Posts Tagged ‘Friedrich Hölderlin’

Paul Celan, John Felstiner, and the soul of beauty

Sunday, October 21st, 2012
Share

Some weeks ago, we discussed Simone Weil‘s comment that “distance is the soul of beauty.” At that time, Andrew Shields wrote to the Book Haven:

Back in the spring of 1988, several students and I (already graduated but still hanging around) spent several evenings at [author and translator] John Felstiners house, reading, translating, and discussing [Paul] Celan poems. The most memorable discussion was about “The Vintagers,” in which we discovered ourselves, as it were, as readers of the poem. Our experience of the poem (a “beautiful” experience) was connected to our distance from it, which we found characterized in the poem as the distance between those who make tears into wine and those who later drink it. That seemed like a figure of Celan the poet as wine-maker and ourselves as reader/drinkers.

I wrote to John, asking if we could republish his translation of “Die Winzer” – so many know little of the German-language poet’s work besides his “Todesfuge.” In his 1995 literary biography, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, John says the 1953 elegy “asks even more attentiveness than usual” in Celan’s oeuvre.  The poem, he says, “ingrains autumn into itself: an elegy and at the same time a meditation on poetic process, impelled by rhythmic repetition.”

Here it is:

The Vintagers

They harvest the wine of their eyes,
they crush out all of the weeping, this also:
this willed by the night,
the night, which they’re leaning against, the wall,
thus forced by the stone,
the stone, over which their crook-stick speaks into
the silence of answers –
their crook-stick, which just once,
just once in fall,
when the year swells to death, swollen grapes,
which just once will speak right through muteness
down into the mineshaft of musings.

They harvest, they crush out the wine,
they press down on time like their eye,
they cellar the seepings, the weepings,
in a sun grave they make ready
with night-toughened hands:
so that a mouth might thirst for this, later –
a latemouth, like their own:
bent toward blindness and lamed –
a mouth to which the draught from the depth foams upward, meantime
heaven descends into waxen seas, and
far off, as a candle-end, glistens,
at last when the lip comes to moisten.

Scholars John and Mary Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

According to John, who is studying “creative resistance” during the Holocaust: “Despite this ever present ‘they’ in Celan, critics who are sure that ‘Die Winzer’ concerns the poetic process itself identify those who ‘harvest the wine of their eyes’ as poets taking on our pain and transforming it. Perhaps, but this disregards the people who first found voice in ‘Todesfuge,’ whose wartime suffering sifted through European earth. It’s they, a buried people, who are leaning against night in ‘Die Winzer,’ against the shooting wall, and who speak ‘into/the silence of answers.’ To say that ‘they’ are poets is off by a generation.”

Noting that an earlier draft of the poem was called “Die Menschen” (roughly, “The Humans”), John writes (and these excerpts don’t nearly do justice to the Felstiner’s expert biography), “The change from ‘The Humans’ to ‘The Vintagers’ added a pastoral irony, since in German Romantic poetry the Winzer figures as a rejoicing worker. In Hölderlin, ‘The vintager’s brave joyous cry/Rings pure on sun-warmed vineyard slopes.’ Closer to Celan is Isaiah‘s prophecy: ‘upon thy harvest the battle shout is fallen. … And in the vineyards there shall be no singing … no treader shall tread out wine in the presses’ (16:9-10). Desolation threatens the harvest and the song alike. …

She said it first.

“And shortly before writing ‘The Vintagers,’ Celan had read Heidegger on Hölderlin’s 1801 elegy ‘Bread and Wine,’ in which Dionysus goes between humankind (die Menschen) and ‘they,’ the gods. Celan marked Heidegger’s phrase, ‘poet in a destitute time: singing on the trace of the departed gods.’

“The Vintagers” corresponds in a score of words to “Bread and Wine” and still refutes it. The later poet does not invoke gods or the mystery of water being turned into wine or wine into the blood of redemption. When, in Celan, ‘they cellar the seepings, the weepings,/in a sun grave they make ready/with night-toughened hands,’ we are to think not of Dionysus’s priests or Jesus’ disciples but of people forced to dig their own graves.”

 

Nelly Sachs. Ever hear of her? Nobel poet finds new recognition.

Friday, March 16th, 2012
Share

Ever hear of Nelly Sachs? I hadn’t, either.

Sachs is one of the more neglected Nobel prizewinners (she was awarded in 1966), so I was glad for the opportunity to familiarize myself with her life and work at an event last week in the Stanford Libraries’ elegant Bender Room.  That, and a few new books (including the collection at left, published last year by Green Integer), should spur at least a small revival of her name. But perhaps, as is so often the case, the revival is already underway and I am confusing cause with effect.

The Berlin-born Jewish poet (1891-1970) fled with her mother after the Nazis took power, and sought refuge in Sweden, with the help of her friend (and eventually fellow Nobelist) Selma Lagerlöf.  Always of fragile health, her life was marked by breakdown, paranoia, hallucinations.  Her name as a poet pretty much began at 50, with her emigration. She supported herself and her mother with her translations.

Her biographer

The Bender Room event with champagne celebrated the publication of Aris Fioretos‘s Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis: An Illustrated Biography. The Swedish writer Fioretos described Nelly Sachs, in the postwar years, looking up at the crossing vapor trails in the sky and seeing first scissors, then a swastika; she was sure the airplanes were spying on her.  He suggested a bit of aural wordplay – “Sachs,” or “sax,” is Swedish for scissors.  She continued to write even while in a mental institution.

Axel Englund of Stockholm University said she revered Friedrich Hölderlin. He quoted her line “our bodies still sound with their mutilated music” – pretty much prefiguring  Adam Zagajewskis “Let Us Praise the Mutilated World,” no?

Someone read these lines of hers:

We stars, we stars
We wandering, glistening, singing dust –
Earth, our sister, has gone blind
Among the constellations of heaven –

He read excerpts from the letters.

The actor/director Andrew Utter, founder of L.A.’s Uranium Madhouse Theater read from her letters.  After his reading, he kindly gave me the xeroxed pages he had read. But several days later he faxed me this one, somehow overlooked in the handful he had given me.  On the page was this 1958 letter to her “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan“:

For me it is joy enough to have a few friends, but you understand me, dear poet – I still wanted something else. I still have to accustom myself to joy, too, after so much suffering, and when the Swedish poets awarded me their newly endowed poetry prize, I couldn’t take anything in and became quite confused, that I, a foreign-language refugee, should be given so much honor.

There is and was in me, and it’s there with every breath I draw, the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called. I believe in an invisible universe in which we mark out our dark accomplishment. …”

There the fading text on the faxed page disappeared in to the following, unsent page. I wonder what the rest of the letter said.

Celan replied to her of course, with his own poem, “Zürich, Zum Storchen” [Zurich, at the Stork Inn]. Here is a bit of it, in John Felstiner‘s translation:

Our talk was of your God, I spoke
against him, I let the heart
I had
hope:
for
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word –

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke toward the eye, I heard:

We
really don’t know, you know,
we
really don’t know
what
counts.

Antoine Jaccottet’s Le Bruit du Temps: Fresh air for French readers

Monday, February 13th, 2012
Share

Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them.  Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side.  Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke,  Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time.  It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses.

As I gaze over the offices teeming bookshelves, I notice an entire shelf of W.H. Auden in English.  He’s one of the house’s authors.  Le Mer et le Miroir … Auden in French? How does he come across?  It’s difficult, Antoine admits, for the French to “get” Auden’s sensibility.

He’s also published  Zbigniew Herbert in French, Lev Shestov‘s Athens and Jerusalem, the complete works of Isaac Babel, and Henry James‘s The Ambassadors.  Even Shakespeare‘s (cough, cough) Henry VIII.

Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place.  The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing.  Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown.  One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp).  The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month.  (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009).

A piece of old France

Le Bruit du Temps’ books by and about Mandelstam illustrate an underlying principle at the house:  Antoine publishes works that develop and deepen recurrent themes like a symphony.  In 2009, he published published Browning’s L’Anneau et le Livre, republished G.K. Chesterton‘s out-of-print 1903 Robert Browning (Chesterton’s first book), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Henry James‘s Sur Robert Browning. That’s probably more Browning than Elizabeth Barrett ever saw.

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review.  So how do people hear about books?  Often, they don’t, he says.

As I leave, Antoine gives me a little souvenir of my visit, the publishing house’s brand new Le Bruit du Temps, a slim and elegant volume, fresh from the press.  What could be more fitting?

He also shows me a rarely seen landmark as he shows me the door – at the back of the courtyard, between the buildings, in the soft sunlight of the late afternoon, the ancient Paris city walls of  Philippe Auguste, the oldest surviving city walls, about the time of the poet Marie de France.

Postscript on 3/16:  Nice mention on the University of Rochester’s “Three Percent” blog over here.

 

No more billets-doux, no more epistolary novels, no more Collected Letters

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
Share

Write a letter lately?  I haven’t either.

According to a story in the Associated Press, nobody else is, either:

For the typical American household these days, nearly two months will pass before a personal letter shows up.

The avalanche of advertising still arrives, of course, along with magazines and catalogs. But personal letters — as well as the majority of bill payments — have largely been replaced by email, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Well, not so.  We’re not likely to be able to retrieve them.  Such missives are likely to be harbored in defunct email systems on old computers.  I save a bunch seven-inch floppies with interviews on them, in hopes I’ll find a computer that can decode them.  Nothing like hard copies, even if I can’t lay my hands on them readily.

Voltaire wrote about 15,000 letters during his 83-year life.  In more recent times, C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of pen pals. His Collected Letters amount to thousands and thousands of pages. I reviewed the 1,800+ page third volume for the Washington Post here.

Lewis wrote everyone, including T.S. Eliot, the sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke, and the American writer Robert Penn Warren.  “Other letters were from cranks, whiners and down-and-out charity cases; he answered them all,” I wrote.

"...the oar to a galley slave..."

“The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave,” he wrote of the disciplined torture of writing letters for hours every day. He complained about the deterioration of his handwriting, the rheumatism in his right hand and the winter cold numbing his fingers. In the era of the ballpoint, he used a nib pen dipped in ink every four or five words.

Who, in the future, will have volumes of Collected that will be thicker than a slim paperback?

Beyond the prospect of no Collecteds, whole novels have been held together by letters – Laclos‘s Liaisons Dangereuses, for example, or, since we’ve mentioned Lewis, his  Screwtape Letters, or his Letters to Malcolm.  Or his friend Dorothy L. Sayers‘ mystery novel-in-letters Documents in the Case.  Or  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s Sorrows of Young Werther and Friedrich Hölderlin‘s Hyperion.

Beyond even that, letters provide pivotal revelations in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice.  Or in almost anything by Henry James.  The sudden realization, the catharsis, the flushed cheek…

Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita begins with a letter – the letter that tells of the death, in childbirth, of the title character at age 16.  If people read it more carefully, they would have a different view of the “sexy” novel.  (Also if they read between the lines of Humbert Humbert’s self-serving pronouncements.  But without early training on all those day-after-Christmas letters and learning to write the evasive “thank yous,” how would we learn the most subtle nuances of writing at all?)

The very act of letter-writing consumed hours and hours of people’s time.  At Stanford, a whole project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, has evolved from the effort to track the to-and-fro correspondence during the time of the Enlightenment.  It turns out that we can map coteries, friendships, cultural epicenters, and famous journeys through letters.

AP again:

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, explained Newbold.

“Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published,” he said. “Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle.” …

But Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”

“Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents” and letters, he said. “Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people’s mail.”

What about all those books that describes when a pile of a love letters are ceremoniously burned?  Or returned to the beloved in a ribbon-tied packet after a break-up?  Not quite the same as pressing a “delete” button, is it?  However, that sort of rite-of-passage has been on the downswing since the invention of the xerox machine.

“Letters mingle souls,” as John Donne wrote, but in a wholly different way than what is commonplace on the worldwide web.  Despite my sentimentality, however, I, for one, am not sure I’d trade pages on cream-colored vellum for the zip and brevity and immediacy of quickly typed “Sure. Will do.” on my Mac.

 

Poet Fatima Frutos honors her grandmother and Irena Sendler with her prize

Monday, May 30th, 2011
Share

Congratulations, Fatima (Photo: Martin Roberts)

“She awoke without rancor thanks to poetry. She knew how to cuddle me with verse-like hands and swaddle me with stanzas by great writers.”

That’s what award-winning poet Fatima Frutos said, speaking of her grandmother, who brought her up while reciting poems she had learned by heart, because she could neither read nor write.  The Jerusalem Post has an article about here; the Reuters article is here.  Frutos beat more than 200 international poets to win the 2011 Kutxa Ciudad de Irun Poetry Prize, Spain’s second biggest poetry prize.

The award honors her  collection, Andromeda Encadenada (Andromeda Enchained), commemorating “unsung heroines” including Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Sendler is hardly unsung – I’ve written about her here and here and here and oh so many other places, like the History News Network here.

“The visibility of such women needs to be vindicated, the ones who have been deemed secondary, who have had no recognition but deserve that and so much more,” Frutos said.

“I start out with the anecdotes and build on them with lyricism and poetry, to vindicate them verse by verse,” she said. “It’s not just about giving visibility to invisible women, but also to 20th-Century geniuses whose work has yet to shake up 21st-century consciences.”

The volume also honors eminent Italian 17th-Century painter Artemisia Gentileschi and Spanish 19th-Century writer Carolina Coronado, who both struggled to achieve recognition in fields then dominated by men.  It also celebrates Carl von Weizsaecker, a 20th-Century nuclear physicist who later became a philosopher, German 18th-century mystical writer Novalis, and 19th-century lyrical poet (and another German) Friedrich Hölderlin.  (Both Reuters and the Jerusalem Post manage to misspell Hölderlin … but then, they also misidentify Novalis as a philosopher.)

Congratulations, Irena.

But her main inspiration as a writer has been Miguel Hernández, known as the “people’s poet,” fought Francisco Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War and was later sentenced to death for his poetry. The sentence was commuted to a long prison term, but Hernández died in prison at the age of 31 in 1942 .

“Hernandez has inoculated us with the blessed poison of poetry so that we may grow without rancour, but with the strength to vindicate social justice,” said Frutos, who works as a local government equality officer.  Her grandmother recited Hernandez’s poems to her from childhood.

In an awards ceremony on May 28, Frutos dedicated her price to her grandmother.  “I am a poet because of her. It needs to be said that an illiterate woman who lived in poverty also knew how to raise an international award-winning poet.”

War, apocalypse, and René Girard

Sunday, December 27th, 2009
Share
girard

Photo: Francois Guillot / Getty Images AFP/Getty Images

Time to blow my own horn — or rather, I have another opportunity to toot René Girard’s.  My review of the French author’s Battling to the End, encapsulating Girard’s thinking of the history of human conflict and our current predicament, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle today — it’s here.

Introducing René Girard — for he is so little known on this side of the Atlantic that any article has to double as a general introduction — is no mean task.  Trying to encapsulate decades of his work, as well as discuss his current book, in about 700 words (a standard review length in the mainstream media nowadays) is downright formidable.  But René is worth the effort — few today have the courage to take on the grand récit, and his thinking is always provocative.  From my review:

“If we had been told 30 years ago that Islamism would replace the Cold War, we would have laughed … or that the apocalypse began at battling to end_webVerdun, people would have taken us for Jehovah’s Witnesses,” writes the Avignon-born octogenarian.

Fundamentalists, preoccupied with apocalypse, nevertheless grab the wrong end of the stick: “They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.”

After my article was in an editor’s hands, I sent the book to a friend, former NEA chairman Dana Gioia — rather surprisingly, his thoughts echoed mine, and he, too, was intrigued by the Girard’s chapter discussing poet Friedrich Hölderlin (as a Stanford sophomore, Gioia had studied German in Vienna).

My review is included in Sunday’s “Insight + Books” section — but the online version appeared just in time for the author’s 86th birthday on Christmas Day.  It was also just in time also for the Christmas present I received from a family member: Michael Hamburger‘s translation of Hölderlin’s Selected Poems and Fragments.  Here’s hoping the winter break allows time to make my own explorations of Hölderlin’s extraordinary poetry, which Germans assure me is untranslatable.