"Paul Celan" by John Felstiner

Paul Celan Poet, Survivor, Jew John Felstiner

Publication date:
08 Feb 2001
Yale University Press
368 pages: 203 x 127mm

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Paul Celan, Europe's most compelling postwar poet, was a German-speaking, East European Jew. His writing exposes and illumines the wounds that Nazi destructiveness left on language. John Felstiner's sensitive and accessible book is the first critical biography of Celan in any language. It offers new translations of well-known and little-known poems—including a chapter on Celan's famous "Deathfugue"—plus his speeches, prose fiction, and letters. The book also presents hitherto unpublished photos of the poet and his circle.

Drawing on interviews with Celan's family and friends and his personal library in Normandy and Paris, as well as voluminous German commentary, Felstiner tells the poet's gripping story: his birth in 1920 in Romania, the overnight loss of his parents in a Nazi deportation, his experience of forced labor and Soviet occupation during the war, and then his difficult exile in Paris. The life's work of Paul Celan emerges through readings of his poems within their personal and historical matrix. At the same time, Felstiner finds fresh insights by opening up the very process of translating Celan's poems.

To present this poetry and the strain of Jewishness it displays, Felstiner uncovers Celan's sources in the Bible and Judaic mysticism, his affinities with Kafka, Heine, Hölderlin, Rilke, and Nelly Sachs, his fascination with Heidegger and Buber, his piercing translations of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Mandelshtam, Apollinaire. First and last, Felstiner explores the achievement of a poet surviving in his mother tongue, the German language that had passed, Celan said, "through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech."

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

Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award


Chosen as a best book of 1995 by Village Voice


Chosen as a best book of 1995 by the Times Literary Supplement


Chosen as a best book of 1995 by the Philadelphia Inquirer


Chosen as a best book of 1995 by Choice magazine


"An important book. Celan is indeed a very great poet, Felstiner’s English translations of the poems are remarkably accurate and effective, and the argument of the book is both persuasive and informative."—Cyrus Hamlin, Yale University


"I have been eagerly awaiting this book. John Felstiner’s brilliant and illuminating talks and articles about Celan, with the translations of his poems which they incorporate, have been of great interest to me for the past several years; and now we are provided with the comprehensive study toward which these were working. Felstiner is that increasingly rare thing, a critic who loves his subjects and enables readers to share that love by guiding them into a deeper understanding of their resonances. This is especially valuable in the case of Celan, whose work is at once so inward and such a quintessential artifact of history."—Denise Levertov


"Felstiner’s book is, on every level, superb: it is essential to anyone interested in the work of one of the greatest and most moving Jewish poets of our turbulent time."—Elie Wiesel, Boston University


"Felstiner has done the impossible--integrated Celan’s life and poetry without stinting either. The full weight and agony of the poet’s fate as Jew and survivor are captured. Felstiner translates with care and caring the major poems and makes them accessible by a commentary that scrupulously records the occasions to which they are linked and the literary allusions they encode. The scholar becomes a poet writing about the greatest of the post-war German poets."—Geoffrey Hartman, Yale University


"This is an absolutely essential study of one of the genuinely great, and in so many ways enigmatic, poets of our time, a literary biography in the best sense, informative and penetratingly interpretive. Felstiner’s fine translations of Celan’s often very difficult poetry arise from, and are worked seamlessly into, the stuff of his chronicle, and they are of immense value in their own right. A book of this kind has been long overdue: this authoritative instance of it now appears to have been well worth waiting for."—John Hollander