NELLY SACHS: FLIGHT AND METAMORPHOSIS, AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY
by Aris Fioretos, translated by Tomas Tranæus
Stanford University Press, 320 pp., $90
In 1940, when Nelly Sachs and her mother arrived in Sweden, having escaped the Third Reich only a week before they would have gone to a concentration camp, the idea that she would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature would have seemed absurd. Pushing 50, Sachs was lightly published, and her poems to that point rarely, if ever, anticipated the force or inventiveness of her post-Holocaust work. Sachs was, to be sure, always a deft writer, but she was not yet a deeply original one.
Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Tales), Sachs' debut, captured the style of Selma Lagerlöf so exactly that it elicited wry praise from her literary idol: I couldn't, Lagerlöf more or less said, have done it better myself. Sachs' poetry of the 1920s and 1930s is more original, but hardly unconventional. Her poems from this period appeared in the prestigious Berliner Tageblatt and often featured the motif of the threatened idyll. But they also dealt in neat rhymes, familiar metrics, and a tender handling of animals. When Sachs tried out freer forms, the result was, in the words of her most recent biographer, "epigonal exercises in sentimentality."
It was only with the publication of her first collection of poems, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Dwellings of Death), which Sachs wrote in Swedish exile and dedicated to her "dead brothers and sisters," that she established herself as an important poetic voice. "Death," she said, "was my teacher." The title Aris Fioretos has chosen for his biography is taken from the title of a later collection of poems, but it also describes her literary career.
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