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The Conscience of Words
Earwitness: Fifty Characters
The Human Province
The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit
Crowds and Power
Elias Canetti is the author of seven books translated from German into English, each carrying words of praise from famous writers. His work—which includes a novel, a study of the psychology of groups, literary and political essays, three plays, and an autobiography in progress—has never lacked admirers, and yet aside from scattered reviews he has not been much written about, has never been the subject of a book or major study. Though confidently rooted in a certain rich Central European culture, his work is hard to place, even willfully placeless. Canetti’s effort has been to stand apart from other writers and he has succeeded. Shunning the modern means by which a writer gains an audience, he long ago decided that he would, he must, live long enough for his audience to come to him. Canetti is, both literally and by his own ambitions, a writer in exile.
He has, almost by birthright, the exile writer’s easily generalized relation to place. Born in 1905 into a far-flung Sephardic family of merchants then quartered in Bulgaria (his father and his paternal grandparents came from Turkey), Canetti had a childhood rich in displacements. Vienna, where both his parents had gone to school, was for him the mental capital of all the other places, which included England, where his family moved when Canetti was six; Lausanne and Zurich, where he had some of his schooling; and sojourns in Berlin in the late Twenties. It was to Vienna that his mother brought Canetti and his two younger brothers after his father died in Manchester in 1912, and from there that Canetti emigrated in 1938, spending a year in Paris and then moving to London, where he has lived ever since. Only in exile, he has noted, does one realize how much “the world has always been a world of exiles”—a characteristic observation, in that it deprives his plight of some of its particularity.
Knowing many languages is one way of not being limited to a particular identity. Family example (Canetti’s paternal grandfather boasted of knowing seventeen languages), the local medley (in the Danube port city where he was born, Canetti says, one could hear seven or eight languages spoken every day), and the velocity of his childhood all facilitated an avid relation to language. To live was to acquire languages—his were Ladino (the Spanish dialect spoken by some Sephardic Jews), Bulgarian, German (the language his parents spoke to each other), English, French—and thereby be “everywhere.”
That German became the language of his mind confirms Canetti’s placelessness. Pious tributes to Goethe’s inspiration written in his notebook while the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell on London (“If, despite everything, I should survive, then I owe it to Goethe”) attest to that loyalty to German culture which would keep him always a foreigner in England—he has now spent well over half his life there—and which Canetti has the privilege and the burden of understanding, Jew that he …
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