The One and Only Circle:
Paul Celan’s Letters to Gisèle
John Felstiner
Paul Celan, born in Czernowitz, Bukovina in , survived nineteen
months in Romanian labor camps from  to , with literally nothing left but his German language, the mother tongue that overnight
atrociously had turned into his mother’s murderers’ tongue. As a boy he’d
also learned Romanian and a goodly amount of Hebrew, later picked up
Russian under two occupations, and eventually mastered French.
Celan’s parents, Jews from the Austrian Empire, both perished in
Transnistria, German-occupied Ukraine. After the war he went to
Bucharest for two years, fled to Vienna, and in  settled in Paris.
Several years later he married Gisèle de Lestrange (-), a graphic
artist and daughter of a Marquis who disowned her when she wed this
destitute Jewish poet. On the slow path toward becoming Europe’s most
challenging postwar poet, spoken of in the same breath with Friedrich
Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke, Celan underwent a vicious, spurious
plagiarism charge by Claire Goll on behalf of her husband Yvan. This
campaign exacerbated Celan’s anguish over German anti-Semitism and
recrudescent neo-Nazism, and fueled a manic-depressive strain in him.
In  Celan’s son Eric (b.
) and Eric’s co-executor
Bertrand Badiou edited the
letters between Celan and
Gisèle. Le Seuil published
the original French correspondence, while Celan’s
publisher Suhrkamp Verlag
issued a German version.
Both editions are rich
and revealing, with copious commentary, a page chronology of Celan’s
life, and a superb -page
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Paul and Gisèle Celan, rue de Montevideo, 1956.
Why would such a rich correspondence exist between a married couple?
Some letters stem from before their marriage. Later, the poet traveled often, so as to confront German-speaking audiences in Germany,
Austria, Switzerland. From late  on, Celan was afflicted by manic
depression and a sort of persecution mania, necessitating long confinements in clinics and hospitals. In , against their will and desire, he
began living separately. The letters from those years testify to Celan’s
desperate love for his wife and son and to Gisèle’s persistent loyalty.
Because Celan’s traumatic Holocaust experience left him at once
wounded and driven as a survivor poet—“stricken by and seeking reality,” he once said—and because he married a fiercely serious artist from
France’s Catholic aristocracy, this exchange of letters forms a tragic love
story of the twentieth century as well as a unique biography of Celan
himself. What’s even more unusual: while composing poems in German
he lived the second, creative half of his life in France, with well-nigh
perfect control of that language. These letters for the first time show him
eloquent in his exilic tongue.
One unusual element further adds to their value. On many occasions
Celan would send newly composed lyrics to his wife, and because her
German was not perfect, he added in many cases his own nuanced
French versions, including variant readings as well. A kind of Rosetta
Stone, these are invaluable for comprehending his elusive verse.
Paul Celan still counts more and more as an absolutely vital presence in
American- and English-speaking world culture, owing to the exemplary
charged nature of his experience and to the limit-stretching quality of his
writing. Countless students, teachers, critics, and common readers swear
by him, and for many poets—Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Adrienne
Rich, Michael Palmer, Heather McHugh, Geoffrey Hill, Charles
Bernstein, Adam Zagajewski, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Edward
Hirsch, Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, John Hollander, and many others—
Celan’s writing forms the touchstone for moral and poetic seriousness.
Here, to begin with, are two of Celan’s letters, from shortly before his
marriage and from a psychiatric clinic outside of Paris.
The One and Only Circle: Paul Celan’s Letters to Gisèle
 /  October  / Paris,  a.m.
Paul Celan to Gisèle Celan-Lestrange
Maia, my love, I wish I could tell you how much I want all this to stay,
stay for us, stay for ever.
You see, in coming toward you I feel I’m leaving a world behind, hearing doors bang shut behind me, door after door, for they’re so many, the
doors in this world made of misunderstandings, false clarities, scoffings.
Maybe there are still more doors for me, maybe I haven’t yet gone back
over the whole ground with its networks of misleading signs—but I’m
coming, you know I’m coming close, the rhythm—I feel it—speeds up,
one phantasm after another flickers out, the lying mouths shut down
on their slime—no more words, no more noise, nothing more dogging
my step—
I’ll be there next to you in an instant, in a second that inaugurates time.
 /  May  / Le Vésinet
PC to GC-L
My dearest! My beloved!
It’s two in the afternoon, after lying down (without sleeping) for an hour
and a half I’ve just opened the door to the terrace and garden, a blackbird is walking on the lawn, it’s fine weather, the sun is out, a quietness
comes over me—I’m writing to you.
Today is the day before I go home, I’ve been thinking about it since this
morning. Tomorrow, about this same time, you’ll come to Le Vésinet,
you’ll arrange what needs arranging at the clinic office, then you’ll
come get me and with you I’ll find our home again, the one on rue de
Longchamp, and the one at Moisville [a farmhouse in Normandy], these
two homes where you’ve waited for me with Eric.
Thank you, my Beloved, thanks again and again for everything you are,
everything you do!
I know well enough there are many things that still need overcoming.
We will overcome them.
Our son is there, happily the ordeals haven’t gotten through to him at
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all, he has his joys, he’s full of talent, he’s opening out and will go on
opening, growing, becoming a man. Our hearts are still crushed, little
by little they’ll open up to everything Eric brings us, we’ll breathe calmly
beside him.
And we shall take up our work again. I saw your etchings being born
alongside my poems, born from those very poems, and you know that
Atemkristall [“Breathcrystal,” a  fine-press book of Celan’s poetry
and Gisèle’s etchings], which again opened up the paths of poetry for
me, was born from your etchings.—So how could we not rediscover, in
the deepest part of ourselves, what helped us and will help us live along
with Eric? Surely we’ll recover all that’s ours, recover our strength and
our joy.
I hope you’ll receive these lines tomorrow morning, to start the day.
Hug our son Eric, hug him close, tenderly. I put my arms around you
both, I am with you, I embrace you.
In October , Celan begins a brief poem with “The ounce of Truth
deep down in madness.” A month later, “To find our love again,” he
sends Gisèle a desperately heartening poem he’d written for her birthday
in , “The word about going-to-the-depths,” and had been recalling
to her over the years. “We’re still just that,” the poem tells her. But a
month later, in delirium, he takes a knife to her and is again hospitalized. Early in  he nearly takes his own life, and they decide he must
live separately.
That spring, tension in the Middle East spurs him to attend a rally in
support of the state of Israel and to compose a poem of Jewish resistance, Denk dir, “Just think.” And some weeks later, amongst bouts of
severe depression, he gives a reading at the University of Freiburg. On
his return, he writes from the École Normale Supérieure on rue d’Ulm,
Paris, where he’d been teaching German for years, to Gisèle at their
much-loved farmhouse in Normandy.
 /  August  / Paris
PC to GC-L
I’m just back, am at rue d’Ulm and sending you a word right away.
The One and Only Circle: Paul Celan’s Letters to Gisèle
I hope you’re all doing well at Moisville.
The Freiburg lecture was an outstanding success:  people who listened to me for an hour with bated breath, then after long applause,
listened again for a quarter hour.
Heidegger had come up to me—The day after my reading, with Mr.
Neumann, Elmar’s friend, I was at Heidegger’s hut in the Black Forest.
Then in the car there was serious dialogue, with clear words on my part.
Mr. Neumann, who was witness to this, told me later that for him this
conversation had something epochal about it. I hope Heidegger will
take up his pen and write a few pages echoing all this, and warning as
well, now that Nazism is on the rise again.
Three days in Freiburg, then two with the Allemanns in Wurzburg, the
rest very full, in Frankfurt where Unseld met me at the station. Lots of
work projects. I hope the clinic, where I’m headed soon, will let me go.
Write to me. I’m glad you’ve been able to work.
Be well
[Gerhard Neumann assisted Celan’s friend Gerhart Baumann at the
University of Freiburg. Elmar Tophoven, Beckett’s German translator, succeeded Celan at ENS. Beda Allemann, a major German literary
scholar, wrote on and edited Celan’s poetry. Siegfried Unseld took over
Suhrkamp in  and began publishing Celan in .]
This description of the reading tallies with other accounts. Martin
Heidegger (-) sat in the front row, but afterwards Celan
declined, it’s said, to have his picture taken with the great philosopher.
Heidegger had told a colleague, “It would be salutary to show P.C. the
Black Forest”—as if that clear air so conducive to philosophy might cure
what ailed this wretched survivor. The next day they drove to his famous
“hut” or chalet in Todtnauberg. The guest book has these lines of Celan:
“Into the hut-book, looking at the well-star, with a hope for a coming
word in the heart.” They walked in the high moorland.
The day before sending his account to Gisèle, Celan wrote “Todtnauberg.”
His poem’s first draft begins with a keen echo of late Hölderlin: “Since
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we have been a conversation / that we strangle on, / I strangle on, / that’s
thrust me out of myself / three times, four times . . . ” At one point
“Todtnauberg” simply notes
the line written into
this book about
a hope, today,
for a thinker’s
(undelayed coming)
in the heart.
Heidegger’s  essay “Wozu Dichter?” takes its title from Hölderlin,
Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?, “Wherefore poets in a destitute time?”
Heidegger’s answer to that question, namely Hölderlin and Rilke,
also exemplified poetry for Celan, who by this time was being ranked
with them. Yet the philosopher of Sein und Zeit could or would not
fathom someone whose own “Being” and “Time” had undergone utter
So for Paul Celan this encounter mattered crucially. What with
Heidegger’s decades of silence since his Nazi affiliation, and Celan’s
losses from  to , the Black Forest visit quickly became iconic for
the state of post-Holocaust Germany.
Poetry being his be-all and end-all, Celan decided to treat “Todtnauberg”
specially. Robert Altmann, a German Jewish émigré, had recently published a bibliophile edition of Celan’s poems accompanied by Gisèle’s
engravings. He wrote to her in October ‘: “Ten days from now, I’ll
be seeing Altmann. I mean to ask him to publish a single poem: the
one I wrote after my encounter with Heidegger. This is a difficult thing
to illustrate, nevertheless, if you think you could enhance it with an
engraved image, I’ll gladly welcome that.” The word “encounter”—rencontre here, Begegnung in German—meant absolute revelation for Celan,
as when he spent months translating his adopted blood-brother Osip
Mandelshtam, hounded to death by Stalin. Incidentally Heidegger,
coming across Celan’s version of a Mandelshtam lyric that mentions
Jerusalem and Babylonian exile, is reported to have “brusquely whisked
it off the table,” saying the Old Testament was not his field!
Of course to “illustrate” Celan’s bitter heart-cry in “Todtnauberg” stag-
The One and Only Circle: Paul Celan’s Letters to Gisèle
gers the imagination. When Gisèle did not respond to his request, he
wrote a week later: “Tell me if you can etch an image to go with my
poem on the encounter with Heidegger.” “You know,” she replied, “I
can’t quite see how I could make something that could go alongside,
and I think it’s better that way.” Still, Altmann published a striking
edition, limited to fifty signed copies. “It’s very beautiful,” Gisèle wrote.
Celan sent copy  to Heidegger. In this final version he made one telling change, taking out “undelayed.” The thinker’s “coming word in the
heart” had not come forth.
In short order, Celan relays to Altmann “the three central sentences” of
Heidegger’s acknowledgement of that letterpress gift:
The poet’s word that Todtnauberg speaks names place and landscape where a
thought sought to step back into scantness—the poet’s word that is at once
encouragement and warning and that guards in mind a manifoldly tempered
day in the Black Forest.
Since then we have kept a great deal silenced between us.
I think that one day, something will get released from the unspoken into
Granted, philosophic German has its endemic obscurities, but these
sentences seem designed to obscure an otherwise unspeakable attitude.
Heidegger’s son told Gisèle that his father didn’t know Paul Celan was
Jewish, or what his family underwent, until after the poet’s death. This
is highly unlikely.
In , after his first, only, and inspiring venture to the state of Israel,
Celan moved into an apartment on Avenue Émile Zola, just across
from Pont Mirabeau and the Seine River. A friend remembers the place
being almost empty, with very few books: Hölderlin, Rilke, a handbook
on French minerals. From age thirteen or so he’d been reading those
For the bicentenary celebration of Hölderlin’s birth, in March ,
Celan was invited to read in Stuttgart. It grated on him that members
of the Hölderlin Society, founded under Goebbels, had been wartime
Nazis. He chose to read his most clipped and cryptic poems, and they
did not go over. The next day, visiting the tower in Tübingen where
Hölderlin spent his last demented years, Celan found portraits of the
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poet “terrifying.” Then in Freiburg he read to a small group, and according to his host, reproached Heidegger for inattentiveness during the
discussion. Celan ist krank—heillos, Heidegger remarked later, “Celan is
Just before leaving on this trip, Celan had sent his wife an unpublished
poem for her birthday, and as often over the years, he made a careful
French translation, with alternatives.
 /  (?) March  / Paris
PC to GC-L
What can I offer you, my dear Gisèle?
Here is a poem written while thinking of you—here it is just as I wrote
it down, right off, in its first version, unaltered, unchanged.
Happy birthday!
Il y aura quelque chose, plus tard,
qui se remplit (se remplira) de toi
et se hisse(ra)
à (la hauteur d’) une bouche
De mon (Du milieu de) délire (ma folie)
volé(e) en éclats
je me dresse (m’érige)
et contemple ma main
qui trace
l’un, l’unique
[There will be something, later,
that brims full with you
and lifts up
toward a mouth
Out of a shardstrewn
I stand up
The One and Only Circle: Paul Celan’s Letters to Gisèle
and look upon my hand,
how it draws the one
and only
My translation of Celan’s German poem, “Es wird etwas sein,” was
made before these letters were accessible. I would have learned, if only
tacitly, from the French version he made for Gisèle. In line two, for das
füllt sich / “that brims full,” he puts qui se remplit (se remplira)—allowing
that a German present tense can also imply the future. And then for und
hebt sich / “and lifts up,” he also puts et se hisse(ra)/ “and will lift up.”
Walter Benjamin’s far-reaching essay, “The Task of Translation,” says at
one point (as I hear it), “Translation kindles from the endless renewal of
languages as they grow to the messianic end of their history.” Paul Celan
harbored a messianic hope against hope, that poetry might bear witness
to and even bring about a return to true humanity, after what he called
“that which happened” and we call Holocaust. His French version for
Gisèle was his last letter to her.
“Es wird etwas sein,” in French, ends perfectly on “circle”: l’un, l’unique
/ cercle—as in fact the German poem cannot. He cherished that circle, a
meridian bringing life back to what it ought again to be. So Paul Celan’s
last letter gives his wife a possible future, a Shabbat or Sabbath when a
brimful cup of wine may one day lift toward a mouth.
Gisèle’s immediate response was her last letter to him.
 /  March  / [Paris]
GC-L to PC
My dear Paul,
the tulips, their red, their life, this morning from six on, after
hours of so little sleep—they were with me.
Your poem stays with me too.
Thank you, thank you again.
John Felstiner
Have a good stay in Germany
A month later, unobserved, Celan drowned in the Seine off Pont
Mirabeau. Left on his desk was a biography of Hölderlin, open to an
underlined passage: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down
into the bitter well of his heart.” In June of , among much else,
the draft of an unsent letter to Heidegger was found: “…that through
your attitude, your posture, you are weakening decisively what poetry is,
and I would guess, what thought is, in their ardent urge, both of them,
toward responsibility”
The letters translated here, and the accompanying photographs, are
drawn from:
Correspondance (-) de Paul Celan et Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. Editée
et commentée par Bertrand Badiou, avec le concours d’Eric Celan. Le
Seuil, “La Librairie du XXIe siècle,  vols. (). A version of this essay
appeared in Fiction magazine,  ().
The One and Only Circle: Paul Celan’s Letters to Gisèle