Paul Celan

Biography for Paul Celan (1920-1970):

Born November 23, 1920 in Czernovitz, Romania
Died May 1, 1970 in Paris France
Ethnicity Jewish, Nationality Romanian
Residence Paris, France, Bucharest, Hungary, Vienna, Austria
Other occupations Medical student, Labor Camp Worker, Psychiatric Field Surgeon, Translator

Paul Antschel was born in 1920 in Czernovitz, a small Romanian town now part of Ukraine, to a pair of German speaking Jews. Antschel excelled academically, becoming fluent in both French and Hebrew, before leaving in 1938 to study medicine in Tours, France. He studied medicine for a year before returning home to pursue his passion for romance languages and literature. Paul was studying Russian at the local university when Russian troops occupied the city in 1940. Fortunately, he was able to continue his studies in a sporadic manner during the occupation. The following year German troops drove out the Russians and forced Paul and his family into a Jewish ghetto. Up to this point, Celan was a smart young man, able to handle himself with a diligent, if not altogether happy, attitude. The German occupation provided Paul with his first experience of the darker side of human nature, a side he was to explore and struggle with the rest of his life. Though unable to continue his formal studies, Celan continued his study of Russian and translated Russian poets such as Yesenin, a poet who praised the woodsy peasant life and later became a bitter drunk. He also made his first serious attempt at writing poems. Shortly the German invasion, his parents were deported to a concentration camp where they both perished: his father by typhus, his mother by a gunshot in the neck. Paul somehow escaped arrest, but was later forced into a labor camp to do road work for 18 months. As the labor camp dissolved, he escaped and briefly joined the Red Army before returning home to what remained of his family. Paul turned to poetry to deal with the traumatic experiences of the war, composing his most famous poem, Death Fugue, in 1944. Paul did a stint as a psychiatric field surgeon before traveling to Bucharest in 1945 to resume his studies. In Bucharest, he joined a local surrealist group and befriended a number of leading Romanian writers, while studying, working as a reader for a publishing house and translator. He continued to versify and published a few poems under different pseudonyms before settling on Celan, a transmutation of Ancel, the Romanian form of his last name. Celan snuck out of Bucharest in 1947 and went to Vienna for six months where he became actively involved with a group of avant-garde writers and painters with whom he co-authored a few prose pieces. He also published his first work, an error ridden collection of poetry he later withdrew. Paul then settled in Paris in 1948 where he remained the rest of his life. He obtained a degree in German philology and literature from L’Ecole Normale Superieure in 1950 and began lecturing at the same institution two years later, eventually securing a full professorship in German literature in 1959. Celan quickly insinuated himself into the Parisian creative community that was just starting to make its presence felt around the world. He knew most of the soon-to-be world famous artists and writers of the time and made a number of lifelong friends among this group. In 1949, Celan was accused of plagiarizing a prominent German poet, Goll, by the poet’s wife, an accusation that plagued Celan until the end of his life and added a sense of paranoia to a psyche that had nearly shattered under the strains of his wartime experience. In 1952, Celan married a graphic artist named Gisèle de Lestrange and the couple had two children, one who died as infant in 1953 and a son in 1955. The 1952 republication of Celan?s first book of poetry brought him immediate recognition for his vivid and disturbing evocation of the holocaust. He continued to publish regularly throughout the 50’s, winning greater public recognition and a number of awards, if not greater peace of mind. His poetry at this time was still somewhat socially concerned, mixing elements of expressionism and surrealism. In addition to his own poems, he remained active as a German translator of French, English and Russian literature. Celan viewed these translations as linguistic creations in their own right, which required the same serious creative effort as his original poetic work. In 1958, Celan won the Breman prize and gave an acceptance speech that discussed his personal and spiritual ties to the German language, and how he used language to shape his world and relate to others. His 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner prize laid out his Martin Buber influenced poetic theory that concerns the impossibility of language and purpose of poetry in connecting the subjective I with others and the outside world. Starting in the 1960’s, Paul wrote poems that focused on his private world instead of the external historical concerns on which his reputation rested. As his poetic symbolism became more opaque and hermetic, his readership declined. The poems of his later life reflect a turbulent emotional life, revealing an obsessive, easily wounded psyche prone to mental collapse. Another Rumanian writer and personal friend, Emile Cioran, once described Celan as a man ‘profoundly wounded….too tormented to take refuge in skepticism.’ Instead, Celan took refuge at the bottom of the Seine. He committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge and drowning in May of 1970.

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