Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner
There is a story about James Joyce and Finnegans Wake, at a glance the most incomprehensible work of fiction ever produced by a major author. When a frustrated admirer protested that it would take him ten years to understand the book, Joyce is said to have replied, “Ten years? I demand my reader’s whole life.”
Few of us, however, have even ten years to spare; and although Finnegans Wake, with the help of critical commentaries, can be read nowadays on a reduced time budget, our frustration remains and can be formulated in two questions. Practically speaking, why bother struggling with a putatively great work of art that is so uncooperative about yielding its secrets? And on a more theoretical level, can an art work, however caringly or cunningly constructed, be judged anything but a failure if, in and of itself, it offers an audience no apparent means of grasping its content and structure?
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.