I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century. There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with digital communication. When I was reading the letters, post cards, notes, telegrams and poems sent between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan I felt like I was eavesdropping or spying on the unfolding of an intense, passionate and, at times tortured, love affair. I wondered what this correspondence would look like in the 21st century and it occurred to me that texts, direct messages, emails and video chats would not have the same underlying tone of intimacy that one feels while reading the Bachmann and Celan letters.
In May of 1948, Ingeborg Bachmann writes a letter to her parents describing her first few meetings with Paul Celan. She tells them that Celan has “fallen in love with me, which adds a little spice to my dreary work.” The letters between Bachmann and Celan throughout the rest of 1948 and 1949 are full of passionate longing, a strong desire to see one another again and misunderstandings that are inevitable with written correspondence. They make plans to meet many times, but for a variety reasons they don’t get the opportunity to see one another very often for the next twenty years. Their careers, geography, and other relationships all serve as obstacles that keep them apart. Celan writes to Bachmann in April 1949:
My dear, you,
I am so glad this letter came—and now I have kept you waiting for so long too, quite unintentionally and without a single unkind thought. You know well enough that this happens sometimes. One does not know why. Two or three times I wrote you a letter, and then left it unsent after all. But what does that really mean, when we are thinking of each other and will, perhaps, do so for a very long time yet?
And in late May/early June Bachmann responds:
Paul, dear Paul,
I long for you and for our fairy tale. What shall I do? You are so far away from me, and the cards you send, which satisfied me until recently, are no longer enough for me.
The excerpts from these two letters are typical of the feelings of absence and yearning that the authors feel for one another. Stolen moments on brief trips to Paris, telegrams, and letters are not enough to satisfy either one of them. But as the years progress and they continue with their letters, a deep sense of trust, friendship, love and mutual understanding is sustained between them. Bachmann becomes for Celan a champion of his work and a mortal and emotional support. In the early years of their communication she is constantly receiving his poems, giving him feedback and trying to get his work published in various literary magazines. When the Goll plagiarism scandal happens, she writes to him and encourages him to put that incident behind him. I also found it sweet and endearing that they continue for many years to exchange books as gifts on one another’s birthdays and at Christmas.
It is touching and selfless that even when they reconnect in 1957 and rekindle their romance, Bachmann encourages Celan to stay with his wife Gisele for the sake of their son. Bachman also struggles to make the decision on whether or not to live with Max Frisch in early 1958. As the years go by and it is evident that fate has conspired against them to ever live together, they still maintain an emotional dependence on one another. Celan’s words dated October 31st—November 1st, 1957 sums up what their relationship evolves into:
Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be.
Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so. To be—be there for another.
Even if it is only a few words, alla breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.