A while ago I translated one of letters that appeared in Herzzeit , the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. Now Suhrkamp has come out with the collected correspondence between Celan and his long-time close friends, Klaus and Nani Demus (Briefwechsel). I look forward to reading these, since the letters provide one of the few glimpses into Celan's state of mind in the last years of his life. But I want to comment here on Benjamin Ivry's review in The Forward.
For Ivry, the fact that Celan was accused of plagiarism by the widow of Ivan Goll looms large in the poet's depression and increasing isolation:
"The letters it contains show how simply trying to exist by writing and translating poetry in postwar Europe eventually drove Celan to suicide in Paris. The moving letters it contains recount how a great Jewish poet was egged on to self-destruction in the name of two mediocre poets who happened to be Jewish. Claire Goll, born Clara Aischmann, widow of the mediocre Surrealist poet Yvan Goll (born Isaac Lange), launched these machinations. The Golls spent the war years in safety in America and returned to postwar Europe, after which Yvan Goll died prematurely of leukemia. Celan had translated some of Goll’s poetry into German, as he had translated dozens of other English- and French-language authors, but as a 2000 study from Suhrkamp, “The Goll Affair: Documents Surrounding an ‘Infamy’ (“Die Goll-Affäre — Dokumente zu einer ‘Infamie’”), sadly details, Claire Goll devoted herself to relentlessly defaming Celan as a plagiarist of her husband’s work, quite literally driving the great poet to madness and suicide."
There is no doubt that Claire Goll galled Paul Celan and the sordid affair was a major irritant to the poet at a critical juncture of his life. But the affair had pretty much run its course by the summer of 1960, when literary luminaries such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Walter Jens came to Celan's defense - publicly and vociferously. And the poet was completely vindicated that same year when he was awarded the prestigious Georg-Büchner-Preis in Darmstadt.
Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine in April 1970. According to his biographer, John Felstiner, the poet by then had become completely isolated, haunted by the ghosts his parents who perished in the Holocaust and by the deaths of his two sons. That spring he was teaching a seminar on Kafka and he kept coming back to the ending of Ein Landarzt ( A Country Doctor): Betrogen! Betrogen! Einmal dem Fehlläuten der Nachtglocke gefolgt — es ist niemals gutzumachen. ("Betrayed! Betrayed! Once you've answered the wrong ring of the night bell - it can never be made good"). Had Celan answered the wrong call? We will never know for sure what his reasons were, but he shared the same fate of other survivors such as Jean Améry and Primo Levi. A year later, Celan's friend and most insightful critic Peter Szondi - a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp - drowned himself in Berlin.