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Felstiner translates Holocaust poet for American readers

STANFORD -- Although English Professor John Felstiner never met Paul Celan, he likes to think their paths may have crossed in Paris in the 1960s.

"I was there a great deal during those years and may have sat at the same cafe with him," Felstiner says of the celebrated poet. "Unfortunately, I didn't know enough about him at the time to look him up."

Felstiner has spent almost 20 years making up for that "regrettable lost opportunity," and his new literary biography of the man he describes as "Europe's most significant postwar poet" gives English-speaking readers their first comprehensive look at the Romanian-born, German-speaking Jew who has attracted such a devoted following overseas.

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale University Press) traces the life of Celan, born Paul Antschel in 1920, from his childhood in Romania, through the loss of his parents during the Holocaust, to his exile and eventual suicide in Paris in 1970. Felstiner draws on interviews with Celan's family and friends, unpublished letters and manuscripts, and extensive notes he took at the poet's personal libraries in Paris and at his farmhouse in Normandy.

"Celan lived through the printed word and he never forgot anything he read," Felstiner says. "By being patient and sifting through the thousands of books he had and the copious notes he made in endpapers and margins, I was able to find the sources and stimuli for many of his poems."

Felstiner first was attracted to Celan's work in 1977, when he began teaching a course at Stanford about the literature of the Holocaust. He had taken a year off in 1974 to teach at the Hebrew University in Israel, and when he returned to campus Felstiner launched a pilot course in Jewish studies. Discovering Celan's poetry marked a turning point in his teaching and in his personal life.

"He was above all a poet -- perforce and by choice a Jewish poet: that is, a poet and a Jew of his time, the two identities interpenetrating to such an extent that any other definition seems partial," Felstiner writes in the introduction to his book.

During a recent interview at his home on Salvatierra Street, Felstiner reflected on the experiences and personal realizations that enabled him to appreciate Celan's work when he finally was exposed to it.

"The groundwork probably dates from a trip to Prague in the summer of 1972," he says. "I took the Orient Express to Czechoslovakia, expecting to encounter a socialist country, and somehow ended up in the Jewish quarter of Prague, one of the most ancient Jewish settlements in the West, and many things began to dawn on me during that visit." There, Felstiner says, "I sensed for the first time a certain history tugging at me -- a literary and spiritual persisting in the face of persecution." As a Diaspora Jew, he felt both an affinity for, and a certain distance from, Celan's "often painful" themes.

"I was, in a sense, working out that tension in studying, translating, and teaching Celan, and the book is imprinted by my own beliefs and background. Some critics may think that I have pushed the Jewish presence too much, but I think I had my finger on Celan's nerve center."

In the course of researching his book and translating Celan's poetry, Felstiner became friends with Celan's widow, the French artist Gisèle de Lestrange, who gave him access to materials that had not been seen by other scholars.

"I can see her having dinner with us at that table in November 1984," Felstiner says, sweeping his hand toward the dining room. "Europeans who lived through the atrocities and horror of the middle of the century generally distrust younger Americans because they think we're immune and innocent, but for some reason we really hit it off. It probably helped that my own French is good."

Felstiner's expertise in contemporary British and American poetry, and his experience as an accomplished translator (he is the author of Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, published by Stanford University Press in 1980) are reflected in his new volume. He divides it into three sections -- "Stricken," "Seeking," and "Reality," which he says represent three distinct periods of Celan's life -- as he chronicles the poet's troubled work.

Although Celan is not widely read or studied in this country because he wrote in a German that became increasingly complex as he got older, Felstiner thinks the fact that Celan continued to write in the face of considerable challenges, including his deteriorating mental health, should attract readers.

"Maybe the question shouldn't be, 'Why isn't his work better known?' but, 'Why should we want to know it?"' says Felstiner. "I think the answer has to do with the persistence of his speech, and through his speech, the persistence of hope. He kept on writing and speaking his mind as a poet, right through to the end -- despite all his agony and depression."

Felstiner will be traveling to New York, Boston, the Northwest and Southwest to promote Paul Celan, and will discuss the book at Printers Inc. in Palo Alto at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 31. He also will play rare recordings of Celan reading from his own work at that presentation.

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Paul Celan is devoid of literary jargon and fully accessible to an English-speaking audience. Felstiner often takes several pages -- and in one case, an entire chapter -- to explore individual poems. One that has attracted considerable attention is "Psalm":

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,

no one incants our dust.

No one.

Blessèd art thou, No One.

In thy sight would

we bloom.

In thy


A Nothing

we were, are now, and ever

shall be, blooming:

the Nothing-, the

No One's-Rose.


our pistil soul-bright,

our stamen heaven-waste,

our corolla red

from the purpleword we sang

over, O over

the thorn.

"The psalm, benediction, doxology, and prayer which this poem sounds like are undercut in breath-turnings, abysses opened beneath those ritual forms," Felstiner writes in his commentary. "But 'Psalm' can never, for this poet, purely and simply line up with the hymns of lament and praise that have comforted generation unto generation."


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