Monday, November 30, 2009

Roy Exley, review: Daive’s “Under the Dome”

Roy Exley

Review of:

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan
by Jean Daive
trans. Rosmarie Waldrop
ISBN-13: 978-1-886224-97-1

Jean Daive offers an extended series of temporally disjointed ‘Aides Memoires’, emulating, perhaps, the faulty, and often random, workings of memory and the consequently flawed nature of recollection. This absorbing text is very much poetic prose, rather than prose-poetry. These disjunctions, which often give it a halting rhythm, are only one of the layers in this work that keep the reader on his or her toes. Never quite sure whether or not Celan is dead or alive as we read Daive’s aphorisms and reflections on life in Paris around his friendship with Celan, the presence of Celan nevertheless carries the same weight, whether the recollections are pre- or post-suicide. Celan’s work, as an extension of the man seemingly transcends the bounds of mortality.

There are very poignant and moving passages which relay the depth of Daive’s grief at the loss of Celan, for instance, while he was still missing after his yet undiscovered suicide, his wife, Gisele told Daive:

“Paul left his watch on his night table. Paul is dead.

Ah? Why?

Paul always kept his watch on his wrist. He told me: the day I take of my watch, I’ll have decided to die.”

This struck Daive like a thunderbolt.

Daive tells us that Celan wrote, “Eternity is grey”. All colour washed from his life by the harsh and abrasive nature of destiny. The noose of melancholia seems to tighten as the writings progress. Davie describes how, “In a café, Paul Celan goes through his identity with me, in a neutral, toneless voice, the acoustic equivalent of an automat.”

No colour, no tone, the only relief silence. Davie notes how ‘He weighs his words carefully. Every moment he evaluates the word. I should add: every moment he evaluates silence.’ Something of John Cage’s supercharged modernism is in evidence here. Without those silences, the words would stumble into that meaninglessness from which Celan is fleeing. His writing of poetry was a purging process, an attempt to exorcise the demons that tormented him. Writing was also an escape - as it often is - as he tried to evade the memories of loss. He finally made good his escape by way of the Seine – plunging, through its sparkling embrace, on through into its abyss below – its grey eternity.

Daive tells us that Celan is thought to have jumped off the Pont Mirabeau, as this is the bridge named in several of his poems – his body was found several days later in the sluices further down the river – his point of entry into the Seine remains uncertain. His enigma was perpetuated – no suicide note, the site of his death unknown, no signs, traces of, or witnesses to, the event.

It is somewhat distressing to read of the last days of such a great writer. It was his bitter experiences, his grievous losses through the holocaust, that provided the fuel for the engine that drove his poetry, but to finally discover that it was this very same engine fuelled by this same anguish that drove him down the final slippery slope to suicide is ultimately a saddening realisation.

The reader gets the feeling from Daive’s words that Celan never really allowed anybody to get too close to him – it is obvious, however, that he felt a certain empathy with Daive as a fellow writer. Nevertheless, ultimately, Celan was, and remains, an enigma, he lived a peripheral, bohemian existence in Paris, while, incongruously, dressing like the bourgeoisie. Daive describes him, in one passage, as wearing ‘an impeccable gray-black suit. White shirt, tie. Heavy walking shoes’, and in another, sporting ‘his ironed handkerchief: white square, perfect square, square without fold’. To contrast with this image, Daive later describes his place as ‘a barely furnished apartment (there’s only the table and a few chairs)’ - to retain the ambience of enigma, one has to maintain a distance from mainstream life, refuse to adopt any of its stereotypes, Celan, it appears, carried this out with aplomb.

As the text shunts backwards and forwards through his memories of Celan, Daive maintains the reputation of Paris as a place dominated by the seasons and conveys a strong sense of Celan himself being influenced by the seasons there. These seasons wink in and out of the text blinking like a strobe on only a marginally longer rhythm than day and night, an existential dizziness lies in wait here for the reader who is off guard, this can sometimes, also, be a source of frustration.

Tantalising might be the most appropriate adjective to use in connection with Under the Dome. We are offered lots of tasty little insights and intimacies into this friendship between Daive and Celan, malleable, and often embellished, recollections of fleeting moments and events that gather their own momentum as their interplay intensifies from page to page. We get to know Celan as a recurring figure in a restlessly shifting crowd, but this figure is more like a ghost unable to move forward from the epistemological trauma that keeps it earthbound.

A German speaker in Paris, Celan never really adjusts, we sense that his smart impeccable dress is a sort of armour to protect him from further dissipation - you get the feeling that he is grimly holding onto a sense of self that is continuously threatened with erasure by the recurring trauma of his tragic personal history.

Daive writes:

“After a long silence punctured with noise, he continues:

‘The world is of glass.

And disappearance is within us.’”

The fragility of existence can only be protected by a perpetual vigilance.

This vigilance is reinforced in the words of many of Celan’s poems.

As a German writer who was, through necessity, obliged to use that language of those who were the perpetrators of his parents deaths was an incongruity that continued to haunt him and was the basis of many conversations with Daive. Their regular walks ‘under the dome’ of chestnut leaves, as they criss-crossed Paris set the scene for many of their most fruitful conversations and provided the opportunity for Daive to try and plumb Celan’s hidden depths – a quest that did not always meet with success, he writes, “There is a symptom of Paul’s that I would like to analyze, that of avoidance.”

Daive seems genuinely compassionate and concerned for Celan while, at the same time, being restrained both by a sense of awe and a sense of deference. This awe sometimes colours Daive’s words to the extent that they read like the notes of a stalker watching his quarry’s every move and watching every nuance of every move.

In his 1960 ‘Meridian’ address, Celan wrote:

“Poetry today ….. exhibits an unmistakeably strong tendency towards silence.” [1]

This statement seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy that filters into Celan’s life itself.

Daive picks up on this phenomenon quite frequently in his negotiations with Celan and his work.

But maybe this silence is also an antidote to his frequent bouts of dementia that his wife Gisele reports to Daive, who subsequently visits Celan in hospital during one of these episodes of dementia, during this visit silence is not given a chance by Celan’s constant torrent of words, leaving Daive feeling mentally exhausted.

Some of the clues Daive provides us with are vital to that picture we are able to build up of Celan’s last years in Paris, others are merely dressing to decorate and enliven our passage through this text. Each reader will get a different message, but only the most discerning will decipher the truths of Celan’s last years. I love Celan’s writings but, personally, I struggled here, through these writings, to warm to him as an individual.

There is balancing act being performed here, that between this work as a document and this as a work of art, as an expression of Daive’s creative and rich imagination and as a documentary of a brief friendship. It is a fascinating read for followers of Celan, but one which feels a bit like a starter with only tempting hints of what the main course might be.

It is difficult, but maybe not necessary, to separate the man from his poetry. He became his poetry and now his poetry has become him. Paul Celan may well have ceased to be, but his poetry lives on and maybe even transcends the man. Like an hourglass, he and his work was filtered through a narrow defile, only to be diffused and transmitted into an amazingly recipient and grateful literary world beyond, a world that seemed, serendipitously, to be waiting for such a significant input.

This is modernist alchemy, from the base materials of banal everyday experiences, shared with a unique individuality, Daive has translated and distilled the spiritual power of Celan’s thoughts and writings into a text that we can visit and re-visit, at will, navigating and re-navigating the existential significance of Celan’s orientation to a harsh but nevertheless creatively potential world. Celan was the progenitor of an increasingly engaging and challenging oeuvre, of which academics, commentators and poets alike, never seem to tire – we progressively analyse the minutiae of our everyday experiences but at a speed that ultimately skims over the detail and ends up with a superficial, bland synopsis. Let Celan’s writings rescue us from such banality. Let Jean Daive’s memoirs give us the kick-start and the enthusiasm to delve in there.


[1] Beda Allemann & Stefan Reichert [Eds.], Gesammelte Werke, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 1983. Volume 3, page 197.

Roy Exley is a freelance art critic and writer based in London.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

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