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Magic and guilt

The electric and torturous correspondence between Germany's legendary poets, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, has now been released in book form for the first time. Ina Hartwig on what was probably the most complicated love story in post-war Germany

Take a deep breath and prepare to sweep away all the jargon and highfalutin that has built up around Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan over the years. It's a unique opportunity to start from scratch.

The legendary correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan which was originally intended to be kept under wraps until 2023, has been released by their heirs and edited by Suhrkamp Verlag with appropriate thoroughness. And here they are - almost 200 documents, letters, dedications, telegrams, postcards which open the door onto a huge, difficult relationship between two individuals, who were nothing less than hurled into each others' arms by affinity, poetic calling, erotic attraction and mourning for events of the past. The documents date from the period before fame towered over the two poets in a way that seemed more destructive than protective. Indeed the need for protection and the feeling of woundedness thread through their letters like a leitmotif.

"Glorious news" the 21-year old Ingeborg Bachmann writes in a letter to her parents, the "surrealist poet" Paul Celan has fallen in love with her. It is May 1948, Vienna. The 27-year-old Celan, whose parents, Leo and Friederike Antschel, died in a German concentration camp in Ukraine, had fled just a few months earlier from Bucharest, via Budapest, to Vienna. Bachmann, the daughter of a teacher and a former member of the Nazi party, is writing her PhD on Heidegger. Celan, of all people, will write in a letter to Bachmann several years later, that Heidegger's choking on his own mistakes is more agreeable to him than the solid Federal German conscience of someone like Heinrich Böll.

The correspondence opens with Celan's poem "In Egypt", which he sends to his beloved, with the dedication "to one who is painfully precise", on her 22nd birthday. It contains a motif, so tantalising and uncomfortable, that it foreshadows the conflicts to come: "Adorn the stranger beside you most beautifully./ Adorn her with the pain for Ruth, for Mirjam and Noemie". This motif of "adorning pain" - the pain of the Jewesses adorns the Gentile - is close to the bone, and yet it constitutes something akin to the constitution of the love between the Austrian philosophy student, who stands before a precipitous career as a poet, and the stateless Jew from Czernowitz in Galicia, whose most famous poem "Deathfugue" has already attracted attention in literary circles.

What is a young girl to do with a linguistic lasso like this, poised to catch both magic and guilt? She lets herself be seduced, pulled in. Spellbound she reads and marvels at his poems, responding to his linguistic dominance in her letters - don't forget she is six years his junior -with a mystifying tone that sounds like a sugary Celan pastiche: "Again I have felt the poppy, deep, so deep, your magic was so wondrous, I can never forget it." But this is also obviously an opportunity to talk about their shared sexuality.

The two love birds spend a month together in Vienna then, as planned, Celan moves on to Paris, where he settles (he also briefly lived in France as a student), finding work as a school teacher. It is here, three years later, that he marries a French woman and becomes a father, where he is hit by the dreadful "Goll affair" and where, in 1970, after countless major psychological crises and numerous stints in clinics, he will throw himself into the Seine, before he even turns 50.

The correspondence with his lover - who is soon to become his intellectual companion, until Ingeborg Bachmann, herself shaken by crisis, stops writing letters altogether in 1961 - shows only too clearly why these two people could never be together in the long term. Despite having infinite amounts to say to each other at times, despite their being such tremendous an inspiration and enrichment for one another, depending on the circumstances of their lives and work. What a relief it would be to blame this on sheer promiscuity. In August 1949, Bachmann writes self-assuredly: "As you will no doubt imagine, since we parted ways my time has not passed without relationships with other men. But there has been nothing binding, I never stay anywhere long, I am more restless than ever and I promise nothing to no one."

We should not pretend that Bachmann did not have this vital, grabbing "masculine" side, but it is only one side of a person for whom specifically female self-destructiveness was anything but foreign.

In September 1950 she will mention her first "nervous breakdown" and tell Celan that she is "lost, desperate and embittered". She writes: "I have such desire for a little comfort" and she entreats him: "Please try to be good to me and hold me tight!" He obviously senses a good portion of stylisation here, in any case he soon cautions his now most sought-after companion to be "a little more sparing with your demands". Because, he continues, she has "had more from life" than most of her contemporaries. Jealousy? This is the astoundingly sober reply to a letter from June 1951, in which she admits: "I love you and I don't want to love you, it is too much and too difficult..."

And yet the love affair will flare up again, in 1957. Celan, long married, doesn't omit, in a letter to Bachmann, to praise his wife, Gisele de Lestrange, for her fortitude. Meanwhile, his wife's diaries reveal how shocked she is at the betrayal. (This information comes from sources outside this book.) But things are different this time, not only because of the blatant adultery. Nine years have passed since their first meeting, and suddenly Celan recognises the poet in her, a colleague, a great writer. "Ingeborg, Ingeborg" he evokes the mature Bachmann: "I am so imbued with you. And I know, at last, what your poems are like."

In this ecstatic phase of renewed happiness, Celan uses the word "herzzeit" (lit. heart time -ed.) in his poem "Köln, Am Hof" (where they met in a hotel). Herzzeit is also the title of the book. With all the energy he can muster, Celan abandons himself, mentally and amorously, but as irresistible as this might be, for the first time it is truly serious and dangerous for him. When he sees their books standing side by side on the shelf of a friend, he is deeply shaken. The imagination as poet pair, quite literally. The 'herzzeit" is undoubtedly the emotional highpoint of this collection.

But more surprising and compelling are the letters from the period of separation, bitterness and disappointment. This applies to both of them. They both refrain from any high-flown language when imploring the other to see sense. As when Celan once tried to warn the aspiring, life-hungry, success-cosseted young woman, and now when Ingeborg Bachman distances herself from Celan.

Not that she is incapable of understanding his misery, which was triggered acutely by what he saw as Günther Blöckner's anti-Semitic critique of his poetry volume "Sprachgitter" (speech-grille) 1959. But she thinks that he is losing himself in his despair, instead of steeling himself against criticism. In contrast to her usual portrayal of herself as damaged, in this letter she is resolute and pragmatic and demands that Celan develop a sense of his own fame. She argues, there's no other way to see it, against his psychosis, against his paranoia.

But Celan is utterly defenceless against the attacks of his critics and at the same time, hugely demanding of his friends - cumulating in the Goll affair. Yet even in its darkest hour, Celan undoubtedly received support from Bachmann, Marie Luise Kaschnitz and others. They published a letter to the "Neue Rundschau" in response to the untenable charges of plagiarism which Claire Goll, herself of Jewish origin, maliciously put about in the world, saying that Celan had helped himself poetically to the work of her deceased husband, Ivan Goll. For Celan, this was a traumatic compounding of his persecution complex.

On 27 September 1961 Bachmann writes a courageous letter to Celan which she never mustered the courage to send. Tragically, it was her last letter to him before she was seized by an inability to write letters. You also sense in it her exhaustion, and that she has long been entangled in other problems. The letters also reveal that her cohabitation with Max Frisch - which began in 1958 - was obviously put under significant strain by Celan's demands. She writes: "I really think that the greatest disaster is inside you. The wretched stuff that comes from outside - and you don't need assure me of the truth of this, because I am well aware of much of it - is certainly poisonous, but it can be overcome, it must be possible to overcome. It is up to you now to confront it properly, after all you see that every explanation, every event, however right it might have been, has not diminished the unhappiness inside you, when I hear you speaking, it seems to me as if ... it meant nothing to you that many people have made an effort, as if the only things that counted for you were dirt, maliciousness, folly. ... You want to be the victim, but it is up to you to change this..."

This is no longer the voice of the young woman who was so captivated by Celan's pain-steeped language, these are the words of a poet with a lifetime's experience behind her, who is showing him the limits: her limits. None of it says anything about any possible guilt on her behalf, or neglect. It also says nothing about the abysses in which Paul Celan was genuinely trapped. It does show, however, that those closest to him were unable to endure his condition. This is certainly true for Ingeborg Bachmann, and even more so, for the robust Max Frisch, whose brief correspondence with Celan is also included in this book.

The person who gave him the most, suffered the most and lost the most was Gisele de Lestrange, Celan's extraordinary wife, whose distraught correspondence with Bachmann is also documented. Twice Celan tried to kill his wife in his madness; and yet she remained committed to him with her very being, even after his death. Her letters to Bachmann complete the shocking impression which lingers after reading this collection of letters. Although they don't go into detail, perhaps out of timidity, the publishers talk convincingly about a "symptomatic correspondence". Indeed, it not only covers the love, friendship and poetic parallels (such as their shared use of "sand" and "hair" as metaphors for death) between this long mythologised poet duo; it is always also about their illnesses. Bachmann's illness, her overwhelming anxiety, her heavy addiction to tablets and alcohol, which also led to long stays in clinics, had not yet surfaced at the time when she was exchanging letters with Celan - it may well have been triggered by her separation from Max Frisch in 1962.

And so it is all the more astounding and moving that after Celan's death, and almost a decade after breaking off her written exchange with him, Bachmann once again took up an intensive - purely poetic - correspondence with her former lover. In the manuscript of her novel "Malina" which would be published in 1971, two years before her own accidental death, she includes the fairytale chapter "The Secrets of the Princess of Kagran" - an homage to Celan, whom she loved more than anyone else. It also talks about the impossibility of being saved by someone who is incapable of being saved themselves (or unwilling).

A direct line leads between Celan's first poem "In Egypt" which was dedicated to Bachmann, and Bachmann's "Malina", this fraught evocation of woundedness. Pain adorns, the great Viennese soul-doctor, Freud, knew that, but the poetic overemphasis on pain allows the borders to pathology to dissolve. This happened to Celan, probably not to Bachmann. And this is another thing that emerges from this torturous and electrifying correspondence: Ingeborg was stronger.


"Herzzeit" The letters of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. Edited by Bertrand Badiou, Hans Höller, Andrea Stoll and Barbara Wiedemann. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/M. 2008,

This article originally appeared on 19 August in the Frankfurter Rundschau 19 Aug.

Ina Hartwig is the literary editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: lp

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