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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Paul Celan and the Hunt for the Boar of Kalydon

In the Shape of a Boar by Lawrence Norfolk. Grove Press, New York, 322 pages, 2000, $25.00.

In the Shape of a Boar
your dream tramples through the woods on the edges of evening.
Glittering white
like the ice from which it erupted
are its razors.

Paul Celan, In the Shape of a Boar

Lawrence Norfolk’s new novel, In the Shape of a Boar, starts with a quotation from a letter that the German-Jewish poet Paul Celan wrote to the classicist Walter Jens in May of 1961:

I’ve often asked myself where I might have got my “boar.” Boars, my dear Walter Jens, – such things do exist.

Celan’s letter was a response to an article that Jens was writing in defense of the poet against the much-publicized charge of plagiarism brought against him (the so-called Goll affair). In the quotation above (and in the letter in general), Celan alluded to and responded to the charges that he had copied and used certain images in his poems from another poet, specifically, the image of a “boar.” The root of the trouble, in this case, was a poem that Celan had written, “In Gestalt eines Ebers” (“In the Shape of a Boar”), which is also the title of Norfolk’s novel. Although Norfolk cites only a very small part of Celan’s response, the letter and its content, together with Celan’s poem, seem to be at the heart of this novel – with questions of poetic archetypes and traces, encounters, and the return to sites of reading.

Norfolk’s novel opens with a retelling of a Greek mythological event, the hunt for the boar of ancient Kalydon. In this first chapter, the author attempts to reconstruct the myth, to fill in the gaps of what is missing from the sources that have survived, which describe the hunt of this monster that once terrorized the land of Greece. He centers his narrative on the female hunter, Atalanta, and two of her male companions, Meleager and Meilanion, and the destructive love affair that shadows the chasing of the boar. Along with the main narrative, the author provides all of the sources and references to this ancient myth, a demonstration perhaps of the spectral quality of the past, the loss of history, and the limitations of history itself. When was the last time that we read a novel in which three-quarters of the page was taken up by scholarly footnotes?

The trails of “Atalanta,” “Meilanion” and “Meleager” run out. Their footprints churn the ground to an illegible palimpsest where all three are reduced to the evidence for their existences, collections of plausibilities, fleeting intersections between the different versions of their history, which meet as collusive armies to battle among themselves….And yet for every history limping along the trail of its confused posterity there is another which consumes itself. Here they leave no mark at all.

The footnotes themselves, all of these incomplete sources, become traces of a lost event, manifestations of different versions of history, and to a certain degree they constitute some form of resistance to any possibility of closure that Norfolk’s novel may suggest. They not only point to something absent, to the incompleteness of the Greek myth, but they also haunt Norfolk’s attempt to recreate the event.

The myth of the boar becomes central to Sol Memel, a German-Jewish poet whose life unfolds in the second half of the novel. Memel, a fictional figure for Paul Celan, has likewise written a long poem that draws its imagery from the myth of the boar of Kalydon and its hunter, Atalanta. This poem has not only brought fame to the poet, but has marked and changed his life forever. The second part of the book begins in Paris, with a television interview that Sol, now a famous poet, gives to promote the film adaptation of the poem, directed by his childhood friend, Ruth. From that moment on, and throughout the story, we become witnesses to the recreation of Sol’s life, starting from his youth in his Romanian hometown before the war (though never named, it is clearly Chernowitz, well known for its Jewish culture), to his later life in Paris.

The narrative unfolds in a non-chronological or non-linear fashion, mixing both temporal and spatial registers. We read about the life of the young poet, and his close but antagonistic relationship with his friend, Jacob, because of their shared love for Ruth (a fictional recreation of Ruth Lackner, an actress and friend of Celan). Through the lives and experiences of these characters, we learn not only about their personal transformations, but also the historical changes that affected them, from the Soviet and German occupations to the deportation of the city’s Jewish population. What makes the story interesting, but also puzzling, is the connection made by the author between the mythic account in ancient Greece thousands of years before and the catastrophic events of the twentieth century.

Sol manages to escape deportation (with the help of Ruth) and ends up in Greece, where he is found by the andartes (partisans) and witnesses another hunt, this time of a German officer by a group of Greek partisans led by a woman nicknamed Thyella. This particular event is then interwoven with the myth of the boar of Kalydon in what becomes Sol’s poem, “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Hunt of the Boar”), thereby intertwining notions of closeness and distance. However, things become complicated when the truthfulness of the facts of Sol’s poem, already part of the poetry canon, is challenged by Jacob, as well as by Ruth’s film.

This incident echoes, to a certain degree, the charges of plagiarism to which Celan had to respond. In a long essay that challenges the accuracy and authenticity of the poem (and Sol’s experience of the event), Jacob, writing under an assumed name, claims that:

...the truth is always both self-evident and obscure. But assertions are correct or incorrect. Proven or provable or not. I have applied simple criteria to a well-known text, a poetic text because poetry is an occasion of truth, the place where it becomes tellable. Or so it claims….Who knows, perhaps there never was a hunt?...The “reality” behind the lines of Die Keilerjagd was distant, as though transcribed from far away, or long after the events. But not by one who had played a part. Not by one who had witnessed them.

Through Jacob, the author suggests the common thread between the two halves of his novel (and, I would add, Celan’s real poem as well): the correspondence or supplementarity between these two similar events, and the inability to tell what really happened in any of them. In other words, Jacob’s different version of the story seems to reflect the author’s own attempt to reconstruct the myth of the boar. Jacob’s response to the poem, and the structure of his essay, very much resembles Norfolk’s reconstruction of the mythic event (with the use of the scholarly footnotes), and his desire to fill in the gaps, or reflect on the possibility of a different version or different ending.

The lack of any real evidence about the actuality of the event – the lack, in other words, of any coherent historical record that either of these events took place – seems to make it possible for Norfolk, as well as for some of his characters, to tell or reconstruct their own stories. After reading the book, I had the impression of an endless process of mirroring, in which Sol’s personal story was recreated by Ruth’s adaptation, while Sol’s recreation of the myth of the boar through the lens of modern Greek history was doubled by Norfolk’s own re-encounter of the event. The novel thereby addresses the questions of beginnings, sources, and the return to other sites of reading.

We can argue that the narrative construction of Norfolk’s novel casts new light on certain events and, above all, on the author’s use of sources (the Greek myth, Celan’s and Ruth Lackner’s lives) and symbols. In that sense, the opening quotation from Celan’s letter not only corresponds to and addresses Celan’s own use of the image of the “boar,” but also Norfolk’s own use of the same image. As Celan warns us, it would be very easy to find “his boar” in other poems that existed before, but that would be an immature literary perspective. As Celan concludes in his letter to Jens, only “a re-encounter turns the encounter into…Encounter.”

Norfolk’s novel is interesting in its narrative construction, and in the way it interweaves past and present, myth and history, evidence and fiction. At the same time, I am not quite sure why Norfolk chose Celan as the model for Sol. What does the novel add to our perception of Celan, since there is an absence in it of any serious consideration of his poetry? Should we read that as an intentional strategy that reflects the author’s perception of what cannot be explicitly discussed or witnessed? That Norfolk believes, just as in the chase of the boar, that the closer we get to Celan’s verses, the further we move into the cave, or darkness? Celan’s poetry itself has provided us with some of the most difficult, alienating, and at the same time breathtaking verses, demonstrating the devastating impact of history on language. Despite the rich poetic language and intensity of Norfolk’s own prose, he fails to communicate the impact of Celan’s, but also of Sol’s, language on those who encounter and re-encounter their poetry.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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