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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.

There are similar detailed descriptions of what Canetti drew from other authors who helped to form his outlook and style: Strindberg, Gogol, Stendhal, and Gorky, We find nothing in this part of the autobiography on Kafka and Musil—for that, no doubt, we have to await the next volume. But Kafka is clearly present in spirit: the unforgettable figure of the grandfather of his friend Veza, for instance, seems to have stepped straight out of Kafka’s “The Judgment” or “A Married Couple.” There is also clear evidence of that “lack of Eurocentricity,” that “higher cosmopolitanism,” which Susan Sontag has attributed to him.* Though he learns about Ulysses and other Greek heroes from Gustav Schwab, his understanding, of myth derives from the powerful effect that the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic made on him in his younger days.

The physical world through which the figures described in The Torch in My Ear move remains obstinately in the shadows. We hear of the young Canetti’s love for trees and rocks and buildings, but these never come across. The stress is on people, on voices, on intellectual development, on irrational fear, on the assimilation of works of art, on the creation of literature. But people are not seen only as individuals. Canetti subtly describes several instances when he saw crowds in action during the period of The Torch in My Ear. He analyzes his own sensations at the time in a manner that looks forward to the psychological disquisitions of his later, idiosyncratic book Crowds and Power. The Torch in My Ear also contains strong accounts of episodes of anti-Semitic prejudice, of social unrest in postwar Germany and Austria, of conflagrations and assassinations. Canetti has intelligent things to say about the rise of National Socialism and the appeal that Zionism made to different kinds and conditions of European Jews.

We have heard much about the appeal of Zionism to the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe; here, for once, we are afforded some insight into its appeal to European Sephardic communities.

The entire Sephardic community in Sofia, or rather not only in Sofia, but throughout Bulgaria, had converted to Zionism. They weren’t badly off in Bulgaria: there were no persecutions of Jews, no ghettoes, nor was there any oppressive poverty. But there were orators, whose sparks had ignited, and they kept preaching the return to the promised land. The effect of these speeches was remarkable in more ways than one. They were aimed at the separatistic arrogance of the Sephardim; they preached that all Jews were equal, that any separatism was despicable, and by no means could the Sephardim be credited with special achievements for mankind during the most recent period in history, On the contrary, the Sephardim were trapped in a spiritual torpor; it was time they awoke and discarded their useless crotchet, their arrogance.

The themes of Crowds and Power reappear when Canetti describes the effect a powerful Zionist orator could have on hearers who felt themselves swept away as on a tidal wave:

He spoke Ladino to them and scourged them for their arrogance, which was based on this language. I was amazed to discover that it was possible to use this language, which I regarded as a stunted language for children and the kitchen; it was possible to speak about universal matters, to fill people with such passion that they earnestly considered dropping everything, leaving a country in which they had been settled for generations, a country which took them seriously and respected them, in which they were certainly well off—in order to move to an unknown land that had been promised to them thousands of years ago, but didn’t even belong to them at this point.

Such passages as these (and they are many) make this autobiography an important source for historians as well as literary critics.

I have stressed, so far, the public figures and events in The Torch in My Ear; but much of the book is necessarily concerned with a more private world. Here, as in the first volume, Canetti’s mother is the central figure; but now the stress falls more and more on his increasingly successful attempts to break away from her influence. He makes friends with women who help him in what he calls his “settling of accounts” with his mother. It is noticeable, however, that none of these female figures is as powerfully evoked and presented as the mother has been. The new obsession is literature: we seem to be witnessing the formation of a literary repertoire as we read of the friends Canetti makes, his fellow students at the University of Vienna (where he studied chemistry, without enthusiasm), and a grotesque assortment of landladies, domestic servants, cactus-sellers, and arrogant dwarves. As in The Tongue Set Free, Canetti has a keen eye and ear for the grotesque: but the grotesqueness he portrays so memorably leans toward horror rather than humor, and assumes more and more symbolic force as Canetti’s social awareness grows. In a way, the book is an account of how the novel Auto-da-Fé came to be written. Kien, the bookman of Auto-da-Fé, the scholar driven by the logic of his obsession to set his beloved library on fire, is the only survivor of eight such figures around whom novels were to be written and of whom vestiges can be found in Canetti’s plays, his essays, and—of course—his developing autobiography.

Canetti’s manner and tone remain very much what they were in The Tongue Set Free: calm, seeking to comprehend as well as to re-create earlier experiences. Despite his fascination with the grotesque, his feeling for the irrational powers that govern crowd behavior, and his patient attempt to set down his formative experiences honestly and fully, he does not take us deep into the unexplored or mysterious depths of the human psyche—his own or anyone else’s. Everything is illuminated by reason and reflection; even the most horrific incidents are calmly narrated. Looking at Grünewald’s terrifying altarpiece at Colmar, he reflects:

Perhaps the most indispensable task of art has been forgotten too often: not catharsis, not solace, not disposing of everything as if it would end well, for it does not end well. Plague and boils and torment and horror—and for the plague that is overcome, we invent even worse horror. What can the comforting deceptions signify in the face of this truth, which is always the same and should remain visible to our eyes? All horror to come is anticipated here. St. John’s finger, enormous, points it out: this is it, this is what will be again. And what does the lamb mean in this landscape? Was this putrefying man on the cross the lamb? Did he grow up and become a human being in order to be nailed to the cross and called a lamb?

Recollecting how a painter meticulously and calmly copied this overwhelming picture of torture and pain, Canetti adds: “You were shielded against what you saw only by never looking away. You were rescued by not turning your head away.” No wonder he began to write with a reproduction of the Grünewald altarpiece hanging on the wall.

Apart from a few lapses (like that at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Justification,” where a mistaken grammatical antecedent spoils Canetti’s argument), Joachim Neugroschel’s translation is free of the grosser errors that so often mar English renderings of German works. Neugroschel has also reproduced Canetti’s tone very satisfactorily in most instances; his decision to flatten Canetti’s hieratic tone occasionally, writing “about to flee” where the original has “Anstalten treffen, sich durch Flucht…zu entziehen” [make preparations to elude… by taking flight], will seem justified to most English-speaking readers. Nevertheless, there are far too many instances in which the translator gives us a dictionary meaning that is wrong for the context, or seeks to “improve” Canetti’s prose in a manner that seems hard to justify.

Let us begin by looking at the way one incidental figure appears in this translation: the family doctor has come to see the nearly twenty-year-old Canetti after a violent outburst, and insists on treating him as though he were a five-year-old child: “‘What’s wrong with the little boy?’ he said in his elevated speech.” But neither here nor elsewhere does Dr. Laub use “elevated” language; getragene Sprache does not refer to speech level, but to a slow and stately mode of utterance that is elsewhere described as “honey dripping from his mouth.” When the doctor has finished his examination, Mr. Neugroschel makes him say: “Fine. The time has come.” But in its context “Jetzt wären wir soweit” does not mean this; it means rather: “Now we have it,” “Now we are getting to the root of the trouble.” When the doctor leaves, he pats his patient as one pats a child (“tätschelte mich“); Mr. Neugroschel’s “he examined me a bit” makes it seem as though the consultation were about to begin all over again. It is surely important to get such nuances right if Canetti’s memorable portraits are to have their intended effect.

The Viennese and Frankfurt dialects Canetti notes in the speech of some of his characters are often disregarded by the translator. Sometimes, however, he finds acceptable American equivalents; and when, in the mouth of a student, “diese blöden Weiber” becomes “these dumb broads,” few could object. Canetti himself, however, as narrator, never allows himself demotic speech of that kind: to render “trotz seines Bar-Namens” (with its unconversational genitive construction) “despite his barmoniker” is to mistake Canetti for Damon Runyon. Sometimes the author’s deliberate specifications are maddeningly ignored. “Inhaber eines Herrenmodengeschäfts” denotes not just a “haberdasher,” as Mr. Neugroschel tells us, but a man who specializes in male fashions. “No, not Dante. A figure from hell” is by no means the same thing as Canetti’s “Nein, nicht Dante, eine Figur aus seiner Hölle,” which leaves no doubt that it is not hell in general, but one particular literary Inferno which is meant.

It is even more upsetting, however, to find Mr. Neugroschel using expertise to introduce precisions and specifications which the author has carefully omitted. This happens particularly where Jewish matters are concerned. Where Canetti speaks of a Jewish character’s “Vorstellung von ‘guter Familie,”’ his translator takes it upon himself to add “her Sephardic notion of ‘good families.”’ As one would expect, Canetti is particularly careful about specifications of speech and language; when his Jewish characters are not speaking one of the languages of the non-Jewish world, we are explicitly told that they speak Romanisch (or Ladino) or Yiddish. It is therefore inadmissably high-handed of Mr. Neugroschel to tell us that a character just returned from Palestine and described, by Canetti, as singing “jüdische Lieder,” is singing “Yiddish songs”! Some of these “Jewish songs” may well have been in Hebrew; had Canetti meant to tell his readers that they were all in Yiddish (an idiom that was not encouraged in Palestine in those days) he would surely have said so explicitly.

Other unacceptable features of the translation derive from the assumption that cognate words in English and German must have the same meaning in both these languages. But the phrase “ein feiner Mann,” used by an aristocratic lady who has come down in the world, imputes good breeding and refined manners, and is not at all the same thing as “a fine man” (Lady Chatterley might say the latter of her husband’s gamekeeper, but not the former). “Das Asyl,” a word hallowed by Hölderlin and other German poets, means in Canetti a “sanctuary” or “place of refuge”; to translate it simply as “The Asylum” is to introduce undesirable associations and overtones that are absent in the original.

In other places a German-English dictionary seems to have been consulted with unfortunate results. “Vortäuschen” can indeed signify to “feign”; but when Canetti uses this word to describe certain sounds of the spoken Polish language, it clearly means “create the illusion….” (No volition is implied.) “I was so repulsed by him personally”—Canetti’s reaction to Brecht!—should surely, in its context, be “repelled.” “Ein unverbrauchter Schreiber” is not, as Mr. Neugroschel tells us, an “unconsumed writer” (whatever that may be), but one who is not worn out. “Die nicht ganz geheure Person” is someone who is just a little uncanny—Mr. Neugroschel’s “the creepy woman” is far too crude and direct. And to say of another woman that she “looked stricter than what she seemed like when she spoke” is to convert Canetti’s elegant German into rather clumsy English.

It would be tedious to continue to dwell on these matters; but I must just mention one other group of inadequate renderings: those that derive from imperfect acquaintance with Canetti’s cultural and topographical presuppositions. The reader who learns that a certain inhabitant of Vienna went “to Naschmarkt” or received something from some hawkers “at Naschmarkt” is bound to think that what is here referred to is a district or suburb, like “Grinzing.” The translation should, of course, have read “the Naschmarkt”—the place in question being a food and vegetable market in the center of Vienna. Anyone at all acquainted with the works of Gogol will know that Letter to His Friend can’t be right; a glance at Canetti’s original will confirm that the last word is in fact in the plural, and that what is being referred to is Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends (1847). And what will a reader not acquainted with German literature make of Mr. Neugroschel’s attribution of the title “The Three Just Kammachers” to a story by Gottfried Keller? That it’s about three men who come from Kammach, as Hamburgers come from Hamburg and Frankfurters from Frankfurt? The answer is, of course, that these three “just” men manufacture combs, and that “Kammacher” should therefore be translated “Comb-makers.”

Mr. Neugroschel’s version of Die Fackel im Ohr, whose imperfections I have tried to point out, is better than many other translations that English and American publishers have offered readers unable to tackle German originals; but Canetti weighs his words so carefully that even slight distortions make themselves painfully felt. It must be stressed, however, that such imperfections do not dissipate the essential force of Canetti’s account of his early experience with people, with works of art, with events, with “false realities” he had penetrated in order to find his authentic self. Even in this translation readers are bound to feel the intellectual honesty, keen sensibility, moral decency, and narrative flair with which the author has described his early evolution, and to recognize that this developing autobiography is an important record of the period it describes as well as a distinguished piece of writing worthy to stand with Auto-da-Fé, Crowds and Power, and Kafka’s Other Trial.

  1. *

    Mind as Passion,” The New York Review, September 25, 1980.

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