Canetti: Right Moment for a Book

Though not a huge Canetti enthusiast, the passage below feels apt, given how long it has taken me to get around to Sebald’s Vertigo. The temptation is to dive straight into The Emigrants but I shall delay my last of Sebald’s fictions and read around him with Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald by Philippa Comber.

There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.

Elias Canetti. The Human Province. trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Seabury Press, 1978. (1973)

The Emotional Impotence of Being English

Susan Sontag’s admiration for Elias Canetti (“Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.”) inspired me to read most of Auto-da-Fé, but after some initial enthusiasm I set aside the book three-quarters of the way in, finding it minor, mean-spirited.

From what I’ve read of Canetti’s time in post-war London, minor and mean-spirited might sum up contemporaries’ interpretation of his character. Nevertheless I am reading Party in the Blitz, Canetti’s memoir of his forty years in London. Acerbic opinion flows unceasingly and, like all memoirs, are not to be fully relied on. This doesn’t detract from the eye-opening diversion of seeing untouchables like T. S. Eliot bitterly disembowelled.

A flaccid introduction by Jeremy Adler opens the book. Adler calls attention to the fine phrases that Canetti uses to spice up his memoir, in particular “the new word Gefühlsimpotenz (emotional impotence) he coins, with which to abuse the English. As “a formula for the affective deficits of English life,” Adler concedes,”it could hardly be bettered”. Setting aside Canetti’s sardonic spearing of his contemporaries, it is his analysis of the English that registers most exactly.

Distance is the principal gift of the English. They do not come near. They may not, they cannot come too near. For their own protection, the person sheathes itself in ice. To the outside, everything is patted back. Inside, you’re left to freeze.
Social life consists of futile efforts at proximity. These are as hesitant as the person making them is brave. He really is, because he knows how alone he truly is.
Basically, you shrink back from anyone new: you fear in him the worst, someone who will leap over the distance you set up. He may give the appearance of reserve, but you do not trust him, and keep him off with elaborate politeness: the silent, but searching questions with which you investigate him, “How high? How low? is as existentially important as it is implacable.

Though recognising the effectiveness of Canetti’s dissection, Adler squirms, adding that Canetti appears “unaware of the change in attitude to the emotions that set in around that time. The public grief over the death of Diana, shows that England was moving in directions that Canetti knew nothing about”. Adler identifies this turn with the “continental cult of feeling” owing to the “gradual assimilation of the pre-war immigrants from continental Europe of whom Canetti himself was a prime example”. I wish that were so, but the outpouring of hollow grief that surrounded Diana’s death had more to do with an overindulgence of Friends-like sitcoms.

Canetti: Canards

I knew little of Elias Canetti’s life until yesterday. Now I feel I know too much. A couple of interesting links (there is no shortage of highly polarised opinion pieces):

The God-monster’s version:

There was one very obvious drawback to Canetti’s purist approach to the written word: nobody in the London literary circles he penetrated with such apparent ease had heard of him. The only Englishman who had read Die Blendung was the Sinologist Arthur Waley: “Imagine what it means in a large country, which for me was the country of Shakespeare and Dickens, to have one single reader.”

A gossipy egotist:

Expecting reverence, Canetti was greeted in England by blank stares. So far as he could tell, his only novel, Auto-da-Fe, swiftly banned after publication in German in 1935, had exactly one English reader, Arthur Waley, the great expert on Chinese literature. Canetti’s life became a campaign to find psychic support for his princely self-regard. He evaluated every cocktail party according to whether people knew of him. If they didn’t, he felt humiliated.

Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti

George Grosz (1920)

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.

Getting to Know Professor Kein

Professor Peter Kien: tall, emaciated and deliciosuly antisocial sinologist, the primary protagonist of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé is a brilliant achievement. I am only fifty pages into the book but delighted to have met such a unique character.

Sometimes Kien would meet, either in the street or in a bookshop, a barbarous fellow who amazed him by uttering a reasonable sentiment. In order to obliterate any impression which contradicted his contempt for the mass of mankind he would in such cases perform a small arithmetic calculation. How many words does this fellow speak in a single day? At a conservative reckoning ten thousand. Three of them are not without sense. By chance I overheard those three. The other words which whirl through his head at a rate of several hundred thousand per day, which he thinks but does not speak – one imbecility after another – are to be guessed merely by looking at his features; fortunately one does not have to listen to them.