Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jené, Celan, and the Austrian Journey

For several weeks now I have been trying to imagine Paul Celan’s journey from Romania to Austria. Neither of the biographies that I have deals with this ordeal in any detail.

In my fantasy, I begin by remembering images from Carol Reed’s film, based on a Graham Greene script, The Third Man. I imagine Celan stealing away through ruined streets one frigid night, probably wearing a dark suit, hat, and an overcoat, and carrying a small cardboard suitcase. Somewhere in the dark he meets a Hungarian farmer who leads him and other Jews, who are hiding in the woods, to the Hungarian border, where they cross in a rush, wading through deep snow. Once across they work their way to a deserted train station where they wait for a train that may or may not appear.

Israel Chalfen in his Paul Celan, a Biography of his Youth, writes “with the help of Hungarian farmers, Paul crossed the Romanian-Hungarian border in 1947-the smuggling of people was well organized and proceeded undisturbed. On the other side of the border he joined up with a group of Jewish emigrants and tried to make his way to Vienna.” (Chalfen, 191).

Somehow I don’t find this description satisfactory or persuasive. At the time, the Russians occupied both Hungary and Romania and shared the occupation of Vienna with the Allies. Chalfen makes this journey sound almost safe. I imagine that they met with Russian patrols and were accosted, slept in barns and deserted stations. They must have been hungry and thirsty, tired and frightened. They traveled in groups for safety but these were the survivors, traumatized and barely recovered from the war. Celan writes that he was among them but not one of them: “I lay on a stone, back then . . . on the stone tiles; and next to me, there they lay, the others who were like me . . .my cousins; . . . they did not love me and I did not love them, because I was one, and who wants to love one, and they were many . . ..” (Chalfen, 191)

Nevertheless, the simple facts are that Paul Celan arrived in Vienna by way of Budapest on December 17, 1947, as a refugee. Shortly after arriving he became a member of an artist’s circle that met at the Agathon Gallery. The group’s leader was Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski, who published the magazine Die schönen Künste.

One of Celan’s major supporters at the time was the painter, Edgar Jené. Jené was born on March 4, 1904 in Saarbrücken. He studied art at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Munich and at the Ecole National des Beaux-Arts, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1928, he met the surrealists. The painting above, entitled Coco (1928), is an expressionist portrait of Jené's wife.

Later Jené was responsible for the surrealist renaissance in Vienna and Celan’s connection to him further illustrates his contact with the surrealists.

In addition to Jené, Celan also met Ingeborg Bachmann, who would become his lover and ultimately a friend for the rest of his life. More on her later.

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