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Felstiner's volume on Celan wins $50,000 Capote Award for Literary Criticism

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew," a critical biography by John Felstiner, who teaches English and Jewish studies at Stanford University, 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, the $50,000 award is the world's largest annual cash prize for literary criticism.

Felstiner will receive the award in a ceremony at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 11, in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol on the UI campus in Iowa City. The event, which will include an address by Felstiner on the current state of literary criticism, is free and open to the public. The award will be presented to Felstiner by Louise Schwartz, co-trustee of the Capote Literary Trust. The event will also feature remarks by UI President Mary Sue Coleman.

Felstiner's book, published by the Yale University Press, was selected by an international panel of prominent critics and writers -- Seamus Heaney, Henry Louis Gates, Goeffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Denis Donoghue and Elizabeth Hardwick -- each of whom nominated two books. Books of general literary criticism in English, published during the last four years, are eligible. After reading all the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees, and the winner was determined by a tally of the votes.

The panelists' choice was reviewed and confirmed by the award's administrative committee: Frank Conroy, director of the UI Writers' Workshop; workshop faculty member Jorie Graham, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in poetry; and fiction writer, philosopher and critic William Gass, head of the International Writing Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

Celan was a Germany-speaking East European Jew whose writing after World War II exposes 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Felstiner's book, the first critical biography of Celan, includes new translations of Celan's poetry and previously unpublished photos of the poet and his circle.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, researched in the poet's personal library in Normandy and Paris, and surveyed voluminous 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.

Critic Geoffrey Hartman wrote of the book, "Felstiner has done the impossible -- integrated Celan's life and poetry without stinting either. The full weight and agony of the poet's fate as a Jew and survivor are captured. . . The scholar becomes a poet writing about the greatest of the post-war German poets."

Denise Levertov commented, "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."

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 holds bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, and he 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 Capote estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994, during a breakfast at Tiffany's in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of Capote's novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Among the breakfast guests were John Updike, George Plimpton, Mary Tyler Moore, Patricia Neal, Dominick Dunne, Geoffrey Holder and Richard Avedon.

In addition to the administration of the literary criticism award, the Writers' Workshop involvement with the trust includes the awarding of Truman Capote Fellowships to UI students in creative writing. Awards and scholarships were also established at Stanford University.

The establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author's will, and the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote's frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field.

Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin's academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.

The UI and Stanford were selected to administer the awards and receive the scholarships because, Capote trustee Alan U. Schwartz explained, they are "the two most important centers for creative writing."

The first of the university-based creative writing programs that have collectively transformed the terrain of American literary life, the UI Writers' Workshop has nurtured poets and fiction writers for more than 60 years. UI alumni have won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, have been honored with virtually every other American literary award, and count among their number many of America's most popular and critically acclaimed writers.