Booklover — Letters and Laureates

by | May 17, 2021 | 0 comments


Column Editor:  Donna Jacobs  (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC  29425) 

Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 2

As a person who has had many pen pals during my lifetime, I have often wondered:  Will email exchanges between contemporaries be as fun to read in 50 or 60 years?  Will the exchanges even be discoverable?  Treasured letters are often tied with ribbons or stored in a favorite box.  I won’t necessarily be around to learn the answer, but I can somewhat guess at what the outcome might be. 

“Correspondence,” the compilation of letters between two poets, Paul Celan, the pseudonym for Paul Antschel, and the Nobel Laureate, Nelly Sachs, is an intimate behind the curtains look at two creative literary minds who struggled to find their place in post World War II society.  The reader gets a glimpse at Sachs’ poetic skill as the letters are lovingly peppered with poems that Sachs composed for Celan.  “Correspondence” is interesting in its construction.  There is an Introduction penned by John Felstiner, 68 pages of translated correspondence, an Editorial Afterword, Editor’s Notes to the Letters, Annotated Index of Names, and a side-by-side Chronology of Celan and Sachs for the time period of the letters.  This is a thorough offering.

Born in Berlin, Germany in 1891, Sachs experienced the horrors of Nazi persecution at the beginning of World War II including members of her family falling victim to the Holocaust.  This, coupled with her fragile health, created the attitude under which she lived and wrote.  Her relationship with the author Selma Lagerlöf, the 1909 Nobel Literature Laureate, provided the opportunity for her and her mother to flee Nazi Germany for Sweden in 1940 just as Sachs was scheduled to report to a concentration camp.  

Nelly Sachs shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature with Josef Shmuel Agnon.  Agnon was the first Hebrew writer to win the Prize and this recognition came “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.”  Sachs’ work was seen “for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.”  “Correspondence” won’t necessarily introduce the reader to the inspiration stated for awarding Sachs the prize as letter writing and poetic verse are two different skill sets.  Yet it offers a unique reading opportunity.  The letters span the time period from 1954-1969 and many of them speak of her ill health, her extensive hospitalization due to mental breakdowns, and her fear of persecution.  They are balanced with her deep affection for her friend Celan, his wife, Gisèle and his son, Eric.  These two pen pals were raised as only children, scarred by the atrocities of World War II, later in life found companionship and solace in their friendship and died one month apart from each other in 1970 — Sachs from cancer in May and Celan from suicide in April. 

Now step behind the curtain and experience Sachs’ joy, poetry, pain, despair, and celebration from a most intimate perspective.


1958:  “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan,

Once again your letter brought so much joy, but please, call me by my name, it is as if in order to celebrate the miracle of having won someone so far away, one ought to meet without formalities, with the inner essence alone.”


1958:  “Dear Friend Paul Celan,

…I am always happy to know of you and of how your work draws broader and broader circles around it.  Below is a minute of dawn for you:

Why this sadness?

This flowing-the-world-to-its-end?

Why in your eyes

the pearling light that dying is made from?

Quietly we slip down this sheer cliff of terror

it gazes at us with star-studded deaths

these dust-stiffened afterbirths

where the song of the birds leaked away

and the lip entombed the wine of speech.

Oh beam that awakened us:

how you took us weary for home

in your darkening arms

then left us alone in the night-”


1959:  “Paul Celan, dear Paul Celan,

…I fell ill, so badly was I struck. Dear Paul Celan, let us keep reaching across to each other with the truth. Between Paris and Stockholm runs the meridian of pain and comfort.” The footnote here states: “One year later, Paul Celan will write ‘The Meridian’ above the text of his Büchner speech”


1960:  “Paul you dear brother and my whole beloved Celan family

I have waited so long for news — but perhaps I hurt you —before in my despair, in the midst of my journey through Hell.  I was so afraid for you that I sent all those telegrams — but now I have been brought out into the brightness.  The clarity that I found on this path of purification is such that I had to reach out my hand to all those who were involved in this unhappy story and took away my belief in everything and in myself (I conceded that my tormentors were right and felt myself to be the greatest of sinners).  What is the point of all this fighting against races and nations if people don’t even know each other as a person.”


1966:  “Paul and Gisèle would you come to Stockholm for December 10?

I need hardly say that it would be the greatest birthday joy.  But if so let me know by telegram, so that we can get tickets from the Nobel Foundation and reserve rooms.”  The footnote states:  “The Nobel Prize award ceremony took place in Stockholm on this day;  it coincided with the 75th birthday of Nelly Sachs.”  


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