Friday, January 18, 2013

Herzzeit - the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann

I finished Herzzeit before I came back to Ireland and now regret that I didn't take it with me, as it is a book for re-reading, especially when revisiting the two writers' literary output. It is the correspondence between the two most important German post-war poets, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. Celan's poetry has at its centre the Holocaust and language as the one thing that "remained secure against loss" (both his parents died in the camps), whereas Bachmann's work hinges on the struggles of a woman in a male-dominated world and her search for truthful expression. They are among my favourite poets, and my sister, who knows me well, recommended this book. I had been oblivious of this literary sensation - publication of the letters was supposed to be blocked until 2023, but released by the heirs in 2008.

This was a devastating, difficult read, particularly bearing in mind the tragic deaths of Celan and Bachmann, but also because of the palpable pain - often between the lines - that pertains to their doomed relationship: the misunderstandings, mistrust, missed opportunities and loneliness, and the hurt and subsequent arguments over the reception of Celan's work (critics attacking him; the Goll-affair, when Claire Goll accused him of plagiarism; him becoming a target for antisemites - all of which led to him feeling more and more alienated, angry and lost and made him fall out with friends who did not agree word-for-word with his response).

It may be almost unbearable to read at times, but it is also rewarding - there are a lot of passages where the language can compete or at least comes close to the impact of the poems. Ultimately, the letters provide insight into the dynamic between these two writers, lovers and friends, who came from such different backgrounds, and into their personalities, and how this relationship and the way it shaped them informed their work.

The book also includes poignant letters from Celan's wife Gisèle Lestrange-Celan to Bachmann (in the original French as well as the translation) and correspondence between Celan and Bachmann's lover of four years Max Frisch.

(There is an English translation.)


  1. This makes me want to begin reading again. I used to be a voracious reader - sometimes reading 2-3 books per week. These days though I rarely make the time. I am going to make a concentrated effort to do so. Thank you for inspiring me :)