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Romance of the letters

CATHERINE RHEA ROY
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Event A tumultuous love story through a series of letters dashed off in the middle of war makes up a tragic romance called Correspondence

STRANGE CONFLICTS Anjum Katyal and Vinay Sharma at the reading photo: sampath kumar g.p.
STRANGE CONFLICTS Anjum Katyal and Vinay Sharma at the reading photo: sampath kumar g.p.

T he most flattering lines of love are hidden in poetry, and all the poignant professions in Ingeborg Bachmann's and Paul Celan's letters to each other negates anything else that a third person might surmise.

The combined world of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann is a tumultuous love story that has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. Bachmann was a philosophy student, daughter of an early Austrian member of NSDAP; and Celan, a stateless German-speaking Jew from Czernowitz who had lost his parents in a concentration camp and was himself a survivor of a Romanian labour camp.

The two were bound together by a mutual penchant they shared for words and a lifetime of struggle and consistent efforts to find a sustainable form for their relationship.

The audience at Bangalore's Max Mueller's Bhavan were presented a reading of “Correspondence” translated by Wieland Hoban and published by Seagull Books. The stage was spartan except for two chairs that contributed to the period setting, but hardly a set that suggested romance. The austerity was reflective of the World War era; Anjum Katyal, Chief Editor, Seagull Books and actor, director, writer, Vinay Sharma took their respective seats and were part of a love story that rests solely in eloquently-crafted letters and poetry. Anjum and Vinay read from “Correspondence” — a book that is a collection of letters, postcards and telegrams, unsent letters and drafts of letters, as well as dedications in books and manuscripts of the correspondents.

Vinay opened the evening by reading “Corona” — he read with a dismissive, almost matter of fact tone, which did not convey any sense of emotion. Anjum as Ingeborg Bachmann, was a voice more gentle and affectionate. Each letter was a plea. But his feelings are revealed by the sheer number of letters and poems that he sends Bachmann, so much so that she finds it difficult to reply.

When Ingeborg writes to her parents she says, “The Surrealist poet Paul Celan, whom I had just met two nights earlier… and who is very fascinating, has, splendidly enough, fallen in love with me… my room is a poppy field at the moment as he inundates me with this flower.”

The starting point of their correspondence lies in “In Aegypten/In Egypt”, a poem that Celan wrote and dedicated to Bachmann and referring to the poem he writes to her, “You are the reason for living, not least because you are and will remain, the justification for my speaking.”

The affair went through phases of on again and off again, and the entry of Gisele Lestrange, Celan's wife and Max Frisch whom Bachmann met in 1958 complicates the dynamics. The story ends with Celan committing suicide in the Seine in 1970 and Bachmann dies in 1973 in Rome as the consequence of a fire accident, caused by a cigarette she falls asleep smoking.

CATHERINE RHEA ROY

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