copy of his book over his heart, with the title – Fadensonnen – displayed. After a moment’s hesitation, we shook hands. He led me into the building, to his office, a high-ceiled room lined with plain wooded shelves full of books; he put the book down on the desk with a matter-of-fact gesture, and seated himself behind the desk. The interview began. After a question or two he knew that I was the dissertation student of whom Heinz Politzer had spoken to him the previous summer. “He’s not a bad man,” he said, with a smile that might have been amusement at my attempted duplicity, or enjoyment of his own quickness in finding me out, or both. I had assumed that we would spend some time discussing my translations, but he had sent them to a friend in America who knew English better than he did. Someone else had already translated a good deal of his work into English, including one entire book. That was a disappointment to me; on the other hand he expressed regret that I had not come to see him read. “I couldn’t,” I replied. Did I have any questions about the poems? My abysmal lack of preparedness was revealed to me. I did not have a list of questions, I had not even thought of one question to ask him, it was a wonder I had thought to bring a pad of paper. Hastily I tried to think of questions. I sought his confirmation of my interpretation of a poem or two from Fadensonnen. He smiled and shook his head: that was not what he meant. Still, he would look at it again. I received the impression that he regarded language as something very concrete and quickly became suspicious of abstract or symbolic interpretations. He had wanted that latest book to be something slightly contraband; he had wanted the poems to be opaque, to offer resistance, a “Gegenüber.” He asked me whether I wrote poetry myself. “Yes,” I answered, “but not enough.” He said that English was a better language for poetry than German, it had more distinctive names for things, like the word I had used to translate one of his compounds (Napfschnecke): “limpet.” He liked that word because it was only a name. But he admitted that such words as “Fruchtboden (placenta, literally fruit-ground)” are also metaphors. I said that English was frustrating because it lacked a certain syntactic tension, whereas German – “Das Griechische im Deutschen?” he supplied, referring perhaps, I thought, to the concept of the German language held by Hölderlin and Heidegger. He spoke of something he called “Verwerfungen” – a geological term meaning fault or displacement – and said that this, this kind of shift of meaning, was what interested him in poetry. I mentioned the geological metaphor of “the crystal in the habit of your silence.” “So you noticed that,” he confirmed, evidently pleased. “My father is a geologist,” I said. There was an awkward pause. There had been one before that – or was it after? – when we were speaking of “Matière de Bretagne,” and he said that this poem was connected with an earlier poem, “Bretonischer Strand (Breton Shore).” Immediately that poem appeared on some screen at the back of my head; it ends: “the rust-red heather up there,/ where the world happened to us.”
And I guessed, too, which lines he meant in “Matière de Bretagne”: “Dry, stranded,/ the bed behind you, reed-choked its hour.”. I could not say anything. We spoke of the cultural situation in Germany. I mentioned a book of poems by a younger writer (Peter Handke, Die Aussenwelt der Innenwelt der Aussenwelt) who I thought had been influenced by him; he looked pleased and said the book was amusing. He asked me about that play by Grass, Davor. I said that the play was horrible. He noticed that I had something against the author and said, a little defensively, that they were close friends; didn’t I think that Grass’s first novel was a major work? “I don’t like him,” I said, already uncertain whether I was saying it because it was true or because I didn’t want to back down. It touched me that he seemed concerned about my opinion. We also talked about literary criticism. I found myself saying, in the flat tone of a sullen child, “I don’t like philology.” He protested, said I must read Maurice Blanchot and Vladimir Markov. It was at some point during this conversation in his office – I do not remember the exact order in which things were said – that he stated, without transition: “Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes.” I looked up, puzzled; he repeated, “Every poem is the anti-computer, even the one the computer writes.” I wrote it down. We spoke briefly of rock poetry. I asked if he had heard any songs by Bob Dylan, he said no, I offered to send him some, they would certainly interest him, there was perhaps even a certain kinship. He said that I should not send him any records, as he did not own a record player, he did not listen to much music, and I said I would send him the lyrics to a few songs. I told him I was interested in folk songs, I myself sang and played guitar a little. He gave me a look that was hard to read, like the one I had caught after saying that my father was a geologist; probably he had caught a similar one after pointing out the connection between those two poems. If I had been moved by an impulse of offering, then in that look there was simultaneously acknowledgment and withdrawal. I felt mortified at my own self-exposure, wondered what had prompted me to say those things. I felt terribly stiff and lame. I could not think of anything to say to him and was afraid he would cut the interview short. Instead he suggested going for a walk. Before we left the office he gave me a copy of the little selection of his poetry that had come out the preceding fall, autographing it: “Für Beatrice Cameron zur freundlichen Erinnerung an Paul Celan, Paris, am 4. August 1969.” He also gave me one of a number copies that had been sent to him of a “Reader in German literature”; it contains four of his poems, “Todesfuge,” “Tenebrae,” Argumentum e Silentio,” and “Psalm,” with a commentary by Bernhard Böschenstein, who I gather was a friend of his. On the way out he said another thing to me, a propos of nothing: “There’s no cheating in poetry (In der Dichtung wird nicht gemogelt)” He repeated: “There’s no cheating in poetry.” It was evident that he was pleased with these words and wanted me to remember them.
Close by the college he pointed out to me the house, very similar to the other houses in its block, where Rilke’s one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, had been written. He said that book was one of the major reasons for his coming to Paris. (Someone else who talked with him reported this too.) I asked him who he felt had been his greatest literary influences, and he told me two names but added hastily, “But don’t publish that.” What he had taken from one of the named masters was mainly “an ethic of writing.” But these are not exactly “influences”; the contact with them is always critical. He objected to those who think that all literature derives from literature, like the critic who thought the title of one of his poem, “Ich weiss,” was a quotation from Else Lasker-Schüler! “These things aren’t literary, you know that yourself.” “Yes.”
He wanted to know whether people knew about him in America and said he had thought of visiting the country. He expressed disappointment in the reaction of some critics to his latest book. They had said the aesthetic construction was not as good as in his earlier work: “Aber ich schere mich zum Teufel um die aesthetische Konstruction!” He had, I noticed, changed one preposition in a common German idiom, and thereby radically altered the meaning. What he had meant to say, evidently, was, “I don’t give a damn for the aesthetic construction,” but it came out like “I go to hell for the aesthetic construction.” It was one more warning. And yet: just then, I think, I noticed that from his form there radiated a kind of dark endurance, the words “a troglodytic strength” occurred to me.
We spoke of various critics who had written on him. Not many seemed to have found favor in his sight. He disliked especially the idea that once a poem is written anyone else can say as well as the poet what it means: “Das ist doch Besserwisserei!” (that is a know-it-all attitude). The way he said “Besserwisserei” – not very loudly but with great force. Yet he conceded that while the poem is a unique event, “when it stands in the void it again can mean many things (im Leeren stehend, wird es wieder vieldeutig).” He was uncomfortable with the popularity of the “Todesfuge”: “It has become an alibi-poem for many.” A composer who was a friend of Erika’s had asked me to ask him if he had received the tape of his setting of the “Todesfuge.” He had, but had never played the tape, because he did not have a tape player. He was not enthusiastic about the musical settings of his work, and denied that the “fugue” composition of the “Todesfuge” was intended: “Das habe ich einfach heruntergeschrieben.” He also did not like it that someone had recently called him a “modern classic.” And yet he had repulsed my interpretation of a line from Fadensonnen – “necronymous long before my time” – which I thought meant to protest just that! One critic he mentioned favorably, whom I had not read yet – James Lyons. I looked up Lyons’ work years later and could not understand why he had recommended it, unless perhaps for its absolute discretion; it told me very little. He did not like Horst Peter Neumann’s book, perhaps because Neumann had been one of those who criticized his latest poems. At some point it was on the tip of my tongue to say, “The critic must also earn his bread.” But I felt that to him one had better not say this. I began to feel desperate and finally exclaimed, “I shall never understand!” He said, “You mustn’t take it that way. You are attentive. I am only trying to give you some pointers (Ihnen einige Lichter aufzustecken).” I remember his voice especially well from that moment: it was not very deep, but full of nuances, he could imply a great deal with a slight change of inflection, his gestures were the same way. It seems to me that it was then that he gestured across the street and said, still in a tone of great kindness, “Do you see that blind girl? I often see her. She is attentive.” And sure enough, there was a blind girl crossing the street opposite the café where we were now sitting, a girl of about the same height and coloring as myself. An eerie feeling took hold of me; the light around the café table turned cold. “This is not life,” something in me said frantically. “This is a scene from Malte Laurids Brigge.”
We spoke, again, of the cultural scene. He had been to London recently and found that the cultural level there had sunk greatly. What had gone on there, he said, seemed like a renewal at first, but it had turned out to be a leveling-down. There was a silence, in which I felt that he was afraid. I too was afraid, with part of my fear disguising itself as boredom: had I come all this way to talk to a great poet only to hear this?
He was speaking now of contemporary French literature; it had not influenced him deeply. Certainly, on coming to Paris and admiring their literary technique he had said to himself, “You have to be able to do that too.” But at that point something else was happening for him, besides the words he was saying to this visitor. He was looking slightly away from me, his hand making a nervous gesture as if left to itself. In my mind something said in a horrified whisper: He is insane.
From something I had said he knew that I knew Russian, and sometime later he mentioned that a good Russian translation of Dante had been made in Paris by a Russian emigre named Boris Zaitsev; he would write down the title for me. He took the pencil and paper and wrote, in Russian script, “Bozhestvennaja Tragedia” – Divine Tragedy.
It was like a knife falling through my brain from very high up, a flash that short-circuited all my means of expression. Several thoughts occurred to me. One was that as the Divine Comedy was a poem of universal salvation, so the Divine Tragedy must be a poem of universal damnation. Another was that if an allusion to my name was intended, it was sadly mistaken; I had never made anyone happy. Another was that for a great poet, it was not a very original thing to say. (Fear in the guise of boredom, again.) And finally I thought, again: he is insane. Did he know, even, that he had written that? Should I point it out to him? Or would that make matters worse, like calling to a sleepwalker? Silence seemed the safest course, though I despised myself for my cowardice. But I was utterly unable to speak or make any motion. The unbearable moment lasted until he motioned to the waiter, paid, and said to me, “Gehn wir.” The test was over. I had failed, but it was over.
It was – the comparison may have occurred to me even in the moment – like that moment in Lord Jim when the hero stands before the strained bulkhead on a ship full of sleeping steerage passengers and seees that it will give way, the ship will sink, and there are not enough lifeboats, and he breaks, his courage gives way, without waking anyone he heads for the lifeboats. He spends the rest of his life in futile acts of unnecessary heroism, trying to make up for the one moment in which he was weighed and found wanting. I may have thought, too, of Parzival in the scene where he is confronted amid much courtly pomp with the suffering Anfortas and fails to answer the question – “What ails thee?” – that might have broken the spell. Like the fourth child in the Passover seder (some think the two stories are related), I did not know what to ask.
We were walking along the street again. Whether I was silent or whether I answered mechanically to some questions he put, my mind was on the fact that the most significant moment of the most significant encounter of my life had just passed, and I had not been able to respond, I had failed. What was going to become of me now, what was I going to do for the rest of my existence? Halfway down the block he said to me, “I wrote ‘tragedy’ instead of ‘comedy’ there, did you see it?” In his voice there was a note of hurt and disappointment. “Yes, I saw it,” I admitted, feeling now in addition to everything else the shame of having assumed that he did not know what he was doing, when obviously he did. But again I was unable to speak further.
We were approaching a bookstore; he wanted to see whether they had the French original of a work which he had translated into German. It was by the same friend to whom he had sent my translations, and he thought it would interest me. But in front of the bookstore I stopped in my tracks and said, “I don’t want to.” We faced each other for a moment. “You don’t want to go in there with me?” I shook my head. He saw that I was in distress and led me further without comment. It had occurred to me that if the bookseller had the book, it would have to be bought. This prospect had revealed to me a new kind of greed in my relation to him, the greed of someone who wants to be provided her. This impulse, excruciatingly shameful, was so strong that I could not have purchased the book in his presence. Perhaps a resentment of the literary world in which our status was so unequal, was also part of it.
After those two episodes – I am not sure which came first – the worst was over; if memory serves me right, he seemed more at ease during the second part of the interview than during the first. We spoke again of literary matters. He said (then, or earlier) that the poem was “ein Sprechen” (a speaking) – that is, I supposed he meant to say, primarily communication. He said that he did not think one could use rhyme any more, unless thematically; what was my opinion? I thought of a poem partly inspired by him, and written in rhyme, but said only, “I don’t know.” “No,” he said, “I don’t think so.” He did not sound happy about it. But it was clear that he enjoyed being a celebrated poet. It came out in the way he talked about someone who had published some English translations of his work in Japan: “I did not give my permission, because I think he is a bad translator, but I’m not going to prosecute.” He seemed amused, as when he had detected my underhandedness before. I tried to describe the poetry scene in Berkeley, where all sorts of people were willing to get up and read the most terrible stuff, in order to think of themselves as poets. “It is something, after all!” he said. I felt his enjoyment of the power he had which made such a gulf between us (though of course that very power had also attracted me, I was not being logical): no, we could not laugh together at those amateurs! I fell silent, as if rebuked. Later we spoke of a professor known to us both, who had (though I didn’t mention this) cut to pieces in seminar my paper on Mandel’shtam. He expressed a dislike for this person, and to my own mortification some incoherent words burst out of me, to the effect that this man had done me some harm when I was off my guard. This same professor was the author of a book of poetry, which Celan did not care for very much: “He is a frustrated poet (ein verhinderter Dichter),” he said with a smile of mild malice in which I was invited to join this time. But I could not. “I am also a verhinderter Dichter,” I exclaimed involuntarily. After that remark I could not look at him for a while, so I do not know what he thought of it.
We spoke of different authors, those he liked – Tsvetayeva, Mandel’shtam, Michaux, his friend in America had recommended Laura Riding – and those he dismissed as “nicht gut” – Brodsky, Vosnesensky, Yevtushenko, Akhmatova (to my surprise), and Pasternak, whom he resented especially for saying that the Jews should convert to Christianity. He mentioned with disfavor a Christian interpretation of one of his poems, and said I should not pay any attention to the quasi-Christian ending of Blok’s “The Twelve,” which he had translated from the Russian. Yet he did not seem eager to be characterized as a religious Jew either. He had gone to Hebrew school at his father’s insistence, but it had not meant much to him: “Ich war Kommunist!” As for the Hasidic stories, he had seen them for the first time in Paris, in a bookseller’s window next to a work by Freud which had interested him. We agreed in our enthusiasm for Emily Dickinson.
At some point I started to say something about certain things – almost “signs” – which I had seen before the interview. I was surprised to find myself bringing up the subject, and still more surprised at the listening alertness in his “Ja?” which encouraged me to continue. I was going to say something about the old woman at the hotel, but could not bring myself to mention the Star of David. Sensing, perhaps, that I was not being open, he changed the subject.
He led me into the courtyard of a grey stone house which was perhaps elegantly built, perhaps he simply wanted to show me something he found beautiful, although I was concentrating so hard on trying to understand his intention that I could not really look at it. And then we crossed a bridge onto the Île de la Cité and walked through some dark streets which he said were the North African Jewish quarter. I noticed some pro-Israel slogans chalked up on the walls. I asked him some question about them, feeling uneasy, because at that time I had the usual universalist reservations about the state of Israel and also could not see a necessary connection between the state of Israel and what he was trying to do in his poems; but I sensed that it would not be a good idea to say that to him. As we were crossing the bridge back from the Île de la Cité, he pointed toward a statue I could dimly perceive in the distance. “That is Ste. Geneviève,” he said. “She saved the city from the Huns.” “When was that?” “Damals” (then), he replied, with a smile that was pure Mozart.
The summer day had become twilight; we were returning toward our point of departure. He was walking a little ahead of me through the blue dusk, when a darkhaired young man, taller than he and not especially refined in appearance, came striding along and jostled him. Then, apologizing, the stranger laid his hand on the poet’s arm. The latter, without lifting his head, removed the hand from his arm as though it were something inanimate, a branch in the forest that had struck him, and walked on. My heart smote me: that was the gesture of one for whom the human was almost no longer human, for whom any apology from this world would come too late.
One of the last things he said to me was that I should not pay too much attention to his latest book; it was something that walked the edge (etwas Randgängerisches). In his look as he spoke these words, in the apologetic tone of his voice, I thought I read some acknowledgment of all that had horrified and humiliated me in that book, and that had placed so much between us that was impossible to speak of, and equally impossible not to feel. He said that I should write to him from America, and send him more translations; he would be glad to follow the progress of my work. A last untoward thing happened: we were standing at the entrance to the Metro, which he planned to take to where he lived, and he asked if I wanted to take the Metro also. In a voice that sounded hard and frivolous, I said that I was not in the mood for the Metro; I would take a taxi back to the hotel. It was the rebellion of fatigue; I had been ill recently, had spent several hours on my feet after a day of travel, had not had time for lunch before the interview; but this reminded me that there had doubtless been a time when he had walked much further with much less inclination; I felt like Marie Antoinette. Perhaps, also, the underground had some symbolism for me at the moment, or the emotional strain of the interview had been too much and I wanted to get out of his presence as fast as possible, though I still felt disappointed that he did not ask to see me again the second day of my stay in Paris. Were we to shake hands again? We were. At the last moment I told myself that after all perhaps it was not final, I could come back another year, he would still be there.
I took the taxi back to the hotel, went upstairs and shut the door behind me, and put my hands to my head while the floor tilted and, for a moment, a horror of great darkness descended; words boiled up in my mind which are best left unwritten.
After a while I thought about what to do the next day. I picked up the phone and called the home of a friend whom I had visited in Paris six or seven years before. Her mother answered. She remembered me. No, Madeleine was not in Paris; she had married and was living in Madison, Wisconsin. And I, was I married? Tout le monde ne se marie pas. Not everybody gets married.
I spent the next day wandering around Paris alone. I took a picture of the house where Malte Laurids Brigge was written. I went back to the bookstore. They didn’t have the collection Celan had translated, they had another one by the same author, which I bought. I went back to the Ile de la Cité but could not find the wall with the Israeli slogans again. I noticed that all the kiosks that day seemed to be featuring stories about Napoleon and pictures of him. I did not remember that it was my parents’ anniversary – August 5, 1969. In the evening I wrote that letter to Brigitte and Gertrud.
Then I was back in Berkeley, with Ireni and Luke and Gabriel. Months afterward Ireni told me: “You looked as if you had seen a ghost.”