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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.