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adorning pain

February 21, 2009

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.” (read article)

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