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Going for the Jugular

December 29, 2005 By:
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When it was announced in 1981 that Elias Canetti had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, people were mostly in the dark about who he was. At the time, he was 76 years old, a Sephardic Jew born in Bulgaria, living in England, with an array of books to his credit. In actuality, he was far less fashionably obscure than most people imagined; he had, in fact, lived something of a shadow life in America, popping up on the literary scene in one guise or another for any number of years.

Canetti's first book and only work of fiction, Auto-da-Fe, had appeared in several U.S. editions by the time the author was tapped by the Swedish Academy. The initial Alfred A. Knopf version was published in 1947. The work's original German title - and Canetti only wrote in German, even during his years of exile in Britain, beginning in 1938 - is Die Blendung, "the blinding" or "dazzlement," which has been translated as Auto-da-Fe, the ritual of the Spanish Inquisition that led to the burning of a heretic, as well as The Tower of Babel.

In the early 1960s, Knopf also published what many consider Canetti's masterwork, Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht), which took the author 25 years to complete, and incorporates ideas from zoology, physiology, anthropology and mythology to say nothing of politics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and history.

More to the point, George Steiner in The New Yorker and Susan Sontag in The New York Review of Books wrote extensive and prescient analyses of Canetti's work prior to the Nobel Prize. The Sontag piece was also reprinted in her book of essays titled Under the Sign of Saturn.

She described him as an example of the itinerant intellectual: "He (for the type is male, of course) is a Jew, or like a Jew; polycultural, restless, misogynistic; a collector; dedicated to self-transcendence, despising the instincts; weighed down by books and buoyed up by the euphoria of knowledge."

Canetti was also a thinly disguised character in British author Iris Murdoch's 1956 novel, The Flight from the Enchanter (which is dedicated to Canetti). There he goes by the name Mischa Fox:

"I don't find him odd," said a character … "There's only one thing that's exceptional about Mischa, apart from his eyes, and that's his patience. He always has a hundred schemes on hand, and he's the only man I know who will wait literally for years for even a trivial plan to mature."

Canetti's obscurity, then, was partly of our own making; we weren't paying attention. But what is odd is that the haze that obscured the man back then never lifted after his burst of notoriety in 1981.

He Owes It All to Goethe

It's understandable, however, if you know something about the writer, who can be a bit intimidating in his work, and appears to have been that way in life as well. For example, the citation from the Swedish Academy noted that the writer "has had but one native land, and that is the German Language … . He has never abandoned it, and he has often avowed his love of the highest manifestations of classical German culture."

Canetti once said that he chose to write in German because he was a Jew. During the bombing of London by the Luftwaffe, he said he "filled page after page with German words. They had nothing to do with what I was working on. Nor did they join together into any sentences … . They were isolated words … . I must add that I felt extremely happy during such fits." He insisted that if he survived the war, he would owe it all to Goethe.

So, a particularly elusive type, and not your run-of-the-mill Jewish writer, either.

Characteristically, only now, 11 years after his death at age 89, is the fourth and final volume of his memoirs, Party in the Blitz: The English Years, being published by New Directions. It joins his other memoirs, The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear and The Play of the Eyes, which garnered much attention as they appeared in the wake of the Nobel. They're now available in a single sizable paperback volume from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

Party in the Blitz is quite different in tone and manner from the earlier three. In The Tongue Set Free, Canetti told of his Bulgarian childhood, of his Sephardic ancestry, of his father's early, tragic death and of his family's subsequent peripatetic existence (Canetti studied at different universities throughout the capitals of Europe and in England). The sources of his major themes - the supremacy of language, the horror of death, the primacy of the individual in mass society, the potency and danger of crowds - were all on display in this first memoir's pages.

The Tongue Set Free contained a full-scale portrait of Canetti's strong-willed mother, who was the dominant influence throughout her son's boyhood and early youth. She was the one who imparted to him a reverence for language and a deep, abiding love of books. The memoir, however, ended with a bitter falling-out.

The Torch in My Ear also dealt with influences. As Mrs. Canetti's hold on her son began weakening, others entered the picture and filled the void. Foremost among them was the little known but influential Viennese writer and satirist Karl Kraus. The title of Canetti's memoir pays tribute to him. Kraus put out a magazine called Die Fackel (The Torch), which he wrote totally by himself. He never accepted manuscripts and never answered letters. But he did give public lectures, which were attended religiously by the Viennese intelligentsia - and soon enough by Canetti, who became a devoted acolyte.

According to the author, Kraus' every sentence was a demand. "If you could not meet the demand, you had no business listening to him." Kraus was his strength. Without him, Canetti always said, he could not have made it through his university studies.

Another influence was Veza, the woman who was to become Canetti's first wife. She, too, was an ardent admirer of Kraus - she and Canetti met at one of his lectures. Veza was described by her husband as breathtakingly beautiful and very exotic. She was like "a precious object, a creature one would never have expected in Vienna, but rather on a Persian miniature."

Only The Play of the Eyes had some of the fragmented manner of Party in the Blitz. This third memoir was filled with sharp, sometimes sour sketches of friends and acquaintances, such as the Viennese novelist Robert Musil; Alma Mahler, the great composer's widow; conductor Herman Scherchen; and others who moved in these rarefied intellectual and artistic circles. There was more, too, about Kraus, whose writings, Canetti noted in this volume, held him in "psychic enslavement." The work ended as Europe roared toward war once again, and Canetti was set to escape to England.

Party in the Blitz is far more fragmented even than its immediate predecessor. It's made up of mostly brief chapters, again devoted to portraits of the British writers and artists who populated Hempstead, where Canetti settled.

The book has the quality of a reckoning, and is far more nasty in tone than anything that came before it. His publishers say that Canetti was "beset by the desire to come to terms with his years of exile in Britain," and that he waited half a century before setting them on paper.

Well, when the floodgates finally opened, the malice flowed as well.

Sometimes it's fun, as when Canetti goes after T.S. Eliot, whom he detested, and knocks him off the pedestal he's been placed on by literary historians. Eliot can take it; he actually survives fairly well. Even a nasty assessment of his work and character aren't unwarranted after decades of critical hero-worship.

But much of the rest of the time Canetti is merciless. What seems to have bothered him most was that it appeared only one person in Britain - the writer Arthur Waley - was acquainted with his writings, which apparently galled him. How could these people not know what an important position he held in Viennese literary circles before his escape in 1938? He couldn't forgive their ignorance, and Party in the Blitz is his revenge.

The author doesn't have a kind word to say about anyone in the British artistic firmament, and that includes Bertrand Russell, Henry Moore, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ludwig Wittgenstein. His portrait of Iris Murdoch, with whom he had an affair, shows her as little more than a sexual automaton, without a single human emotion. These 15 pages are so harsh that some readers may flinch.

In fact, your reaction to the book may be directly related to how much vitriol you can withstand at any one sitting.

 

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