The epidemic has changed my ideas about a lot of things including food, money and London. Before Covid we had our own plague of books, which were driving us out of the house, so we built the book-hut to relieve the pressure, which mysteriously increased at just the moment when I gave up my last book project. Without a commanding tyrant of a subject my interests could irresponsibly fragment and seemed to replace one another at the rate of one a week, or even a new one on most days, each of which brought with it an exhibition catalogue and a supplementary volume or two. I looked on in horror and knew at the same time that this was a way of asserting I wasn’t finished, that there was life in the old root stock yet, as seen from this unpredictable new growth.
It is a sobering thought that the process was well underway before Covid, though it is not easy to illustrate this in detail. A lot of these important new topics existed only in lunchtime conversations now forgotten.
I want to rush ahead now to the current form of weedy growth – I made a strange purchase the other day, I ordered a book, immensely long, defined in fact by the way it had lost control of scale, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s concluding volume of his interminable family saga called Min Kamp in its native Norwegian. This part of it alone was 1150 pages long and I didn’t intend to read it. I had been captivated by a Canadian friend’s description of picking out a shortish digression within it and skipping over the novelistic wrapping that surrounded it. The subject of this digression was the early life of Hitler, which provided the occasion for a comprehensive treatment of the poetry of Paul Celan, which my friend described as brilliant. I love the idea of Hitler as the excuse for devoting oneself to Celan and, best of all, the absurd concealment of this discussion near the end of a 6000 page novel. You wouldn’t understand why this piece of information seemed so magical if you didn’t know that for several weeks I have been obsessed by Celan’s poetry in two beautiful new volumes that add up to about the same number of pages as the last volume of My Struggle.
I don’t really read or speak German, but after reading a review of the new translations I decided these poems were a puzzle I had to crack. When I ordered them I had no idea what my method would be. But once I got the books, I saw what I must do. In a sense they were only half as long as they looked, a truth already signalled by the book’s designer. Half the pages were taken up by the German texts and the facing half by translations, and only the German pages were numbered.
I couldn’t let all the German pages go to waste, so I bravely set out on the originals, ignoring the translations until the German had well sunk in. Certain words had crucial prominence, mostly nouns with capital letters, which even I could see were compounds made of two separate components. I had met Celan’s special use of such compounds already in the titles of his various collections. From the early 1950s onward he named his books of poems with one of these linguistic hybrids borrowed from one of the poems inside it.
For some reason one of these invented words took a special hold on me — Atemwende, breath-turning, breath-wandering — the name of one of the largest sub-sets, eighty poems written in 1963 to 1965 and collected in 1967. The word was a poem in itself, an unlikelihood that became more comfortable with pondering, without losing its strangeness. It was a beautiful name for poetry itself, a journey, physical but hard to hold in place, twisting like a wilful creature.
It didn’t bother me at first that I wasn’t understanding much of what took place in these poems. The compounds were often so surprising, so uncomfortably joined, more inharmonious than soothing, like the acts of someone not at peace with thinking. But I felt I was gaining admission to a new world of thought in which the speaker was starting over with the bare bones of language that refused to align themselves in the too-familiar forms of an exhausted medium. A poet who felt the need of new words, or of objects which weren’t exactly words, though made from remnants of words, that he wanted to re-cast.
Only very occasionally did Celan’s poems form themselves up into wholes for me. More often they remain amazing moments surrounded by more pedestrian passings-through that I couldn’t relate to. A great part of this was down to my insufficiency in German. I didn’t always know which phrases were common locutions and which were strange inventions and distortions. For now and for as far ahead as I could see, I had to let such things go.
How could I ever replicate here my instant recognition in English of when a poet strayed outside the bounds, or was outrageous in what he asked the words to do? How could I duplicate my enjoyment of all the oddities of Shakespeare’s choices, a writer whom someone memorably described as having uncanny recall of all the ways the words had ever been used before? But what I was getting in ‘reading’ Celan was enough, and something I hadn’t met anywhere else.
My friend remembered the sequence in Knausgaard wrongly, from a reading of who knows how long ago? Knausgaard’s interpretations of Celan don’t arise from his reconstruction of Hitler’s youth but the other way around. Celan’s poems lead onto Hitler, a crucial difference. It isn’t that Knausgaard gets their merits as writers wrong – he doesn’t – but that his real object is understanding Hitler, and Celan is incidental to that.
There is something compelling in Knausgaard’s interpretation of books and also of paintings. He is wonderfully focussed on particulars. With long novels he starts with a single sentence which he uses to represent the whole, the opening of Broch’s Death of Vergil for instance, which Knausgaard judges one of the greatest sentences of modern lit, or the opening of Olav Duun’s People of Juvik, a six volume saga which Knausgaard charmingly reveres, perhaps one of a more extensive crowd of Scandinavian monster-novels than I am aware, to which Knausgaard’s own contribution is greatly scaled down in literal scope and scaled up in gross extent.
So instead of the embracing treatment of Celan’s poems my friend remembered, Knausgaard singles out just two poems, one from early, the other from late, and describes both as Holocaust poems, Death Fugue and Engführung (a title obscurely rendered Stretto by my translator Pierre Joris). To say a poem of Celan’s is about this or that is usually a doubtful assertion in my view. Celan himself called Stretto the ‘atom poem’, referencing the debate about arming the Bundeswehr with atomic weapons in 1957-8 when he wrote it, but a subject which never crossed my mind when I read it, and honestly still hasn’t, though I couldn’t now write about it without mentioning that strange possibility. Luckily Celan isn’t a writer ceaselessly referring to the Holocaust by name. In fact it is Knausgaard’s central insight that this poet often leaves out the names of his subjects in every sense of the word. One of the most haunting moments in this vein comes in Stretto –
The place where they lay, it has
a name – it has
none. They didn’t lie there.
The delivery of my copy of Knausgaard’s final volume, The End as it is called in English, was accompanied by melodrama, delivered to our door by a young woman with two small children. Its large cardboard box had had a large hole punched in it by someone unused to Amazon packaging. Apparently they had seen enough to know it wasn’t for them, two immense copies of The End and, under them, two copies of the more esoteric Bachmann-Celan Correspondence. Now my argument with Amazon the day before made more sense. The books had been ‘handed to resident’ after all, but not the right resident, and not at the address on the label.
Two copies of the unwanted book – a deserved come-uppance – if I could throw away ten pounds, why not twenty? The smashed package had to endure its traditional quarantine anyway, so I couldn’t find out just yet that the digression on Hitler filled four hundred pages. It wasn’t long before I was wishing for a really detailed outline of this novel that would shorten my task. Later, using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside!’ or Google Books’ ‘search’ (I forget which) as a kind of index to the novel, I chase Knausgaard to page 973 where I find him referring to his 400 page ‘essay’ on Hitler and discussing it with an audience before he’d even finished it.
My own clever dodge hadn’t really worked. The short thing concealed in a longer one had turned out to be a long one itself, inside an inconceivably vaster container, in which the nugget’s separateness was lost in the great sea of print.