Yesterday (the 25th) was the birthday, is the birthday, of Elias Canetti.
He would have been 101.
Below was written last year, a review of his most recent posthumity, the book Party in the Blitz: The English Years, translated by Michael Hoffman and published by New Directions.
This originally appeared in the Forward.
"I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can," the character of Stephen Dedalus argues, in James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning."
This trinity of silence, exile and cunning became the mandate for many of the greatest writers of the past century, and for none more so than Elias Canetti. Not a young man, nor a young artist, by the time he left Germany to seek refuge in England in 1939, Elias Canetti — born in Ruse, Bulgaria, in 1905, to a family that spoke Ladino and German — became adept in these three disciplines in a manner that surpassed the overshadowing careers of fellow wartime writers, such as the brothers Mann, and the author of "Ulysses." After writing his single novel, "Auto da Fe," a masterpiece that some believe to be the link between the just flowering Anglo-American Modernism of Joyce and the rapidly dying Central European tradition of Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, Canetti escaped the continent leaving fiction, and his reputation, behind. When he arrived in England, the only man who knew his work was Arthur Waley, a renowned scholar of Sinology. Eerily for the author, this was the profession of the protagonist of his unread novel. In "Auto da Fe," one Professor Peter Kien is a man of learning who loses his life in a bout of the bibliophilic: He dies protecting his library from destruction.
Despite financial straits and the exigencies of a life in exile, Canetti was similarly obsessed with books. He was so obsessed, it took great effort to write them. After a few plays, the novel, and two decades of work on his monumental, and monumentally flawed, sociological study, "Crowds and Power" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984) Canetti went on to write the three volumes of his autobiography that would win him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. Of the five projected volumes, each to be focused on a single sense, only "The Tongue Set Free," "The Torch in My Ear" and "The Play of the Eyes" were finished. The series ended with the author's death in August 1994.
But Canetti would not "go gentle into that good night," as his friend Dylan Thomas wrote and did; he worked until the end. And even beyond: Possibly intended to be predicated on the olfactory sense, an ersatz fourth volume, "Party in the Blitz," has just been published posthumously. It is a wartime memoir couched as a collection of drafts and notes that Canetti made in the early 1990s, which he rewrote and revised until he had the strength to write no more.
Faced with silence, forced into exile and armed with cunning, in England Canetti became a sort of sleeper-cell headquartered in petit-bourgeois Amersham, an hour northwest of London. This was the provincial nowhere from which Canetti observed the culture of war, maniacally recording in journals the exploits of his fellow displaced and the native elite, all the while planning to develop the material into the memoir he never would finish: an encyclopedia of personalities that is at depth a study of his own. He called himself der Hund meiner Zeit, the dog of his day, in that he sniffed out clues, following his nose — here an organ of the deepest, most intuitive, sense — through bombed-out, class-conscious Old England, attempting to maintain its dignity amid destruction both corporeal and of the culture. This work was done mostly at coldly decadent, masquelike parties of the intellectual elite, which Canetti would come to characterize as Nichtberührungsfeste — ritualized celebrations of noncontact — peopled by intellectuals faux and real, all suffering from what Canetti called Gefühlsimpotenz (the emotional impotence of those removed from the world by circumstances of power and privilege).
After attempting in the three volumes of his autobiography to situate himself, a Bulgarian-born Jew, as the preeminent German intellectual of his day — positioning his achievements alongside and often above those of Mitteleuropean contemporaries such as Karl Kraus and Bertolt Brecht — Canetti in old age attempted to assert himself as the foremost thinker if not in modern English, then at least in modern England. What this meant was the equivalent of a blitz, in literary terms. And indeed, salvos are fired fast and furious in these pages, which are by contrast structured quietly, as if a Victorian portrait gallery — studded with depictions intended for strolling past as much as in appreciation of their craftsmanship as in deference to their creator. Flitting horrifically from Oxonian party to party amid privation, the sky dark with Luftwaffe, Canetti struggles to transmute anecdote and accusation into philosophy, as if attempting to prove the gossip of the great a verity in and of itself.
As a fellow pretender to the throne, American expatriate T.S. Eliot is hit first — and hard. With Canetti's friend and fellow exile Franz Steiner taking the neglect of his writing as a pretext to die prematurely, the competing and competitive Eliot is treated as if in retaliation against his very existence.
"I was living in England as its intellect decayed," Canetti writes. "I was a witness to the fame of T.S. Eliot. Is it possible for people ever to repent sufficiently of that? An American brings over a Frenchman from Paris ([Jules] Lafourge), drools his self-loathing over him, quite literally lives as a bank clerk, while at the same time he criticizes and diminishes anything that was before, anything that has more stamina and sap than himself, permits himself to receive presents from his prodigal compatriot, who has the greatness and tenseness of a lunatic, and comes up with the end result: an impotency which he shares around with the whole country." And further, "a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator to Dante (to which Circle would Dante have banished him?); thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old, unworthy of Blake or of Goethe or of anything volcanic — his own lava cooled before it ever warmed — neither cat nor bird nor beetle [...]" Canetti's own lava flows on for paragraphs more; animals and insects give way to a critique of the poet's manners, name-dropping Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas along the way.
Amid warm portraits of Steiner, painter Oskar Kokoschka and English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Canetti reserves such bile only for one other — his lover, acclaimed English writer Iris Murdoch. Then an author of 24 novels (as Canetti noted, 23 more than him), Murdoch was an elemental force. Canetti's portrait of her is persuasive, though most probably unfair. She is portrayed as an unfeeling nymphomaniac, a profligate writer of no genius to justify her ambition. In their liaisons they have sex — described in detail; they indulge each other's egos and part with haste. In private, they are unrelentingly vicious: Murdoch parodied his misogyny in many of her books; Canetti writes of her here with an almost intolerable scorn. "I don't think there is anything that leaves me quite so cold as that woman's intellect," he writes. "You could call Iris Murdoch the bubbling Oxford stewpot. Everything I despise about English life is in her." Apparently she did not suffer from Canetti's absolutism: "She never completely adopts anything, just as she never completely rejects it, it is all left in a harmless, tolerable, un-worked-out suspension." And later, there's a portrait of a portrait: "Her relationship to art: she travels and goes to museums a lot, she gets hot under the collar, because she's forever talking in front of pictures, or rather: getting others to talk." By contrast, Canetti's wife, Veza — also an author and a collaborator — is hardly mentioned. But then neither is the married couple's unremitting poverty. Nor a single moment of happiness.
But Canetti doesn't dole out all the insults. He receives his fair share. Knowing he spent time in Prague before the war, many ignore his work and ask him instead if he had known Kafka. When a member of the illustrious and eccentric Maxwell family discovers that Canetti is a Jew, he asks him to evaluate a diamond. Even amid war, such is life among the privileged. Class, which so obsessed the German Jews, is revealed here for what it is amid the ruins of modernity: birthright, with no mandate of responsibility to culture.
Born to nothing, entirely self-made, Canetti died before his work — and so, his self — was finished. It would be pleasant to think that had he lived, he would have tempered some of his words here, elided a few hateful phrases, eliminated the snobbery against snobbery implicit in his tone. But nothing ever was pleasant about Canetti. And nothing ever is pleasant about great literature. Despite the casualties, we should have it no other way.