Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Celan in London

    Very interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about Paul Celan's links with London, centring on his poem 'Mapesbury Road' :


I had read the poem, but it was only listening to this programme that I realised I knew Mapesbury Road quite well, being fairly near my former college in Queens Park. It seems strange to think of Celan in such a familiar, local context - I particularly liked the story about him looking for an orange shirt for his small son in the London shops.
    However, one might question the whole process of regarding a Celan poem (as Toby Litt and the programme-makers seem to) as a "mystery" that can be teased out or perhaps even solved by biographical and geographical delvings. Surely we are lapsing back into the "intentionalist fallacy" if we try to explain away the elliptical resonances of Celan's work in this way. Does knowing there is a magnolia-tree in the garden of the house in Mapesbury Road where Celan stayed in 1968 bring us any nearer to an "understanding" of the lines about "the magnolia-hour's half-clock"? Worse, did we really need one contributor's wholly conjectural interpretation of the "black woman" at the beginning of the poem as the memory of a night-club singer Celan had seen in Antwerp many years before, singing the song made famous by Billie Holliday, 'Strange Fruit', which contains a reference to "magnolia blossom"?! (I guess some people make careers out of this kind of belletristic - and ultimately self-aggrandising - fabulation.)
   We should remember what Celan said when asked for an explanation of his poems: "Keep reading".

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