:: Article

Mother Tongue

By Jules Lewis.

For as long as I can remember I have equated the death of one’s parents with the most pure freedom in the world, perhaps the only freedom in the world.

So it is not surprising that as I lay on the stiff Victorian sofa in the drawing room of the castle in Hörn, Austria, which my mother had rented to host a family reunion, reading the introduction to Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, a writer who had been orphaned by The Second World War, I was overcome with an almost choking sense of envy. I found myself stuck on the first page of the introduction, unable to get beyond the opening sentence: a mundane description of Celan’s peaceful early years, growing up on the eastern edge of the Hapsburg Empire, back when he still went by his given name, Paul Antschel. Perhaps it was because I already knew about the hardships following Celan’s childhood—the murdered parents, the labour camp—that I found this sentence, designed solely to provide context, a sense of a beginning, so hard to move beyond. I kept seeing my life reflected back in the sentence as a literary introduction eternally stuck on the first page, an inert slab of harmless preamble, unable to expand into the real stuff, the tragedy, the art, even the death.

I contemplated sharing these thoughts with my mother who had slipped into a late afternoon snooze on the upholstered throne across from me, but instead I closed the heavy book, hoping to release myself from the anxiety that it was causing.  I lay there on the elegant and uncomfortable sofa, my bare feet dangling over the edge, studying its cover: a black and white photograph of Paul Celan, which looked like wallpaper, stretching to the edges of the front border and around to the binding and the back side of the book. In the photograph, Celan is sitting, although no chair or stool is visible, his hands loosely clasped, leaning towards the viewer with a sort of macabre generosity—a lawyer guiding you through the first steps of penning a will. Over the photograph, in slender white print, was the title of the book and the translator’s name, John Felstiner, a man I knew nothing about beyond the army green sentence along the bottom of the cover stating that he was the winner of The Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for Translation. Even in my still nascent and obscure life as a writer, I had learned a thing or two about the superficial nature of literary prizes, having received a small one for a play I wrote five years back. Soon after the thrill of winning wore off, for reasons I still do not fully understand, the award planted within me a sense of fraudulence that over the years has grown into a densely tangled vine of self doubt, and I have not been able to complete a single piece of writing since.

Staring at the army green sentence on the bottom of the cover, I became suspicious not only of John Felstiner’s talents but of his relationship to the publishing world. The type of translator to receive a prestigious-sounding award like The Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award could very well have chosen to become an expert on Paul Celan, widely perceived as the world’s most important Holocaust Poet, because he knew that even a lazy, maudlin translation of his work, which would reduce the singular intensity of his artistic universe to historical kitsch, was bound not only to receive a prestigious-sounding award but also to become a bestseller, given the insatiable appetite of the English-speaking North American Jewish diaspora for Holocaust literature of any sort.

 But even if John Felstiner was in fact the sleazy award-winning opportunist that I had begun to suspect, it was my own fault that I had to depend on him to guide me through Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, due to my embarrassingly limited knowledge of German, my maternal grandparents’ mother tongue. A few years back I tried to teach myself the language. I read German newspapers, listened to German radio and watched German films. The language followed me around during those days like a plump-flaked blizzard; every now and then a word or a sentence landed in my mouth, and I could taste its meaning, feel it soak into my tongue. It was during this period that I boldly attempted to translate Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, although this effort did not get further than the famous first sentence, which took up residence in my head for days. I muttered the German words over and over, like some private prayer, on my daily walks through downtown Toronto, along Yonge Street and Dundas Street, past electronic billboards, budget shoe stores and third-floor massage parlors. Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Traumen erwachts, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt. I vowed to compose my translation with only my limited knowledge of German, my memories of Kafka’s work and an intuition for the language, which, I believed, I could channel from my maternal grandparents, whom I had never met.

One crisp apple of a January afternoon I was walking downtown towards The Eaton Centre when I became fixated on the third to last word of Kafka’s sentence, ungeheuren. I began repeating it out loud: ungeheuren, ungeheuren, ungeheuren. Soon other German words made their way into my chant. Fand sich er ungeheuren. Erwachts einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer. Traumen ungeheuren. Ungeheuren Morgens. Ungeheuren unruhigen Traumen. Unruhigenungeheurenungeziefer. Ungeheurenseinemungeheurenungezeifer-

erwachtersichungeheuren. By the time I’d made it to The Eaton Centre, pushed through the giant revolving doors, double-stepped one floor down the escalator, hurried past Sportscheck, Aldo, The Sunglasses Hut, La Senza and into the crowded food court to the blood-orange table out front of Manchu Wok where I always went to write in the late afternoon, I was out of breath and drenched in sweat, my heart beating German syllables. I noticed a family sitting at one of the tables in front of Jimmy The Greek: mother, father and two boys, both under the age of ten. There was something eerily serious about them. You could tell it was a rare event for them to be eating together in public; it was as if they were afraid to threaten the sanctity of the moment by speaking or even making eye contact. They were focused only on their Souvlaki lunch specials, which they were consuming with great precision. I could see that the younger of the two boys was eating his yellow rice one at a time, carefully pushing each grain onto his plastic fork with the edge of his plastic knife before raising the utensil to his mouth. This struck me as not an unreasonable way to eat given the gravity of the circumstance.

I took out my pen and spiral-bound notebook from my bag and started making notes, glancing up at the family every two seconds, as if their presence alone was fueling my train of thought. Kafka’s insect = unreasonable creature. Ungeheuren Ungeziefer = unreasonable creature/insect/thing. My heart started beating through my ears. This was it. I’d figured it out. Ungeheuren = unreasonable. I wrote it down again. Ungeheuren = unreasonable. I felt a chunk of something squid-like travelling up through my esophagus. Kafka’s ungeheuren = monumentally unreasonable. Kafka’s ungeheuren creature = Ungeziefer. It was moving up towards my mouth with tremendous force, but I couldn’t slow down my train of thought, and kept writing. Ungeziefer = ungeheuren-sized insect. Ungeziefer = Samsa wakes up with no longer a human body = unreasonable/ungeheuren situation. It was stuck. In my throat. Cartilage or bile or bone or whatever it was. I was choking. Ungeziefer = insect. Ungeziefer scuttles/is leg-like. Wormy tips of capital U/ low-hanging boomerang of g’s lower half/ spindly furry ends of  f. I glanced desperately around the food-court. Nobody noticed what was happening to me. I couldn’t breathe. I was going to die. I went back to my notebook. Ungeziefer = many-legged insect. Ungeheuren Ungeziefer= monumentally unreasonable many-legged insect. Ungeheuren = unreasonable chunk of nothing.

And then, just like that, my throat was clear. I could breathe again. I had choked up nothing that I could detect. Only a pale, rubbery taste. I flipped to a fresh page of my notebook. Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettled dreams transformed into an unreasonable many-legged insect.

Of course it’s now clear to me that my translation was total nonsense, considering that in reality I knew almost nothing about the German language, and that my method was based only on vague and quixotic ideas about historical and psychological inheritance, ideas that I have since come to reject, seeing all ancestry as random, and our obsession with it to be one of the great sicknesses of the human species, leading us to commit the most heinous crimes for nothing more than the preservation of narrative consistency. And yet, as I lay there on the drawing room sofa, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was not this same human sickness that was now compelling me to notice in the black and white jacket-cover photograph of Paul Celan, in his bushy eyebrows, and his baldness, and the roundness of his face, an uncanny resemblance to my grandfather.

I had the desire, just then, to wake up my mother, whose neck had now fallen forward, her chin resting limp against her chest, and ask if she had ever noticed that her father looked almost identical to Paul Celan, that there was something about Paul Celan’s eyebrows, the way they made his face look circular, rather than oval, that was exactly the way her father’s face looked, but I thought better of it. Like me, she was not an expert on my grandfather’s face, having only known him in black and white photographs taken before 1939, the year he was pulled off a train and shot, attempting to flee Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with a fake passport. I stared again at the black and white photograph of Paul Celan. Black and white photographs are the medium of murdered grandfathers, I thought. Especially black and white photographs of people like Paul Celan, who, like my murdered grandfather, was one of these bald, round-faced, bushy-eyebrowed Habsburg Empire Jews. But rather than dwell on this physical likeness, which I completely distrusted, I decided to re-open Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan and again attempt the introduction, skipping ahead, past the section about his early life, to Felstiner’s analysis of Deathfugue, Celan’s most famous poem, composed at the tail end of 1944. The poem opens with the line: Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening. Such an odd collection of words, I thought. It brought to mind the cartoon image of a child in 1950s suburban Midwest America, chugging down a cold glass of fresh black milk before bedtime. The image stuck with me as I read Felstiner’s explanation that Celan wrote Deathfugue in part as an effort to reclaim “his mother tongue that had suddenly turned into his mother’s murderers’ tongue.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother wriggle a shoulder against the back of her throne. She made a noise, which sounded like “Normandy,” or “nobody.” Her tongue had slipped between her slightly opened lips and was inching towards her chin, as if in a sneaky attempt to escape from her mouth. This was making it difficult for me to distinguish the idea of Celan’s mother’s murderer’s tongue from my mother’s actual tongue, my mother whose father’s murderer’s tongue was the same tongue as Paul Celan’s mother’s murderer’s tongue, that is to say a German-speaking tongue, unlike my tongue, a neither German-speaking nor murdering tongue, a tongue that has undoubtedly been shaped by my mother, who, unlike Celan’s mother, was not murdered by Nazis, her sweet white milk drenching my adulthood in sweet white banality, whereas whatever sweet white milk Paul Celan received from his mother turned black, leading him to become an extraordinary poet and then drown himself at the age of forty-nine, which I would never be able to do. To drown yourself you must have faith in your ability to sink. And to have faith in your ability to sink, the sorrow within you has to be of enormous weight. I am full of perverse weightlessness. Which is to say that if I were to commit suicide it would be by jumping out of a window. A quick, leaping death is the only way to escape the trap of having parents who have not been murdered; it is the only possible exit from this castle in Hörn, Austria, that my mother rented for the week on Airbnb to house her family on a trip back to our so-called ancestral homeland; it is the only option for a life so hopelessly stuck in the numbing safety of a literary introduction, out a window, into the air, falling, falling, Paul Celan would never jump out of a window, I am falling out of a window, it is my only chance at becoming an artist, it is my only chance at freedom, to feel the reality of gravity, proof of my substance, then death.

I looked over at my mother. Her eyes were open, wide and milky, and she was staring at me, alert with fear, like I was an intruder or a ghost. Then they closed again, locking out the physical world. One of her elbows fidgeted on the wooden arm of the throne and her eyelids were now quivering, as if a battle was being fought between the spiraling, buttery depths of her dream and the harsh, bright surfaces of waking life. Beams of late afternoon light slanted through the western castle window from the manicured Austrian countryside, which made her skin look like a delicate coral maze of purple and yellow and green. Staring at her then, I could not defend against the thought, or observation, or lie, that her face looked just as round as my grandfather’s face, which I had only seen in black and white photographs, and which bore a striking similarity to the shape of Paul Celan’s face, or not his face at all but his last name, Celan, a particularly round word, beginning with the half-circle C then curving sensually into the crescent Frenchness of the closing syllable, lan, making it impossible not to think of the word Celan as belonging to any face but a circular face, so unlike the steeple-like sharpness of the original name he inherited, Antschel, which has a destination. Antschel points straight up, out of this world, towards the heavens. Celan goes around and around and around, without end, like my mother’s face, Celanning ceaselessly into a past that does not belong to anybody, through this land where our ancestors lived, that nobody understands, then Celanning back, into the present, without closure, then into the future, where death does not finish anything, where death goes around and around and around, like my face, like my mother’s face, like my grandfather’s face. These Celanian curves. My Celanian nerves. I am stuck in the unending face circle of Celan, which leads nowhere.

In her sleep, my mother had opened her mouth, her lips and tongue nudging upwards, as if in anticipation of being fed. I watched her for a few moments then got up from the sofa and walked to the closest window in the drawing room. Sunlight poured into my eyes, like white flames. From far off, beyond the grounds of the castle, I could hear the joyous laughter of small children playing in the heat of the afternoon.

Jules Lewis
is the author of the novel Waiting for Ricky Tantrum and the play Tomasso’s Party. He lives in Toronto.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 11th, 2019.