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The spell of a tender eel

Romanian-born poet Oskar Pastior will be 80 next year. The German Academy of Language and Literature would have done a service to literature had they honoured his mystical palindromes and anagrams mid-career. By Martin Lüdke.

A wonderful, long overdue, and surprising decision. Anyone who has ever experienced Oskar Pastior reading, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, heard his soft, amiable voice, warm yet clear with an unfamiliar note somewhere, watched his upper lip and little moustache begin to tremble as he purrs out his vowels – in short, anyone who has learned from him that poetry lives and breathes, that words ring and sing and meaning whirrs and whizzes – must share his pleasure. There is no poet who is more reserved in his manner, more moderate in his nature, more likeable in his whole manifestation. Nor one who is more resolute and uncompromising – and also imaginative – in his work.

Oskar Pastior. Photo courtesy of Urs Engeler Editor

Our first meeting, about thirty years ago, came about in rather unusual circumstances. If I remember rightly it was during the Frankfurt Book Fair. Klaus Ramm, the man of letters who was first Pastior's editor, later became his publisher, and has also remained his friend and selfless supporter, came to our place to watch a Germany match on television, and brought his author along too, unannounced. A mildly embarrassing situation, because Pastior was not in the slightest interested in football. Neither knowing the rules nor understanding the game, he just sat there, silent, through the whole thing, the very incarnation of humanity, occasionally flashing a glance over the top of his glasses, and smiling understandingly even while we – led by the kids – were cheering, booing or celebrating wildly.

In those days, at the Book Fair, Ramm was never without his publishing firm. He literally walked round with a hawker's tray. And when you bumped into him it was almost impossible to get away without buying something. That is how I came to own Pastior's early books, like "Gedichtgedichte" (verseverses: 1973), "Höricht" (1975), "An die Neue Aubergine: Zeichen und Plunder" (to the new aubergine: signs and stuff: 1976), "Der Krimgotische Fächer" (The Crimean gothic fan: 1978) and "Wechselbalg" (changeling: 1981), all of which I still have.

And that is why I was so annoyed when the German Academy of Language and Literature decided to award Pastior the Georg Büchner Prize. Thirty years ago (or even twenty) it would have been a courageous choice. It would not only have helped the author, who has always lived by extremely modest means. It would above all have done a service to literature, as an – urgently needed – amplifier of Pastior's own quiet voice. As a corrective to the steady advance of conventionalism. As a counterweight to Marcel Reich-Ranicki's persistent insistence on common sense in our literature and the criticism thereof.

Of course it goes without saying that Pastior deserves to be honoured for his life's work. Which is more than can be said for the Academy's late decision.

But we are with the poet on this one: "for sense and meaning giveth also what they take away, what makes no sense may yet meaning show."

Oskar Pastior was born in 1927 in Romania, and grew up in the multi-lingual environment of the Transylvanian town of Sibiu/Hermannstadt speaking the outmoded German of his forefathers. He says that he has this multilingualism to thank not only for the insights it gave him into the possibilities of writing, but above all the associated "relativisation of normative thinking". He was deported in 1945 after the Red Army took control of Romania and spent almost five years in Soviet labour camps. After returning, he managed to complete his university entrance qualifications while doing his military service, and then went on to study. In 1968 he fled to the West, and since 1969 has lived in Berlin. And worked – on the language, with the language. "My seriousness is really rather childlike, akin to the games of kids who've had their fingers burned."

Hebrew is read from right to left, German the other way round of course. Pastior can often be read from either end. He works like a DIY aficionado, designing, planning, building and tinkering. At the same time, he approaches the language as a strategist, has his words assemble, line up and march like soldiers, in the process making full use of his freedoms to create new, surprising constellations with each new order.

The results bear names like palindrome, anagram or villanelle, but also inventions like Sonetburger and Gimpelstift (gimpel meaning "dunce" and stift meaning "pen") They are always attempts to turn the rules of the language against themselves, to crack open the language's obsession with its identity and to home in on the tiny, often minuscule gap that separates said from unsaid, the gap where previously hidden, repressed meanings flicker or show their faces. Behind this language work there is – as behind all great poetry – a romantic (or perhaps better, mystic) (mis)understanding of language. The words that Pastior seemingly takes as simple raw material are in fact always charged with the Eichendorffian hope of making the world resonate by finding the magic spell.

Pastior comes very close to this idea when he reads his own poetry aloud. Then it is, as I once read somewhere, "springtime in your head", or, as one of his forerunners, Eugen Gomringer, put it, an "experience": "I like to listen to him. / I drift off a little / and feel as though transported / to a bazaar, where my gaze / roams over strange delights / arranged with wit. / I pick up the timbre and roguishness / of the voice more than I / am able to follow / the words and their tricks. / The man fascinates me." And rightly so, for, "a tender eel is tougher than a randy monk."


Hear and read a selection of Oskar Pastior's poems at

Martin Lüdke was born in Apolda (Thuringia) in 1943 and has published numerous books of literary criticism and writes for the Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel and Literaturen magazine.

The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 15 May, 2006.

Translation: Meredith Dale - let's talk european