According to John Felstiner, Theodor Adorno considered Paul Celan “the only authentic postwar writer to stand with Samuel Beckett.”  (Adorno, Beckett, Celan: there’s the beginning of an alphabestiary to contend with.) Along with Adorno’s high regard, Beckett and Celan also shared Paris as their home for most of their adult lives, but surprisingly their paths never crossed. In the 2004 essay “Paul Celan Meets Samuel Beckett,” Felstiner describes the writers’ shared concerns, which become even more obvious as the years go by:
Living alone in March 1970 (with never-healing wounds) on Avenue Émile Zola just across from Pont Mirabeau, apart from his wife Gisèle and son Eric, this “true-stammered mouth,” survivor of “the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech,” has recently returned from a fortnight in Israel, his first visit, elated and drawn to move there but fearful of yet again losing his German mother tongue, his beloved mother’s tongue seized as if overnight by her murderers. Franz Wurm, a poet-friend in Paris, invites him one afternoon to come along and meet Beckett, but Celan says No — to go unannounced at the last minute isn’t right. That evening, given greetings from Beckett, he says: That’s probably the only man here I could have had an understanding with.
But hadn’t there already been an understanding, hadn’t they been meeting all along, those years in Paris — the older man a more-or-less voluntary Irish exile to France and French, the younger man, orphaned, homelandless, reaching Paris but cleaving to German: Beckett chipping away at silence with “this dust of words,” Celan with his “gasping words,” with the “prayer-sharp knives / of my / silence”? During the 1953 opening run of En attendant Godot, where Didi and Gogo go on “blathering about nothing in particular,” Celan composed “The Vintagers,” in which “bent toward blindness and lamed,” a “latemouth” thirsts for wine, a “crookstick speaks into / the silence of answers.” …
April 16 : He tells his 14-year-old son Eric he can’t after all take him the next day, as planned, to a performance of Godot. Two tickets are later found in his wallet.
May 1 : Seven miles downstream a fisherman comes on Celan’s body caught in a filter of the river. Beckett’s longtime German translator, Elmar Tophoven, succeeds Celan as Reader in German at the École Normale Supérieure.
Celan me dépasse, Samuel Beckett will later confide to a friend, “Celan leaves me behind.” But can that be so? Beckett, whom everywhere you go in our mind you meet on his way back? Beckett’s trilogy opens with a mother’s death and ends with The Unnamable‘s last words: “in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Interestingly there appears to be no mention of Paul Celan in James Knowlson’s magisterial biography of Beckett; his name does not appear in the index. For me, as I write and think about another kind of theatre minima, Beckett and Celan remain enduring exemplars for the writer, and the writing, of their and my own time.
The full text of Felstiner’s essay can be found here.
- John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995, p. 107. [↩]