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Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale Nota Bene) Paperback – 1 Feb 2001

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (1 Feb 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300089228
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300089226
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.1 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 519,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Felstiner is a most sensitive translator of Celan's work, and a perfect guide to its influences." -- Carole Angier, New Statesman and Society

"Felstiner is clear, intelligent and quietly erudite ... His translations are sensitive to the infinite nuances of Celan's formidably introspective verse. This will surely remain the definitive work on him." -- Daniel Johnson, The Times

"John Felstiner ... has done a great service to Celan and to his readers ... I cannot imagine a better treatment of the subject." -- John Banville, The Observer

"John Felstiner's book is of inestimable value to anyone wanting to read Celan with understanding." -- Michael Hofmann, London Review of Books

"The book is at once a biography of Celan, a study of his poems, and an account of the author's struggle with translation." -- Robert Hass, Washington Post Book World

"This volume has been long and justly awaited. It is the finest approach to the Celan-world so far available." -- George Steiner, Times Literary Supplement

About the Author

John Felstiner teaches English and Jewish studies at Stanford University. He is also the translator of Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Because Paul Celan lived—or rather, survived—through the poetry he wrote, this book tries to give a sense of his life's work. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By lexo1941 on 20 Dec 2007
Format: Paperback
John Felstiner's book on Paul Celan is an extraordinary act of critical sympathy and witness. Celan is a difficult poet, even if you know German, but Felstiner's achievement is to demonstrate that the difficulty is (for one thing) not all that difficult, and (also) the poet's entitlement. The extended assessment of Celan's most famous poem 'Todesfuge' (Death Fugue) is a lesson in patient and knowledgeable commentary (it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that when the poem first appeared, in a Romanian translation, it was called 'Death Tango'). Felstiner shows, with exemplary tact and discretion, how that poem's celebrated imagery is in fact nothing but literal truth.

Much of Celan is so tough to translate that I feel it's almost presumptuous of me to criticise Felstiner's translations, and yet I think he sometimes stumbles against the fierce and arduous wordplay of some of Celan's later stuff; but then, who wouldn't. Celan had a life marked by appalling loss and tragedy and misunderstanding, and Felstiner respects his subject's occasional failures of nerve; the gossippy bit of me wants to know exactly what it meant that Celan was occasionally 'violent', but then again, the man's parents were killed by the Nazis, we should really cut him some slack...

Read this book, by all means. But read the poems. And if you can only read one of the two (why should that be?), read the poems.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By J. N. Valente VINE VOICE on 16 Jun 2006
Format: Paperback
To my great regret I came to the poetry (and the life story behind so much of it) of Paul Celan somewhat late in life, unpardonably late, even. But from the moment I did I knew that this was not just the Poet of the Holocaust - he was an unparalled poetic genius in the second half of he last century. This is a personal and totally biased opinion, so go read the poems, surely they speak for themselves. Yes they do.

But in this book we have contextualization, translations almost dissected (mostly in the German to English angle) and biographical notes along the way.

Paul Celan was himself a polyglot and a prolific translator. Born in a Romania that has changed borders to a jewish family that did not escape the fate of most others in Eastern Europe, eventually a French citizen, one of the great poets and shapers of the German language of all times.

His legacy is tremendous. His suicide perhaps a powerful statement of guilt or alienation - perhaps something entirely different that need not be dwelt on to enjoy the work.

Though "enjoy" seems to me to be an entirely personal approach.

He leads us to a labyrinth. To the depths of human cruelty. But he can see that all human passions have great surviving power.

Maybe not just after witnessing and enduring their extremes can one hope to reconcile itself with the humanity and the passions within.

The book is extraordinarily well-researched and written in a style I'd call 'academic but unassuming'. It will leave you with a longing to read more from Celan. That alone would justify its writing, apart from all its many merits.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 5 reviews
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Black Milk of Daybreak 26 Nov 2006
By Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Paul Celan was born into what soon became the wrong place and time. His family were German-speaking Jews from the eastern reach of the Austrian Empire. They lived in Czernowitz, capital of the Bukovina region, which passed to Romania just before Celan's birth in 1920. After a nine-month visit to his uncle in Paris where he was exposed to the Surrealists' influence in 1938, then his return to Czernowitz where his studies were interrupted by Soviet and then German occupation in 1940 and 1941, after forced labor in Romania's western mountains, his parents' deportation and death in German-occupied Ukraine, after the Red Army's return in 1944, Celan left home for Bucharest and then Vienna, where he first attracted recognition as a German-speaking poet, and in 1948 he settled in Paris. There he found a haven of sort at the Ecole Normale Superieure, where he taught German language and literature to generations of students (some of whom later contributed to his posthumous fame) and pursued his vocation as a poet in exile, estranged from his German mother tongue and survivor of a world that no longer was.

Coming from a homeland that hardly existed anymore, writing for a German audience that he did not live among or trust, residing in France yet undervalued there, Paul Celan's native tongue itself was the only nation he could claim. Yet his relation to the German language was itself problematic, for the Nazis had abused and contaminated the words that once belonged to Goethe and Holderlin. Celan's austere idiom, mindful of death and horror, is rooted in his struggle to realize--by way of uninnocent language--"that which happened", the understatement he used to designate events of 1933-45. As he put it when receiving the City of Bremen's prize for his work in 1958, his language had to "pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, `enriched' by all this."

The biographer gives detailed accounts of several episodes that took a heavy toll on the poet's sensitive feelings: the accusation of plagiarism that accompanied the publication of his first volume in France and that was to resurface later in his carrier; his almost paranoid belief that Nazism was again on the rise in post-war Germany and that Neo-Nazis were orchestrating a machination against him ("you can hardly imagine how things really look again in Germany," he wrote to a friend in 1960.) Paul Celan refused to submit a poem to Martin Heidegger for a Festschrift on his seventieth birthday, mindful of the philosopher's past complicity with Nazism and his enduring failure to recant after the war, but he nonetheless signed the Black Forest hermit's guestbook "with a hope for a coming word in the heart" during a visit to Todtnauberg in 1967.

Recognition came late, and for much of his life was confined to the German-speaking world. When a European Jewish poet's turn came for the Nobel Prize in 1966, the more accessible Nelly Sachs got it, not him. His bouts of depression and psychic distress led to several hospitalizations. The poet concluded his life on the 20th of April 1970 by jumping from the Pont Mirabeau into the Seine, drowning himself. On his desk, a biography of Holderlin was found opened to an underlined passage: "Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart."

John Felstiner devotes a whole chapter to Celan's most well-known poem, Todesfuge. Although similarities with Picasso's Guernica or Yeats's `Easter 1916' come to mind, no work of art has exposed the exigencies of its time so radically as this one, whose speakers--Jewish prisoners tyrannized by a camp commandant--start off with the words: " Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken sie abends"--"Black milk of daybreak we drink it at dusk"--and evoke the fate that awaits them: "Wir schaufeln ein Grab in der Lueften da liegt man nicht eng" --"we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped."
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A biography which examines Celan's Jewish identity in order to better grasp the poetry 22 Nov 2007
By Christopher Culver - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Much of Paul Celan's later poetry is hermetic, and acknowledge by many to be impossible to truly understand without knowledge of the poet's life. Nonetheless, for a long time English speakers had no biography of this influential modern poet. In PAUL CELAN: Poet, Survivor, Jew author John Felstiner covers the whole course of Celan's all-too-brief life, emphasizing the poet's Jewish identity above others. Besides a simple biography, Felsteiner also discusses a number of Celan's poems, which he himself has translated into English (the book assumes no knowledge of German), and also chronicles Celan's output of translations and his relationship to other (especially Jewish) poets.

For Felstiner, Paul Celan's feelings as a Jew play an important role throughout his poetry, but it seems especially important in the early and late periods over the middle. Celan began his mature career as an orphan whose parents perished in the death camps and who himself served forced labour in wartime Romania. This of course, providing the impetus for not only his famous "Todesfuge", *the* poem on the death camps, but also the imagery of much of his first acknowledged volume. In the last decade of Celan's life, on the other hand, the poet was gripped by paranoia that Germany was not sufficiently acknowledging its sins and that neo-Nazis were plotting against him. This, Celan as representative of a race that has not only suffered before but is still hunted today, Felsteiner sees as an important part of the late works.

If I give this biography only three stars, it is because I wish that there was more information about Celan's life and less exegesis of his poetry. Indeed, Celan's mental distress which sent him more than once to a psychiatric clinic is barely touched upon. Had Felsteiner split this into a more substantial biography and a separate work of criticism, the reader who wants to know about the whole of Celan's life would be better served. Nonetheless, for anyone trying to tackle Celan's poetry in English translation (e.g. Michael Hamburger's collection Poems of Paul Celan), this may be useful
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
John Felstiner's study of Paul Celan 18 Nov 2012
By LisaJansec - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am finding this book a rich, dense, rewarding study of this enigmatic, courageous and poignant poet. Neither purely a biography nor purely an anthology, this book combines some of both, with added insight into the art of translation - a topic I would not have sought out, but which Felstiner renders fascinating... Much underlining going on as I read. A book that cannot be rushed through, but which seduces the reader into deep contemplation.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Janie - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had the privilege of meeting the author to this book. John the author is So amazing and such a neat man! His book research took him on quite a journey! Totally amazing. The book is outstanding!! I recommend it to everyone to read!! So worth the time to read it!
Five Stars 5 July 2014
By Ben Cunningham - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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