Posts Tagged ‘John Felstiner’

Paul Celan, John Felstiner, and the soul of beauty

Sunday, October 21st, 2012
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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.”

 

Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

Saturday, May 19th, 2012
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Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)

“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He was not (to start again), what one had expected.

Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers.  He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.

Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:

Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”

Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered.  As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked.  Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”

Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)

Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”

“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.”  Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991),  a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.

In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

What’s fiction’s verboten subject?  Sex.  “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex.  What else?  Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”

“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,’” he said, but those of the heart as well.  In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”

Off the hook.

Paradise Lost?  That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form.  To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)

Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”

Another question: what is Amis reading?  “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”

But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels.  The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it?  In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd.  But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.

“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject.  It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”

Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said.  John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience.  Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.

Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.”  It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said.  “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”

All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”

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

Friday, March 16th, 2012
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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.

Charlotte Salomon’s “antidotes to indifference”

Monday, October 17th, 2011
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Yesterday I was one of the very last visitors to the six-month exhibition of nearly 300 of Charlotte Salomon‘s gouaches at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  I almost overlooked the exhibition, ongoing since March 31, until John Felstiner reminded me during a reception last week.

I’m glad I caught it on its last day.  It’s an extraordinary show, of an extraordinary woman.

For those who don’t know the background, Salomon (1917-43) was a young German Jewish artist, hiding in the south of France after the Nazi takeover. Between 1940 and 1942, she worked feverishly, often without stopping to eat or sleep, to produce about 1300 paintings.

She hummed as she painted, and the gouaches often include titles or scraps of the music that accompanies these snapshots of her life.

They often, medieval fashion, show several thematically related or  sequential scenes on the same sheet of paper. Sometimes, like photography, she repeats the same image over and over on a sheet.  The total result was Life? or Theater? A Play with Music.

The Nazis caught up with her in 1943.  The 26-year-old was transported to Auschwitz, and probably killed the same day.

Her tragic story is not only an artistic triumph, however, but an existential one:  Her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, and a number of other relatives died by their own hands.  In unimaginable circumstances, she fought the suicidal impulses of generations, choosing to do something “utterly crazy” – a somewhat fictional, largely autobiographical operatic series of paintings combining text and images and, by the extension of imagination, music, too.  She famously put the series in the keeping of a friend, with the instructions, “Take good care of it. It is my life.” It is more than that, really: it aims at Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian “total work of art.”

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

I have Mary Felstiners biography, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era – part of my research for my article on both the Felstiner’s examination of “creative resistance” during the Holocaust.  But when I got home, I thumbed through it’s pages with a new understanding.  I hadn’t realized quite how gripping Mary’s book is.  I won’t try to review a book I haven’t read, but here are a few words from the reviewers:

“Ms. Felstiner tells this harrowing tale clearly and emotionally. . . . Her account will spread the word about a talented and tragic hostage to her family and her times.” – Peter Gay, New York Times Book Review

“Something truly remarkable, a work of art in its own right and a masterpiece in the field of Holocaust studies. . . . At times, To Paint Her Life achieves a certain songlike quality and poetic grandeur it’s a fugue of art and history, love and pain, sexuality and politics – and it reaches a shattering crescendo in the very last, speculative passage.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

The Salomon paintings at the Contemporary Jewish Museum return to Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum.  I bought the catalogue – by the last day of the show, it was half off the listed price.

It includes a short essay by Jonathan Safran Foer, describing his discovery of Salomon’s work in Amsterdam.  He writes that “even more than praise, Life? or Theater? demands creation”:

Beautiful things are contagious, and no work of art has inspired me to strive to make art more than Life? or Theater? has. No work is better at reminding me what is worth striving for. The images I’ve selected for this exhibition [for the catalogue] are those I find myself most often returning to when nothing feels worth writing. They do not make sense as a thematic or stylistic group. They are simply my antidotes to indifference.

 

David Margolick, Henryk Grynberg, Władysław Szlengel: “There are hearts that do not die.”

Saturday, July 16th, 2011
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Władysław Szlengel: "Goodnight. Goodbye."

Heavyweight fighting is not normally my thing, but I became interested in it, briefly, a few years back with the publication of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. The book tells of the 1938 fight between the German Max Schmeling and the African-American Joe Louis.  (FYI, Louis won, handily.)

The reason for my interest was its author.  David Margolick and I go back  – several decades, at least.  We both worked at the Michigan Daily – but in that incarnation, he was a photographer, and a very good one. He went on to study law at Stanford, before he launched a career as a legal columnist at the New York Times and then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. I had a chance to write about him a few years back.

Given my interests, naturally I zeroed on to his brief reference, on pp. 324-25, to Władysław Szlengel, the poet who had written about the fight in a Jewish daily:

He Louis! You probably don’t know
What your punches mean to us
You, in your anger, punched the Brown Shirts
Straight in their hearts – K.O.

David and I discussed the poet, who died in the Holocaust, during our phone conversation.  Apparently, Szlengel continued to intrigue Dave after the phone call was over.  He wrote about him in in the recent issue of Tablet, “Lost Words” (read it here).

Who was Władysław Szlengel?  When I first encountered him, I assumed he was just one more of the 6 million. Had anyone remembered him or his work, his name would certainly pop up in the card catalog of the New York Public Library, but it never had.  Nor had he been mentioned in the pages of the New York Times.  So, I resolved to bring him back to life.  Even putting someone’s name in print can be a rescue operation; mentioning Szlengel in my book, and including a small portion of his poem, was the best and only homage I could pay.  Mine turned out to be an imperfect tribute: I misspelled his name.  Not surprisingly, no one corrected me. Virtually everyone who could have, died at the same time he did.

The Felstiners (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I passed on David’s Tablet article to two friends, John and Mary Felstiner, who have written about the Jews “creative resistance” to the Holocaust, which they expressed in graffiti, cabaret shows, poems, paintings and concerti  – I wrote about it here.  Had they heard of Szlengel?  John’s reaction was enthusiastic: “Thanks so much, Cynthia! This is terrific, right down our alley, as you know. Now that you send it, I recall his name very well. But no, we didn’t come across him this time or I’d surely have found a place in our lecture and courses! It almost makes me want to do the course again!”  Let’s hope he does.

The Tablet article evoked a few other associations.  David mentions the work of Henryk Grynberg, who was also one of my contributors in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.  Henryk commented, “If he [Szlengel] had written in Hebrew or Yiddish or German, he would be known … The feeling is, ‘A Jew who writes in Polish is not a real Jew, so why should we support him?”

Henryk wrote about Szlengel his 1979 article, “The Holocaust in Polish Literature,” published in the Notre Dame English Journal:

Szlengel left several poetic accounts of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.  In his poem “A Note from the Daybook of the Action,” he describes the famous procession of the Janusz Korczak orphanage to the Umschlagplatz, referring to the situation as a “Jewish war … fought for life” and “a combat where death does not bring any glory.” He calls Korczak “the proud soldier, defender of orphans” who fought to the very end.

Both articles are well worth a read, though David can be a little heavy-handed and uneven in his knowledge of Poland and the Holocaust, its complexities and the range of human responses it evoked.  But the article can’t fail to impress.

The most haunting poem he cites is “The Telephone”:

Henry Grynberg: a "Jewish war ... fought for life"

He longs to call someone outside the ghetto … So he dials the number Warsaw residents always called to get the time, wondering if its recorded voice, at least, remembers him.  And she does, or appears to: 10:53 p.m., she tells him cheerily.  Then, as she ticks off the minutes in the background, more than an hour’s worth of them, Szlengel summons up his former life in free, urbane, prewar Warsaw – watching Gary Cooper at a local movie theater, passing newsstands and neon lights and tramcars and sausage vendors, looking on as young lovers walk arm-in-arm along Nowy Swiat.  And as his mind wanders through that world, tantalizingly near yet utterly inaccessible, he continues to listen gratefully to the pleasant-sounding woman at the other end of the line:

How nice to talk like this
With someone – no fuss, no pain …
You’re so much nicer than
The lovely women I’ve known.

I feel much better now –
There’s someone over there,
Someone who listens even though
He belongs to the other side.

Keep well, my faithful friend,
There are hearts that do not die.
Five to twelve – you say.
Yes, it’s late.  Goodnight.  Goodbye.