There is currently an exhibition in Holland about the love affair between the poet Paul Celan and Diet Kloos, a Dutch woman who had been a member of the resistance during World War II. I’ve written before about Celan – one of the most important figures in post-war German literature. However, until now I didn’t know much about Kloos, an oratorium singer whose husband was executed by the Nazis in 1945 after being tortured in front of her. Celan and Kloos met in Paris in 1949, when Celan was studying at the Sorbonne and Kloos at the conservatory in The Hague. The exhibition is based on the 12 letters that Celan sent Kloos during the following year (Kloos’s replies have been lost). The correspondence also includes three of Celan’s early poems, including his most famous, “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”, as John Felstiner translates it), which was written in 1944 and published in 1948.
Although Paul Celan is my favourite poet, I was somehow unaware of his poem, “Mapesbury Road”, which refers to a street that is about five minutes from where I live in north-west London and was written in 1968 immediately after the death of Martin Luther King and the attempted assassination of West German student leader Rudi Dutschke. As I learned from a fascinating programme on Radio 4 about the short poem last week, Celan’s paternal aunt Berta Antschel – one of the few relatives of his who had survived the Holocaust – lived in a flat in the eponymous street, where Celan visited her in April 1968 and wrote the poem, which was published posthumously in the collection Schneepart in 1971. Like most of Celan’s late poems, it is incredibly dense with compound words (e.g. “Mitluft”, which Michael Hamburger translates as “co-air”) and therefore difficult to decipher. As George Steiner says in the programme, Celan’s poems are “on the other side of our current horizons”.
Will Self delivered a brilliant lecture on W.G. Sebald and the Holocaust in London last night. Self, who has written before about his affinity with the German writer who spent most of his life in East Anglia, suggested – if I understood him correctly – that Sebald was unique among non-Jewish writers in post-war Germany in facing the Nazi past and in particular mourning the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Speaking beneath a screen displaying Gerhard Richter’s haunting, blurry portrait Onkel Rudi (above), he said Sebald’s novels and essays constituted a “literature of atonement” that set him apart from other post-war German writers such as Günter Grass and Martin Walser (I was slightly surprised to hear a British writer who doesn’t read German even refer to Walser, a figure who is not much known here). Perhaps most interestingly, to me at least, he suggested that the reason for this was that Sebald moved to Britain in the sixties instead of remaining in Germany.
Favourite word: generalstabsmäßig – General Staff-like, as in with military precision
Weirdest phrase: ein inner Reichsparteitag – an inner Nuremberg rally, as in a private celebration of the triumph of the will
Most useful word that doesn’t exist in English: Auseinandersetzung
Most evocative word: Mandel – see Paul Celan
Nicest-sounding word: Schmetterling – butterfly
Most annoying Fremdwort – foreign word: Handy – mobile
Philosophically weirdest word: aufheben – see Hegel
Existentially most interesting word: Freitod – suicide = free death
Most important word for understanding Germany: Geist – mind/spirit