Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan
City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA, 2020
200 pp. Paper, $15.95
This book recounts the five-year friendship in of a young, unknown French poet, Jean Daive, soon to establish himself in French letters, and a middle-aged poet, Paul Celan, celebrated as a leading voice in German letters after WWII. Both lived in Paris then. Daive wrote in his native French while translating German poetry; Celan wrote in his native German, which he spoke, with other languages, when growing up in polyglot Bukovina – the language, I must add, which his mother and father met their death by as Holocaust victims. Celan, conscripted into a Fascist forced labor camp for 19 months, survived them and the war.
Daive and Celan conversed in French and translated each other’s poems into the language they wrote in -- as they did with the work of other poets. It is a tie, a reciprocal interchange, which characterizes their interests and amity. The book, however, is much more than a recounting or memoire. Rather, it is an evocation of a significant period in both poets’ lives, rich in subtle detail and sentiment. Written in brief fragments, with a haunting, centripetal sense of continuity, Daive reconstructs their conversations, their walks through the Paris they loved (including during the student rebellion of May 1968), their chance street meetings with colleagues and clochards, the ambient meals they shared in cafes and bistros, and the work of translation they did in Celan’s studio. Running through it all is the shock Daive felt at the sudden death of his friend. On April 20, 1970, Celan committed suicide by jumping into the Seine from the Pont Mirabeau.
As poets, language was their field of play and study. It resonated between them -- poignantly, incisively, and elliptically – keeping them ever on their toes, ready for a new discovery.
Daive builds his book from this shared history. Doing so, he tracks in Celan a kind of revelatory attentiveness that Celan’s poems embody, the former feeding the latter and vice versa. Compelling to both men were how words -- read, spoken or written -- reveal other, implicit words that can, during the act of writing, shape a text or poem’s compass. And as Daive tells it, the same holds true for Celan’s conversation -- sometimes warm, buoyant and embracing, other times provocative or funny, inscrutable, irascible, serious, angry or depressed. From the violent genocidal world Celan escaped, and the family trauma he endured thereafter, he created a uniquely inspiring body of work not seen before in modern German.
Daive wrote often enough of his friend’s suicide that it becomes something of a leitmotif, equally so Celan’s dedication to his writing. Here is an excerpt that I read several times. Even in translation into English, its music beguiles and its ending stuns. The setting is Celan’s studio:
“Washed-out light through the office windows. Washed-out light and the timberless sound of a drop splashing on porcelain. The drops persist, insist, keep falling. A faucet is leaking, fretting our concentration. Today I superimpose the faucet that does not hold back all the water and the plunge that perhaps dreams of water held in an abyss where the sound of water is joined by what silence can no longer hold back: life.” (p. 112)
Daive also wrote about Gisèle Estrange, Celan’s wife of 18 years, an accomplished graphic artist in her own right. She and Daive came to know each other well, even as her marriage to Celan frayed and the two separated. They did not divorce. After Celan’s suicide, as his acclaim burgeoned, Gisèle took over his literary estate, sustaining his work and expanding his audience. She put it to Daive this way:
“Paul costs me a lot …Try to understand. Every month I devote one week to correspondence about Paul. I sit at my table for six days. For six days I write letters from morning to night without lifting my head. I write thirty on the average, and they are difficult.” (p. 164)
For readers of Paul Celan in English, Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan is a touchstone. For readers unfamiliar with Celan, I suggest they read this book after encountering Celan’s poetry, especially in the English translations by Pierre Joris. And then, of course, the pleasure is yours . . . .