THE POET DYING by Ernst Pawel


Heinrich Heine's Last Years in Paris
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 A highly successful biographical essay that reveals the great poet's wit, lyric talent, and unexpectedly stoic death. Pawel, whose 1984 Kafka biography, The Nightmare of Reason, earned him widespread praise, has once again brought his own fine literary sensibilities to a literary life or, to be more exact, death. Heinrich Heinethe most gifted German poet between Goethe and Rilkespent the last years of his life in agony. A mysterious degenerative illness gradually paralyzed and blinded him, yet he remained lucid and productive until the end, which came in 1856 during his permanent exile in Paris. Baffled doctors tormented him with bizarre therapies. Opium dusted into open incisions along his spine relieved the pain. His wife, an illiterate and temperamental French woman to whom he was tenderly devoted, managed their modest household badly. His publisher of many years treated him as if he were an unproven novice. Pawel writes about Heine's last years with dry humor, intelligence, and an unsentimental sympathy for the poet's clear-eyed struggle. Heine was a quotable wit, a German predecessor to Oscar Wilde, and his keen sense of humor never abandoned him: ``When, in the presence of visitors, the aging mulatto nurse carried this lifeless bag of bones about like a rag doll, he urged them to `be sure to tell the world that the Parisians carry me on their hands.' '' Apart from the abundance of memorable passages from Heine's conversation, prose, and poetry, the imaginative simplicity of Pawel's idiom is itself a pleasure, bringing the dying Heine to life. And Pawel's exploration of the poet's confrontation with death is a marvel of detached reflection that is surely linked to the author's own mortality: Pawel died in 1994. A concise and highly readable book. An appendix comprises a selection of poems discussed in the text, which are offered both in German and in the excellent translation of Hal Draper.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-374-23538-4
Page count: 188pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1995