One of the many peculiarities of Elias Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé is the relationship that forms between bibliomaniac sinologist Peter Kien and his housekeeper Therese. If the line of reasoning for their marriage fails to convince, the story becomes an artfully written but unsatisfying construction.
Reduce Canetti’s story to a morality fable of an ivory-tower intellectual becoming disconnected from reality, and forced by peasants to engage with life in all its messiness, and perhaps the Brothers Grimm could have adopted this for their collection. Ultimately, though, Kien’s misogyny is wearing: a block. As Susan Sontag wrote of the book:
In the guise of a book about a lunatic-that is, as hyperbole-Auto-da-Fé purveys familiar clichés about unworldly, easily duped intellectuals and is animated by an exceptionally inventive hatred for women.
Published in 1935, Canetti’s book was praised by Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. Iris Murdoch regarded Auto-da-Fé as “one of the few great novels of the century; savage, subtle, beautiful, mysterious and very large.”
Eulogies from writers I admire encouraged me to persist with this book longer than my inclination or patience. I recognise each of Iris Murdoch’s epithets but the last; the world of Auto-da-Fé struck me as very small and on page 300, of 464 in my edition (Cape, 1965) I set aside the book.
I started reading this about 15 years ago, and got about 100 pages in. I don’t know why I stopped – I was quite enjoying it. I’ve been meaning to go back to it sometime this year. – His autobiographical works are lighter and more entertaining: insightful, and full of malice towards other literary figures.
I plan to read ‘Crowds and Power,’ which is widely acknowledged as Canetti’s masterpiece, also ‘Party in the Blitz,’ which sounds exactly as you describe.
Party in the Blitz is ok (and is probably the one I’m referring to), but The Play of the Eyes, vol 3 of his autobiography is a much more fascinating book around the writing process and uh I think it might have been Vienna and its literary circle. (I’ve never read vol 1 & 2. Since I’d read 3, I’d decided I’d read the whole thing backwards, but I wanted to read Auto da Fe first, since vol 2 is all about the writing of it – yet another reason actually to read the novel).
The novel must be rewarding if Broch and Mann considered it so; Iris Murdoch’s opinion may be considered as lacking objectivity. It was just the wrong time and context for me to appreciate its worth.
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I tried hard to get through it, as it was recommended by people I admired. But the characters all seemed to be ugly and horrible people, the madness felt like the self indulgent excesses of a teenage author, and the book seemed to be making my world smaller and uglier, so I stopped before I was a third of the way through.
Gosh, five years since I abandoned this book, and no inclination to pick it up again, for most of those reasons you cite.
I have always regretted that Canetti wrote only the single novel. I first read it 40 years ago, and I am in the process now of reading it again. “Crowds and Power” is also a great book, albeit in an entirely different way.
I’ve never got rid of the book, much as I hated it, which suggests that I do plan to try again, but I still possess a memory of how much I loathed the world he created in Auto-da-Fé. I’m in no hurry.
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