Heart Time for Philologists – The Correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan
Love is always a very private matter, and it is only by means of the extent to which the lovers are known that an element of public awareness and interest is added to it. This is surely true in the case of the relationship between Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973) and Paul Celan (1920–1970). The works of these two writers belong to the essential core of German-language literature after the end of the Second World War, and they also belong to it because, in their different ways, they are marked by the collapse of German civilisation during the Nazi era, above all by the industrialised murder of many millions of Jews and its unspeakable and unending consequences. What would German lyric poetry be without Bachmann’s Die gestundete Zeit from 1953 (title poem of this collection variously translated as Mortgaged Time, The Respite, and Time Borrowed) or Anrufung des Großen Bären from 1956 (i.e. invocation of the Great Bear)? Without Celan’s Mohn und Gedächtnis from 1952 (i.e. poppies and memory) or Sprachgitter from 1959 (i.e. language-grille)? What would the memory of the ‚Fifties and ‚Sixties be without the celebrated Gruppe 47? Our view of the post-war period would be incomplete without Bachmann’s and Celan’s verses, voices and photos.
A love relationship with far-reaching consequences
That the daughter of one of the first Nazis in the Austrian province of Carinthia and a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Czernowitz who met in Vienna in May, 1948, tried to maintain a love relationship that was of preeminent significance for their literary works, one that was to end in despair, silence and death, has been known for a long time. This correspondence - not limited to poetry - is documented in the volume, Herzzeit, and it is documented as well as is at all possible through letters and poems, commentaries and postscripts.
Poems? Herzzeit begins with In Ägypten (i.e. in Egypt), begun in 1948 and dedicated to “Ingeborg.” The volume’s title comes from Celan’s poem, Köln, am Hof (i.e. Cologne, at the station), that arose following the revival of their love relationship in autumn, 1957. Both poems belong to the 196 documents, spanning about 20 years and collected and extensively annotated in Herzzeit. The editorial team did a superb job, and experts have reacted with appropriate enthusiasm – even though one or another objection in connection with details was voiced.
The Gruppe 47: enthusiasm and head-shaking
The letters, postcards, dedications and telegramme greetings disclosed an “existential struggle for the German language in the face of historical catastrophe” and also revealed “a desperate battle for bridge building in private, and understanding in poetic terms,” as the critic Hubert Spiegel writes. Spiegel regards the “struggle against falling silent, overcoming speechlessness” as the core theme of their letters. This is absolutely correct, through all the ups and downs of this always imperilled relationship.
The young woman from Klagenfurt in Austria emerges as an acclaimed poet who took the critics and other members of the Gruppe 47 by storm, while Celan was subjected to head-shaking dismissal for his – today world-famous - Death Fugue (Todesfuge) at a meeting of the group in Niendorf in 1952. As early as 1951, Celan – who had moved to Paris - met his future wife, Gisèle Lestrange. Bachmann became acquainted with the composer, Hans Werner Henze, and in May 1958, a few months after the revival of her love relationship with Paul Celan, she met the Swiss author Max Frisch for the first time, and started a relationship with him soon after.
Reading with fresh eyes
The letters between Celan and Frisch included in Herzzeit are just as important for an understanding of this constellation as those between Ingeborg Bachmann and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. They, too, confirm what one might suspect: basically, Paul Celan, whose cosmos was darkened by the so-called Goll affair (at issue here were accusations of plagiarism by the widow of the poet Yvan Goll) and by a critique of his volume, Sprachgitter, that he took to be antisemitic, was beyond help. Neither the Buchner Award could extinguish his feeling of having been betrayed, nor the attempts of his friends to help and comfort him – Ingeborg Bachmann above all. Nothing and no one could prevent this man, who had enriched German-language poetry by means of an entire dimension of breath-taking, new means of lyrical expression, from putting an end to his life in 1970. Three years later, Ingeborg Bachmann died in Rome following an accidental fire.
Is Herzzeit something one has to have read? No. Those who are not familiar with the correspondents’ literary works will gain little by reading it. But this volume, of the greatest significance for Celan and Bachmann scholarship, may well be an occasion to turn our attention to the texts of two great poets of the 20th century; texts that have slipped under the horizon of general literary awareness. In Bachmann’s late works, particularly in Three Paths to the Lake (Drei Wege zum See) and in her Malina novel, the reader can also learn more about her unhappy love for the author of Death Fugue. But the poems and prose pieces that have justly made Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan famous are resting on bookshelves for the most part – often long unread. We should take them down and read them with fresh eyes. They are the main thing, and we should devote our attention to them. And that can be done even without Herzzeit, impressive and informative though it is.
is a journalist and editor of the magazine „Fachdienst Germanistik“ and lives in Munich.
Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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