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The Making of Canetti

The Torch in My Ear

by Elias Canetti, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 371 pp., $16.50

The first volume of Elias Canetti’s autobiography told of his birth, in Bulgaria, into a Sephardic Jewish family and a community where a form of Ladino—Romanisch—was still a living language; his move to England in 1911, when he was six years old; his schooling in Manchester, until his father’s shockingly sudden death in 1913, when he migrated to Vienna. There he was confirmed in his love of the German language. He described how he left wartorn Austria to move to neutral Switzerland in 1916, where he was on the whole happy as a schoolboy in Zurich, until 1921, when his formidable mother decided that the time had come to move her family from their Swiss idyll to what she conceived to be the “real” world.

This meant another change of country, for the Canettis now migrated to Frankfurt am Main; and it is with this move that the second volume of the autobiography, The Torch in My Ear, begins. The titles Canetti has given to the different sections of this volume, which first appeared in German in 1980, clearly mark stages in his new experiences and his development: “Inflation and Impotence (Frankfurt 1921-1924)”; “Storm and Compulsion (Vienna 1926-1928)”; “The Throng of Names (Berlin 1928)”; “The Fruit of the Fire (Vienna 1929-1931).”

The English translation of the title of the first volume, The Tongue Set Free, is slightly misleading. The German original is not Die befreite Zunge, but Die gerettete Zunge; it says that the author’s “tongue” was menaced but then rescued or saved. The menace and the rescue are literal in the nightmare incident that opens the first volume: a macabre joker threatens to cut the boy’s tongue out with a pocketknife. But the menace and rescue also have to be seen as metaphorical, of course, in that the future novelist and dramatist had to find his own tongue, his own German language, in the Babel of languages in which he grew up. And beyond this, the title suggests something further: speech has to be “rescued” from silence, the tongue that refuses its office when confronted with profound or horrifying experiences has to be “saved” from its own impotence.

Whereas the title of the first volume pointed to one pole of the author’s task—learning to speak his own, authentic language—that of the second volume points to another: learning to hear, to listen. Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear) again unites several meanings. First it presents us with a synaesthetic image—“speak that I may see thee,” the “ear” needs “illumination.” If taken literally, it is a painfully disquieting image. Above all, it refers to one of the central experiences recounted in this book and in several essays that preceded it: the profound and lasting impression Canetti received from his regular attendance at the readings and recitations of the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who published his text in a journal called Die Fackel.

The second volume should be of supreme interest to anyone who wants to understand the European cultural scene in the ten or twelve years before Hitler. Canetti has the gift not only of expressing precisely what he learned from the public and private figures whom he met, but of drawing memorable portraits of them. He writes powerfully of Helmut Herzfelde, for example, who changed his name to John Heartfield in protest against German Anglophobia and who perfected the art of satiric photomontage. Canetti first met Heartfield in 1928 with his younger brother Wieland Herzfelde, who had persuaded the young Canetti to translate the novels of Upton Sinclair for the Malik publishing house. The scene is Berlin.

Wieland was soft and easily moved. You might have regarded him as sentimental, but he was sentimental only intermittently. He had various tempi at his disposition, all of them natural to him; and only one tempo, the emotional one, was gradual. Heartfield was always swift. His reactions were so spontaneous that they got the better of him. He was skinny and very short, and if an idea struck him, he would leap into the air. He uttered his sentences vehemently as if attacking you with his leap. He would angrily hum around you like a wasp.

I first experienced this on Kurfürstendamm. Walking along unsuspectingly between him and Wieland, I was asked about termites by the latter and I tried to explain: “They’re completely blind and they move only in underground corridors.” John Heartfield leaped up at my side and hissed at me, as though I were responsible for the blindness of termites, perhaps also as though I were putting them down for their blindness: “You termite, you! You’re a termite yourself!” And from then on, he never called me anything but “termite.” At the time, I was frightened: I thought I had insulted him, I did not know how. After all, I had not called him a termite. It took me a while to realize that this was how he reacted to everything that was new to him. It was his way of learning: he could only learn aggressively; and I believe one could show that this is the secret of his montages. He brought things together, he confronted things after first leaping up at them, and the tension of these leaps is preserved in his montages.

John, I feel, was the most thoughtless of men. He consisted of spontaneous and vehement moments. He thought only when he was busy doing a montage. Since he was not always calculating away at something like other people, he remained fresh and choleric. His reaction was a kind of anger, but it was no selfish anger. He learned only from things that he regarded as attacks; and in order to experience something new, he had to see it as an attack. Other people let new things glide off them or swallowed them like syrup. John had to shake new things furiously in order to hold them without enfeebling them.

Only gradually did it dawn on me how indispensable these two brothers were to one another. Wieland never criticized John for anything. He did not excuse his brother’s unusual behavior, nor did he seek to explain it. He took it for granted; and it was only when he spoke of his childhood that I understood the bond between them. They were four orphans; two brothers and two sisters—and had been taken in by foster parents in Aigen, near Salzburg. Wieland was lucky with his foster parents. The elder brother, Helmut (this was John’s name before he changed it to his English name), had a harder time. The two brothers were always aware that they did not have their real parents, and they became very close to one another. Wieland’s true strength was his bond with John. Together, they gained a foothold in Berlin. Helmut had officially changed his name to John Heartfield in protest against the war. This took courage, since he did so before the war ended.

The force of this passage depends on Canetti’s exploitation of the contrast between the two brothers as well as on his selection of just the right detail to express both the character and the cultural setting of Berlin in the late Twenties. There are equally vivid portraits of George Grosz (whose graphic art Canetti feels, with some justice, to have affinities with his own verbal one); of Isaac Babel, who was living in Berlin at the time and struck up a friendship with Canetti; the reciter Ludwig Hardt; and especially the young Bert Brecht, whose abrasive but impressive personality and presence Canetti evokes as sharply and memorably as he evokes the spirit of The Threepenny Opera.

Here, indeed, lies the reason for the effectiveness of Canetti’s portraits of famous men: while he takes a novelistic interest in their physical appearance and eccentricities, and especially in their voices and their manner of speaking or reading aloud, what most attracts him is their work and its effect on his own life and art. The intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of Berlin itself, in contrast to that of Vienna, is masterfully conveyed. We are left in no doubt how crucial his brief experience in Berlin was for the conception of that “Comédie humaine of Madmen” out of which Canetti’s masterpiece, the novel Auto-da-Fé (Die Blendung), was to grow. In Berlin, he felt, he met people who seemed possessed; and this gave him the idea with which he returned to Vienna of juxtaposing characters each possessed by some single passion which they pursued with the utmost logic—in a novel or novel-sequence that would show the misunderstandings and inevitable clashes that resulted from their temperaments and obsessions. His stylistic model would be Stendhal; but his vision would be most akin to that of Gogol, whose work he discussed with Isaac Babel.

Much space in The Torch in My Ear is devoted to powerful descriptions of the way Canetti’s intellect and sensibility responded to works of art. Music plays comparatively little part in this; but the visual arts are of supreme importance. The impact of certain paintings by Breughel the Elder, of Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson, of Grünewald’s Crucifixion, of Géricault’s Raft of “The Medusa,” of the caricatures of Daumier and the Ecce Homo drawings of George Grosz is conveyed in a way that makes them vividly present to the reader and shows precisely the effect they had on Canetti’s mind and writing.

The same is true of literary works. Aristophanes, for instance, is shown to have induced in the young Canetti an unshakable dislike for depicting merely private matters on the stage. After studying Aristophanes and the conflict between the Old and the New Comedy in the Athens of his day, he came to believe that the theater should deal only with matters that affected the public and not with the purely private psychological tangles that seemed to lie behind so much twentieth-century drama. About his reading of Aristophanes, he writes:

I would have had to be blind not to notice the similarity with the things I perceived all around me. Here, too, everything derived from a single fundamental condition, the raging plunge of money. It was no brainstorm, it was reality; that’s why it wasn’t funny, it was horrible. But as a total structure, if one tried to see it as such, it resembled one of these comedies. One might say that the cruelty of Aristophanes’ vision offered the sole possibility of holding together a world that was shivering into a thousand particles.

The striving for universal interest in Canetti’s own plays derives from those of his great Greek model; from the same source they also derive their non-naturalistic boldness and determination to:

…indulge in brainstorms that verge on madness, connect, separate, vary, confront, find new structures for new brainstorms, never repeat itself and never get shoddy, demand the utmost from the spectator, shake him, take him, and drain him.

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