January 2011

Elizabeth Bachner


Bachmann-Celan Overdrive

“I myself am war.” It’s a cold day, so bitter, and I’ve been rereading George Bataille’s The Practice of Joy Before Death. I’ve been meditating alone in my warm apartment. According to philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein, the Talmud warns, “Whoever ponders on four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what was before time, and what will be hereafter.” Of four people who went into the garden or orchard (Persian word: pardes) of mystical study, one went mad, one became an apostate, and only one came out whole. The fourth one took his own life. The Talmud cautions that no one should study mysticism who has not yet attained “the age of forty, marriage, and a full belly -- a degree of mundane ballast to safeguard against being ‘blasted by ecstasy’ (as in Ophelia’s speech).” Yesterday, I read the English-language edition of Ingeborg Bachmann-Paul Celan: Correspondence, one of the most important books I will read in a decade, and I did not have these safeguards against the blast.

It starts as a sort of Grimm spin on the Ted-and-Sylvia story, set in 1940s Europe -- twenty-one-year-old poet Ingeborg Bachmann, seen as “a blond, fairy-tale princess” (according to Karen Achberger), excitedly sends her parents a letter with the “glorious news” that the “surrealist poet” Paul Celan has fallen in love with her. Bachmann’s father, unlike Plath’s, is a real Nazi. She is writing her dissertation on Martin Heidegger. Celan is an exiled Romanian Jew who lost both of his parents in a death camp. He writes in the German tongue. The letters from this affair and the years afterward are notable for their absences, gaps, silences, and misunderstandings, including a period during and after Bachmann’s nervous breakdown. The relationship ends. Celan marries a French artist (Gisele Celan-Lestrange, the buried lead, the secret heroine of the Bachmann-Celan letters), whose Catholic parents disown her. They have two children, one who lives, and one who dies. In 1957, Bachmann and Celan start up their affair again. Gisele is upset, but completely loyal. Bachmann urges Celan not to leave his wife and child. In 1958 in Paris, Bachmann meets the Swiss writer Max Frisch, whom she lives with until the early 1960s. At some point, after all of her early success, she ceases writing poetry. Then things get even stranger. Günter Blocker writes an anti-Semitic review of Celan’s poems. Celan responds, and asks Bachmann and Frisch for support -- Frisch accuses him of overreacting, and misreading the review out of vanity. (And mentions, while he’s at it, that he himself has some difficulty finding a way into Celan’s poems.) Then there is the terrible Goll affair, an episode where Celan is falsely accused of plagiarism. Celan has a frustrating encounter with Martin Heidegger, who is wholly unapologetic about his support of Nazism. Celan writes an important poem about their conversation, “Tübingen, January.” Heidegger later says of Celan: “Celan ist krank -- heillos (Celan is sick -- incurable.)”

In the late 1960s, Celan tries to kill himself. He goes after Gisele with a knife, and they decide they must live separately. He is in and out of institutions. Max Frisch has ended things with Bachmann, she is in and out of institutions, she drinks too much and takes pills. I am leaving everything out of the story. In 1970, Celan drowns himself in the Seine. In 1973, Bachmann dies from burns caused by a lit cigarette in her Rome apartment.

Celan leaves open a book by Hölderlin in his almost-empty room, with the underlined text: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart…” He does not underline the rest of the passage: “but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously.” Also in the room are a book by Rilke, a book about French minerals, and an unfinished letter to Martin Heidegger.

Bachmann leaves over 1,000 pages of unfinished manuscripts. Her death by fire is sometimes considered an accident, but it’s hard to think so after reading Malina, the only finished novel in her Todesarten (Ways of Death, Death Styles) cycle. “I have to watch out that I don't fall face first onto the hot plate,” says the nameless female narrator, “that I don't disfigure myself, burn myself, then Malina would have to call the police and the ambulance, he would have to confess his carelessness at having let a woman burn halfway to death. I stand up straight, my face glowing from the red plate on the stove, where I so often burned scraps of paper at night, not so much to burn something written, but to light a last and a very last cigarette.” There is a quote from Flaubert: “With my burned hand, I write about the nature of fire.”

These are all details I’ve learned after the fact, after diving headfirst into the Bachmann-Celan letters, choking from them, whether from burning or drowning I don’t know. I find them in the commentary, timeline, and afterward of the English language volume, and in writings by Karen Achberger and Peter Filkins and John Felstiner. I am glad to hoard this information, to have items to form into a coherent story. But I am also glad, awestruck, in fact, at the ways the editors have shuffled any degree of mundane ballast into the back. The volume begins with “In Egypt,” Celan’s first poem to Bachmann, a poem written into a book of Matisse drawings in June 1948, and its haunting second-to-last lines set the tone for every inarticulable moment of the story to come, for understanding the fragile and unspeakable intimacy between two of the greatest writers, in any language, of their century: “Thou shalt adorn the stranger next to thee most beautifully of all./ Thou shalt adorn her with the pain over Ruth, over Miriam and Noemi.”

She writes: “I long for you and our fairy tale.”

She writes: “You are always my concern, I ponder a great deal on it and speak to you and take your strange, dark head between my hands and want to push the stones off your chest, free your hand with the carnations and hear you sing.”

She writes: “I shall be in Paris in mid-August, just a few days. Do not ask me why or what for, but be there for me one evening or two, three… Take me to the Seine, let us gaze into it until we become little fishes and recognize each other again.”

He writes: “How far away from me or how close are you, Ingeborg? Tell me, so that I know whether your eyes will be closed if I kiss you now.”

He writes nothing, she writes nothing, she writes nothing, he writes nothing, years pass between letters. We cannot know what went on between them.

He writes: “It was our first rendezvous in Paris, my heart was beating so loudly, and you did not come.”

She writes: “I love you and I do not want to love you, it is too much and too difficult…”

He writes: “Let us no longer puzzle over what is irretrievable, Ingeborg.”

It is strange to read 20+ years of correspondence, broken by long, cold silences, with such ferocity, over a couple of hours on a freezing but snowless December afternoon. We see over and over love meeting pain, silence meeting silence, silence meeting nothing at all. I have been pondering how and why people come together, and how and why they do not. I’ve been thinking about what came before time, and what’s above us, and what’s below us, and what might come next. I’ve been thinking about how it all relates to poetry. I’ve been thinking about Ossip Mandelstam, who Celan translated, and Martin Buber, and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which I first read at fifteen as a sex poem, I sat right down and wrote a riposte. But when Celan is writing about it, I suddenly get the poem, I get it in a way I wish I wouldn’t get it, until I’m forty and until I love enough and until my belly is warm and full -- “Had we but world enough, and time.” We don’t. Even back in Marvell’s time, we didn’t.

In her conclusion to Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York, Lisa Hilton sums up that era as: “Romance does battle with treacherous, grasping reality, and reality wins… Sir Lancelot… dies groveling in shame, starved and shrunken.” Celan once said that he was “stricken by and seeking reality.” In Elfriede Jelinek’s Princess Plays, the princesses are Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rosamund, Jackie O, Sylvia Plath, and Ingeborg Bachmann. In Bachmann’s novel, the princess woven through the story dies at the end. “Fascism is the primary element in the relationship between a man and a woman,” Bachmann told an interviewer, in the last year of her life. At the end of Malina, the woman disappears into a crack in the wall -- “there is something inside the wall, it can no longer cry out” -- and we don’t know whether she ever existed at all.

This correspondence was meant to be suppressed until 2023, when I will be ripe for mysticism. But somehow I have it in my hands today. I don’t know what to do about it. There isn’t a right thing to say about it. (“I will tell you a terrible secret,” says the narrator of Malina, “Language is punishment.” “It's war,” says Malina, “And you are the war. You yourself.”) Reality wins. Reality, and puzzling over what is irretrievable.

There’s a letter from Gisele, May 10, 1970: “Paul threw himself into the Seine. He chose the most anonymous, lonely death. What else can I say, Ingeborg. I was not able to help him as I had wanted.” Gisele, a talented artist who makes etchings, is raising her fifteen-year-old son alone. She doesn’t sleep. She tries to keep believing in her work. She writes Ingeborg Bachmann long letters. “I have a great deal of trouble with time,” she writes, “…yesterday sometimes paralyzes today by imposing itself too strongly. I have tried to keep a distance, undoubtedly in an overly brutal way, and this ever-present yesterday caught up with me… I try, I try, I take steps, I walk -- but not very well.” There are poems left.

Tübingen, January

Eyes talked into
Their - "an enigma is
the purely originated" -, their
memory of
Hölderlin towers afloat, circled
by whirring gulls

Visits of drowned joiners to
submerging words:

should a man,
should a man come into the world, today, with
the shining beard of the
patriarchs: he could,
if he spoke of this
time, he
only babble and babble
over, over

(trans. Michael Hamburger)