Paul Celan was born in 1920 in Bucovina, Romania. He became one of the most prominent 20th century poets. Celan committed suicide in Paris, in 1970, before turning 50.
Ingeborg Bachmann was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria. She wrote poems, libretti, novels and is considered one of the most talented German – Austrian writers of the 20th century. Bachmann died in rather strange circumstances in a fire in Rome, in 1973. She was 47 years old.
The love affair between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan constitutes one of the most dramatic chapters of literary history after 1945. The respective backgrounds of the lovers who came together in May 1948 in occupied Vienna could not have been more different: she, the philosophy student daughter of an early Austrian member of the NSDAP; he, a stateless German-speaking Jew from Czernowitz who had lost his parents in a concentration camp and was himself a survivor of a Romanian labour camp. It is from this irreconcilable difference that Paul Celan developed his role as a Jewish poet writing for German readers and his high standards for poetry in German after the Jewish catastrophe. For Ingeborg Bachmann, who had already confronted the most recent past of Germany and Austria, it became a new impulse – to spend her life fighting the danger to forget, and to champion Celan’s work. Both this difference and the striving to resume the dialogue – precisely because of that difference – characterize their letters, from the first gift of a poem in May/June 1948 to the last letter of 1967.
Writing formed the focal point in the lives of both correspondents… For both, however, writing – including letter-writing – was no easy matter. The struggle for language and the conflict with the word assume a central role in the correspondence. Time and again, there are references to unsent letters: some of these were failures and hence discarded; some were kept, and appear between the others as documents of doubt… the phrase ‘You know’ [Du weisst or Du weisst ja] often stands in for a direct statement, and telegrams or short letters often promise longer letters, which do not always come… Silence, in some cases a source of torment for one of the two parties and in others maintained by a tacit agreement, is an important element throughout the six phases of their correspondence… Between the weeks spent together in Vienna and the last of the 196 documents – letters, postcards, telegrams, dedications and a page of conversation notes – these events are: Celan’s departure from Vienna to travel to Paris in June 1948; the meeting at the conference of Gruppe 47 in Niendorf (their last for several years); the resumption of the love affair after a conference in Wuppertal in October 1957; Bachmann’s encounter with Max Frisch in the summer of 1958; and, finally, the intensification of Celan’s mental crisis in late 1961 following the climax of the Goll affair, instigated by Yvan Goll’s widow with accusations of plagiarism.
The first phase, the time of their encounter in Vienna, has a central document, Celan’s dedicatory poem, ‘In Agypten’. ‘Splendidly enough,’ writes Ingeborg Bachmann to her parents on 20th May 1948, ‘the surrealist poet Paul Celan’ has fallen in love with her. 3 days later Celan sends her this poem with a dedication (‘Vienna, 23 May 1948. To the meticulous one, 22 years after her birthday, From the unmeticulous one’) in a book of Matisse paintings.
You should say to the eye of the strange woman: Be the water.
You should find in the stranger’s eye those you know are in the water.
You should bring them from the water: Ruth! Naomi! Miriam!
You should adorn them when you lie with the stranger.
You should adorn them with the cloudy hair of strangers.
You should say to Ruth and Miriam and Naomi:
Look, I’m sleeping with you!
You should adorn the strange woman nearest you most beautifully.
You should adorn her with sorrow for Ruth, for Miriam and Naomi.
You should say to the stranger:
Look, I slept with them!
[translated by Stephen Lloyd Webber. http://stephenlloydwebber.com/2011/03/ten-translations-of-paul-celan-poems/]
Letter from Bachmann to Celan, Vienna, Christmas 1948. NOT SENT.
Dear, dear Paul!
Yesterday and today I thought a great deal about you – or about us, if you will. I am not writing to you because I want you to write again, but because it gives me pleasure and because I want to. I had also planned to meet you somewhere in Paris very soon, but then my stupid and vain sense of duty kept me here and I did not leave. What does this mean anyway – ‘somewhere in Paris’? I don’t know anything, but I do think it would have been lovely somehow!
Three months ago someone suddenly gave me your book of poems as a gift. I didn’t know it had come out. That was so… the ground was so light and buoyant beneath me, and my hand was trembling a little, just a very little bit.
[…] I still do not know what last spring meant. – You know me, I always want to know everything very precisely. – It was lovely – and so were the poems, and the poem we made together.
Today you are dear to me and so present. That is what I want to tell you at all costs – I often neglected to do so during that time.
I can come for a few days as soon as I have time. And would you want to see me? – One hour, or two.
Much, much love!
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 26 January 1949
Try for a moment to forget that I was silent for so long and so insistently – I had a great deal of sorrow, more than my brother could take from me, my good brother, whose house I am sure you have not forgotten. Write to me as if you were writing to him, to him who always thinks of you and who locked in your medallion the leaf that you have now lost.
Do not keep me, do not keep him waiting!
I embrace you
Bachmann to Celan, Vienna, late May/early June, 1949. ABORTED DRAFT
Paul, dear Paul,
I long for you and for our fairy tale. What shall I do? You are so far away from me, and the cards you send, which satisfied me until recently, are no longer enough for me.
Yesterday I received poems of yours through Klaus Demus, poems that were new to me, including three recent ones. I can hardly bear it that they reached me by such a detour. There has to be something there for me too.
I can read them better than the others, for in them I encounter the you I have known since the end of the Beatrixgasse. 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. Nothing has happened to me to make me suddenly think more intensely of you. Everything is as usual; I have work and success, and there are somehow men around me, but it means little to me: you, beautiful things and gloomy things are spread over my fleeting days
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 20 June, 1949
This year I am ‘imprecise’ and late. But perhaps it is only because I want no one except you to be there when I place poppies, a great many poppies, and memory, just as much memory, two great glowing bouquets on your birthday table. I have been looking forward to this moment for weeks.
Bachmann to Celan, Vienna, 24 June, 1949
Because I was not thinking about it at all your card truly came flying here today on the day before – just like last year – straight into my heart; yes, it is true. I am so fond of you, I never said it back then. I felt the poppies again, deep, very deep; you performed such wonderful magic, I could never forget it.
Sometimes I’d like nothing better than to get away and come to Paris, to feel you touch my hand, how you touch me completely with flowers and then not to know yet again where you come from and where you are going. To me you come from India or from a more distant dark, brown land, to me you are the desert and the sea and everything secretive. I know nothing about about and that is why I am often so afraid for you, I cannot imagine that you are doing the same things the rest of us are doing here, I should have a castle for us and bring you to me, so that you can be my enchanted lord, we will have many tapestries in it and music and invent love.
I have often thought that ‘Corona’** is your most beautiful poem, it is the most perfect anticipation of a moment where everything becomes marble and remains thus forever. But here it is not my ‘time’. I hunger for something that I will not get, everything is flat and vapid, tired and used-up even before it is used.
In mid-August I will be in Paris just for a few days. Don’t ask me why or what for, but be there for me, for one evening, or two or three… Take me to the Seine, let us gaze into it until we become little fishes and recognize each other again.
Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.
In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.
My eye moves down to the sex of my loved one:
we look at each other,
we exchange dark words,
we love each other like poppy and recollection,
we sleep like wine in the conches,
like the sea in the moon’s blood ray.
We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.
It is time.
[translated by Michael Hamburger]
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 20 August 1949
My dear Ingeborg,
So you are only coming in two months – why? You have not told me, nor have you told me for how long, nor told me whether you will receive your scholarship… Do you know, Ingeborg, why I have written to you so little during the last year? Not only because Paris had forced me into a terrible silence from which I could not escape; also because I did not know what you thought about those brief weeks in Vienna…
Perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps we are evading each other in the very place where we would so like to meet, maybe we are both to blame. Except that I tell myself that my silence is perhaps more understandable than yours, for the darkness it imposes upon me is older.
… How far away or close are you, Ingeborg? Tell me, so that I know whether your eyes will be closed if I kiss you now.
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 12 December 1957. TELEGRAM.
PLEASE DO NOT GIVE MORAS POEMS YET SEE YOU SOON
Celan to Bachmann, 12 December 1957
… Tell me if we should meet again in Cologne after Bremen (26 January) for longer.
I just sent you a telegram asking you to hold on to the poems that were meant for Moras for a while.
…Ingeborg, Ingeborg. I am so full of you.
And know, finally, what your poems are like.
Say something about the events in the train to Frankfurt.
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 13 December 1957
‘One Day and Another’
Foehn-windy you. The silence
went along with us like a second
I gained, I lost, we believed
in ominous miracles, the branch
writ large upon the sky, bore us, grew
into the moon’s orbit, a tomorrow
ascended into yesterday, we fetched
the candlestick, I cried
into your hand.
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 11 January, 1958. NOTE
You are reading now.
I am thinking of your voice.
Bachmann to Celan, Vienna, 18 January, 1958
The Proust arrived. How lovely!! (But how you are spoiling me!)
That evening when you called again, I kept thinking how you had asked me: should I come? You do not know what it means to me to be asked like that. I suddenly had to cry, simply because this exists for me and I never had it before.
I wish you a good journey, and do not let any of the petty things that are always there lessen your joy. I will give some more thought to the location and write to you in Bremen. This time I will protect you!
Celan to Bachmann, Hamburg, 27 January 1958. TELEGRAM
Bachmann to Celan, Munich, 2 February, 1958
The work that had been such an ordeal and a burden for me is finished. And now you shall have your letter right away before my eyes fall shut.
Regarding the latest Goll accident: I implore you, let this business die in your heart, then I believe it will also die outside. It often seems to me as if persecutions can only harm us for as long as we are prepared to let ourselves be persecuted.
The truth lets you rise above it, and so you can wipe it away from above.
… My final worry concerns not us but Gisèle [Celan’s wife; they married in 1952; had a son Eric; lived separately after 1967] and you, and that you might not find the way to her beautiful, heavy heart. But you will see once more, and be able to dispel the darkness for her too. This is the last time that I shall speak of the matter, and you do not have to reply.
After you left, I enjoyed working for the first time in a while – even the monotonous task of typing out text for hours was a joy to me, and I am as eager as anything.
Is that not good too? Now I shall be off to Tubingen. On your trail.
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 12 November 1959
I wrote to you on 17 October, Ingeborg – in a time of need. On 23 October, after I had still not received an answer, I wrote, equally in need, to Max Frisch [Bachmann’s live-in partner from the end of 1958]. Then, as my need continued, I tried, several times, to reach you by telephone – in vain.
You had – I read it in the newspapers – gone to the meeting of Gruppe 47 and received much acclaim for a story entitled ‘Alles’.
This morning your letter came, and this afternoon the letter from Max Frisch. You know, Ingeborg, what you wrote to me.
You also know what Max Frisch wrote to me.
You also know – or, rather, you used to know – what I was trying to say in ‘Todesfuge’*** You know – no, you used to know – so now I must remind you – that for me ‘Todesfuge’ is not least this: an epitaph and a grave. Whoever writes those things about ‘Todesfuge’, the things this Blocker character wrote [in a review], is desecrating the graves.
My mother too has only this grave.
…. As hard as it is for me, Ingeborg – and it is hard for me – I must now ask you not to write to me, not to call me, not to send me any books, not now, not in the months ahead – not for a very long time. And please, both of you, do not force me to send back your letters!
Though a number of things are becoming apparent to me, I will not make this letter any longer.
I have to think of my mother.
I have to think of Gisèle and the child.
I sincerely wish you all the best, Ingeborg! Farewell!
Black milk of daybreak we drink it come evening
we drink it come midday come morning we drink it come night
we drink it and drink it
we spade out a grave in the air there it won’t feel so tight
A man lives at home who plays with the vipers he writes
he writes in the German-born nightfall
the gold of your hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are aglitter he whistles his hounds out
he whistles his Jews off has them spade out a grave in the ground
he orders us play up for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
we drink you come midday come morning we drink you come evening
we drink you and drink you
A man lives at home who plays with the vipers he writes
he writes in the German-born nightfall the gold of your hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith we spade out a grave in the air there it won’t feel so tight
He yells you there dig deeper and you there sing and play
He grabs the nightstick at his belt and swings it his eyes are so blue
You there dig deeper and you there play loud for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
We drink you come midday come morning we drink you come evening
We drink you and drink you
a man lives at home the gold of your hair Margarete
the ash of your hair Shulamith he plays with the vipers
he yells play sweeter for death Death is a German-born master
yells scrape the strings darker you’ll rise through the air like smoke
and have a grave in the clouds there it won’t feel so tight
Black milk of daybreak we drink you come night
we drink you come midday Death is a German-born master
We drink you come evening come morning we drink you and drink you
Death is a German-born master his eye is so blue
He shoots with lead bullets he shoots you his aim is so true
a man lives at home the gold of your hair Margarete
he lets his hounds loose on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and dreams a dream Death is a German-born master
The gold of your hair Margarete
The ash of your hair Shulamith
[Translated by A Z Foreman]
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 17 November 1959
I am worried about you, Ingeborg –
But you have to understand my cry for help – you do not hear it, you are not within your own heart (where I expect you to be), you are… in literature.
… So please write to me, or send me – by telegram – your telephone number in the Kirchgasse.
(Please do not call: we have a guest: Rolf Schrors…)
Bachmann to Celan, Zurich, 18 November 1959
Your express letter just came, Paul, thank god. I can breathe again. Yesterday, I tried to write to Gisele in my desperation… to translate my helplessness for you, the conflict I am in, – as well as my lack of freedom in a letter that was bad, I know, that was unable to come to life.
The last few days here, since your letter – it was horrible, everything becoming unstable, close to breaking up, and now each of us has inflicted so many wounds on each other. But I cannot, I must not speak of that.
But I must speak about us. We cannot let it happen, we must not fail in finding the way back to each other again, – it would destroy me. You say I am not within myself, but, rather,… in literature! No, do not be absurd – what strange directions your thoughts are taking. I am where I always am, but often despairing, collapsing under the different burdens; it is difficult for me to carry even one person who is isolated by self-destruction and illness. I have to learn to do more, I know, and I will.
I will listen to you, but please help me too by listening. I shall send the telegram with my number now, and pray that we will find the words.
Bachmann to Celan, Zurich 18 November 1959. TELEGRAM
342987 BUT NOT TONIGHT LET US FIND THE WORDS
Bachmann to Celan, Zurich, 19 February, 1960
After all that has happened, I think there is no way for us to go on together. It is no longer possible for me.
It is very hard for me to say this.
I wish you all the best.
Celan to Bachmann, 19 May 1960
I am writing to you, Ingeborg.
Do you remember what I said to you when I saw you last, two years ago, in Paris, in the taxi before you left?
I remember, Ingeborg.
‘Do not get into adventures, Ingeborg’ – that is what I said to you.
You did get into adventures – the fact that you do not even know it is…proof of that.
Ingeborg, where are you? – someone like Blocker comes along, a grave desecrator, I write to you in my desperation, and you cannot spare a word for me, not even a syllable, but go to literary conferences…
And one day, I receive a letter in which, ‘after all that has happened’, you terminate our friendship…
Are you not ashamed, Ingeborg?
I am writing to you, Ingeborg.
… And if you want us to talk, please tell me that too.
You were not in my good books these last few months, Ingeborg – if you can be yourself for one moment now, you will understand the why and wherefore…
Bachmann to Celan, Zurich, after 27 September 1961, NOT SENT
We spoke on the telephone a few minutes ago – but let me try to answer your letter first. I am not sure if what has come between us is based on misunderstandings or something requiring clarification. I see it differently: sudden silences, an absence of the most basic reactions, something that makes me helpless because I can only make assumptions and these inevitably lead nowhere; and then I hear from you again, like now, hear how bad you are feeling and remain just as helpless as I was during the silence, and do not know how I can find the way out, how I can ever feel lively and alive with you again. Sometimes the reasons are very clear to me, incidents from the terrible time last year that I do not understand to this day, and which I try to forget because I do not want them to be true – because I wish you had not done, said and written those things. Now too, I was shocked again when you said on the telephone that you have to be pardoned for something; I do not know what you meant by that, but I am already scared again…
I truly think that the greater misfortune lies within you. The awful things that come from outside – and you do not need to assure me they are true, for I know about most of them – may poison your life, but you can get through it, you have to get through it. Now it can only depend on you to deal with it in the right way, for you can see that all the declarations and all the advocacy, as right as they may have been, have not diminished that misfortune within you. When I hear you speak, it seems as if everything is the same as it were a year ago, as if the efforts of so many people meant nothing to you, as if only the other things, the dirt, the scorn, and the stupidity meant anything. And you are losing friends, because people feel that it means less to you, and that the objections they make where it seems necessary do not mean anything either…
Of all the many injustices and injuries I have experienced so far, the ones you inflicted have always been the worst – not least because I cannot respond to them with contempt or indifference, because I cannot protect myself against them, because my feelings for you always remain too strong and make me defenceless. Of course, you are primarily concerned with other things now, with your needs; but for me, if they are to be addressed, the primary concern must be our relationship, so that other things can become open to discussion. You say you do not want to lose us… I ask myself: who am I for you, after so many years?… That is precisely what I do not know, and that makes me despair. For a while, after we met again in Wuppertal, I believed in this ‘today’; I affirmed you and you affirmed me in a new life, and that is how it seemed to me, I accepted you, not only with Gisele but also with new developments, new hardships and new chances for happiness that came for you after the time we shared.
…You want to be the victim, but it is up to you not to be… of course it is coming, and will continue to come, from outside, but you sanction it… You react to it, and by doing so you clear a way for it. You want to be the one who is wrecked by it, but I cannot endorse that – for you can change it. You want them to have your ruin on their conscience… I do not think the world can change, but we can, and I wish you could…
I am often very bitter when I think of you, and sometimes I cannot forgive myself for not hating you, for that poem you wrote, accusing me of murder. Has someone you live ever accused you of murder, when you were innocent? The insane thing is that I do not hate you… no apology could ever be enough and I could not accept it in any case. I ask that you, by helping me, help yourself – that you help yourself.
Bachmann to Celan, Basel, 24 October 1961
My dear Paul
Every, or almost every evening I have tried to continue my long letter [above, not sent]. Now I cannot send it, because it tries to do too many things. I would rather bring it with me to Paris, and fill it out in conversation and let you fill it out…
I cannot give you a date yet at the moment. I will not be able to come before 5 or 7 November… I hope very much that you are feeling better, I wish you a recovery so very much, and will tell you next week when I can come!
Many regards to Gisele.
Bachmann to Celan, Rome, 5 December, 1961
Dear, dear Paul,
I probably wanted to write every day… If I could at least write a letter… but it has long been like an illness; I cannot write, I am already cripped when I write the date or put the paper in the typewriter. [Bachmann’s writer’s block totally paralyzes her soon after this.]
I wish you could finally feel better, that you could be protected by better health – or rather, that a new composure and calm could restore you to full health again.
It often seems to me that you do not know how much is down to you, and that you could take hold of yourself from that point of self-recognition.
Our lessons are becoming ever more difficult. May we learn them.
Celan to Bachmann, Paris, 21 September, 1963
… Now I am writing to you, just a few lines, to ask you likewise for a few lines.
Please let me know how you are feeling.
I have a few less than pleasant years behind me – ‘behind me’, as they say.
I have a new volume of poems coming out in the next few weeks – a variety of things have been woven into it, and in some of them I have taken a rather ‘inartistic’ path, as was essentially bound to happen. The document of a crisis, if you like – but what would poetry be if it were not that too, and radically so?
So please, write me a few lines.
I wish you all the best, Ingeborg.
Celan to Bachmann, Frankfurt au Main, 30 July 1967
Three days ago, on the way from Freiburg, Dr Unseld told me about the Akhmatova affair; then I bought Der Speigel.
Let me thank you warmly for recommending me to Piper to translate the Russian poetess, whose poems I have known for a long time. Mandelstamm was one of her most faithful admirers.
Perhaps you could write me a few lines. If you do, then please at this address:
PC Ecole Normale Superieure, 45 rue d’Elm, Paris 5e.
All the best!
Bachmann [coming out of a severe writer’s block], one of her last poems, 1967
Nothing more will come.
Spring will no longer flourish.
Millennial calendars forecast it already.
And also summer and more, sweet words
such as ‘summer-like’–
nothing more will come.
You mustn’t cry,
says the music.
In late spring, 1970, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, estranged wife of the poet Paul Celan, wrote to Ingeborg Bachmann: “In the night from Monday to Tuesday, 19 to 20 April, he left his apartment, never to return…” [Celan drowned himself in the River Seine in Paris.]
“My life is over, for during the transport he has drowned in the river’… ‘he was my life. I loved him more than my life.’
– From Malina: A Novel. By Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Philip Boehm. (translation published by Holmes & Meier, 1990)
Bachmann died in a mysterious fire alone in a room in Rome in 1973, a death by burning she seemed to have anticipated in her dream/fiction.
Excerpted from Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, Edited with commentaries by Bertrand Badiou, Hans Holler, Andrea Stoll and Barbara Wiedemann
Translated by Wieland Hoban.
Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2010