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This review is taken from PN Review 108, Volume 22 Number 4, March - April 1996.

LEGIBLE, FIRST AND LAST JOHN FELSTINER, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale University Press.)

Paul Celan was a poet for whom every experience 'was legible, first and last'. His life was dominated from the outset by a confusion of languages and cultures that spread faultlines into the heart of his creativity. A European Jew who felt compelled 'to live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe', every one of his poems charted the disturbances (linguistic, cultural, sodal, literary and political) wreaked on the present by what he diagnosed as a neglect of history and its burden. His battle with art and the German language - both Muttersprache and Mordersprache- took him into realms where few have been, leaving paths which are difficult for others to follow. His influences, from Hölderlin to Mandelshtam, Heine to Ungaretti, become his interlocutors and pathfinders for the poetry he saw as 'paths on which language gets a voice; they are encounters, paths of a voice to a perceiving Thou'. This lonely and always uncertain act of initiating some sort of communication was the goal towards which each of his poems moved. That this act became more perilous and lonelier the longer he lived, is clear from the progression of his poetry. His early work, at times derivative and piercingly lyrical is transformed over time, culminating in his final (posthumous) collections in which the language becomes more and more tortured, misshapen and estranged. The attempt to make some sort of intervention, to reach this 'du', the predicate of all communication, became harder and harder ...


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