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Stanford English professor wins $50,000 literary award

John Felstiner, professor of English and Jewish studies, is the 1997 winner of the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin, administered by the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Felstiner received the $50,000 award, the world's largest annual cash prize for literary criticism, for Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, a critical biography of the 20th-century poet.

"As a translator and biographer, as well as literary critic, I've never forgotten for a moment that my book, my whole 15-year project, owe their being and inspiration to Paul Celan," Felstiner said. "At the same time, I've been surprised and moved by the response of people around the world, not just reviewers.

"A veteran from Hurricane, West Virginia, a refugee from Thunder Bay, Ontario, an artist from Australia and so many other common readers have let me know that Celan touched them intensely through my book. Many people write or e-mail to say that his voice speaks to their own trauma or grief. Since Celan once wrote, 'No one / witnesses for the / witness,' I feel that in my way I've responded to that heart-cry, and this wonderful award helps confirm the years of work."

Published by Yale University Press, Felstiner's biography was selected by an international panel of critics and writers, including Seamus Heaney, Henry Louis Gates, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Denis Donoghue and Elizabeth Hardwick. Books of general literary criticism in English, published during the last four years, are eligible.

"Celan is a very difficult poet, writing in a very difficult period, and not a great deal has been written about him, considering that he is a very important poet in the early 20th century," Frank Conroy, director of the Writers' Workshop, said in a telephone interview. "The book really elucidates Celan and guides the reader into a fuller understanding of an extremely difficult modern poet in a masterful, erudite way.

"It also reflects a knowledge of modern European culture, German language and Jewish culture. It's a very rich book, written with great clarity and precision."

Celan was a German-speaking East European Jew whose writing after World War II exposed the wounds of Nazi destruction. Born in Romania, the poet lost his parents to Nazi deportation, endured forced labor and Soviet occupation during the war and then began his exile in Paris.

Felstiner's book, the first critical biography of Celan, includes new translations of Celan's poetry and previously unpublished photos of the poet and his circle. Felstiner interviewed Celan's family and friends, did research in the poet's personal library in Normandy and Paris, and surveyed commentary in German. Felstiner's analysis traces Celan's roots in the Bible and Jewish mysticism, identifies his affinities with other European writers and discusses his fascination with the philosophies of Heidegger and Buber.

"Felstiner is that increasingly rare thing, a critic who loves his subjects and enables readers to share that love by guiding them to a deeper understanding of their resonances," poet Denise Levertov said.

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, critic George Steiner noted: "Celan has taken his place with Hölderlin at the summit of German (perhaps of modern European) poetry. . . . This volume has been long and justly awaited. It is the finest approach to the Celan world so far available."

The Los Angeles Times reviewer, Richard Eder, wrote: "Celan's splendor has been brought to life, and his silence brought to speech, by a book that is a labor not just of love but of passion . . . a pilgrimage to a hard place by a pilgrim who does all the walking we do, and, astonishingly, gets us up there . . . brings us within living, breathing reach of the original."

Felstiner is also the author of Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu and The Lies of Art: Max Beerbohm's Parody and Caricature. He earned his doctorate at Harvard University and has taught at the University of Chile, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Yale University. His scholarly articles have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Contemporary Literary Criticism, the New Republic and other periodicals.

The Truman Capote Literary Trust was established by the author in his will and is funded by posthumous royalties. The Iowa Writers Workshop was chosen to administer an annual prize for a single work of literary criticism. Stanford was chosen to select the recipient of the lifetime achievement award, which will be presented every four years. Last year's winner of the $100,000 prize was literary critic Alfred Kazin.

The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field. Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was a close friend of Capote's and a scholar who is best known for his writings on Melville and Hawthorne. In 1960, Arvin was retired from his position at Smith College after he was arrested by state police and charged with possession for exhibit of obscene materials. Although Arvin was found guilty by a district court and did not appeal the verdict, Capote sought in his will to redress what he considered a wrong to his friend.


By Diane Manuel