Our attitude toward the great European thinkers and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be a distinctly mixed one. In their high seriousness and somber admonition, they seem to have said virtually everything there was to say, charting the disintegration of values and prophesying the doom that was soon to follow. So thorough and authoritative were their diagnoses and prognoses that we begin to wonder whether in some way they weren’t partly responsible for what they described and foretold.
Having this shameful thought in mind, I was disconcerted rather than gratified by what Elias Canetti says on the first page of his third volume of memoirs, relating to the years from 1931 to 1937. In his novel, then just finished and later known in English as Auto-da-Fé, he had, he tells us, burned the books before Hitler got to work on them. His hero’s library, which included everything of importance to the world, had gone up in flames. “All that had burned, I had let it happen, I had made no attempt to save any part of it; what remained was a desert, and I myself was to blame.” He continues:
For what happens in that kind of book is not just a game, it is reality; one has to justify it, not only against criticism from outside but in one’s own eyes as well. Even if an immense fear has compelled one to write such things, one must still ask oneself whether in so doing one has not helped to bring about what one so vastly fears.
Such is human perversity that one wishes to console him: No, Mr. Canetti, please don’t take on so! Auto-da-Fé is only a book, however chilling, only a novel about a crazy Sinologist who failed to keep his ivory tower in good repair.
Of all those stern, apocalyptic Europeans—to whose elevated company he has been admitted rather late in the day—Canetti, I think, is the most difficult to assess, even the hardest to describe. How genuine is his originality, how deeply indebted is he to Hermann Broch and Karl Kraus? (Whatever those debts, they are far from crippling, I would say.) There is no doubt about his seriousness, his profundity, yet one might hope for a greater incisiveness; we assent, or are ready to assent, to his statements; but one may be disappointed by his exposition and development of them, by the kind of rhetoric he employs. Plainly, this is no grandiloquent or notably supple rhetoric, being blunt, assertive, four-square, and at times portentous, rather than exploratory as in Czeslaw Milosz, or nimble and witty as in Robert Musil, or protean and mischievous as in Thomas Mann. We want to be convinced, and we have no misgivings about his sincerity, yet he is not wholly persuasive; his solemnity of manner and his intensity promise—or threaten—more than they deliver. As we pass through his book The Human Province1 we feel we are being steam-rollered even by aphorisms no more than a line and a half in length. “God as a preparation for something more sinister that we do not yet know.”
Mann twists and turns, Musil ironizes in all directions, while Canetti looms. Canetti is not an entertainer: he is too stern and cold and unforgiving for that. Perhaps in the end—not that I have come anywhere near it—he is a great thinker rather than a great writer; or a thinker who has difficulty in writing. Yet in his 1976 speech “The Writer’s Profession,”2 he speaks nobly on the true profession of the true writer. And Therese, the housekeeper of Auto-da-Fé, is the product of a major novelistic talent, comparable to (though more dreadful than) Frau Stöhr in Mann’s The Magic Mountain: you can hear the starch crackle in her skirt, you can smell the starch. Even so, Auto-da-Fé is essentially static, cut and dried from the start; a born hater of mankind is brought down by hateful men and women, in the course of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a determined quality about the novel, a ferocity and contempt at which even the satirist Karl Kraus, from whose sway Canetti had recently disengaged himself, would have flinched.
When Hermann Broch read the manuscript of Auto-da-Fé,3 “You’re terrifying,” he told the author. “Do you want to terrify people?… Is it the writer’s function to bring more fear into the world? Is that a worthy intention?” Canetti’s reply could be summed up as Yes. Not that he was, or is, deficient in self-awareness, or awareness of other people’s views of him and his work. A few pages earlier in the present volume, when he is doubting his ability to do full justice to Broch, and with his preparations for a “lifework” on the psychology of crowds also in mind, he writes:
He could not help recognizing my tendency to include everything in my plans and ambitions as an authentic passion. What repelled him was my zealotic, dogmatic way of making the improvement of mankind dependent on chastisement and without hesitation appointing myself executor of this chastisement.
It may be that the 1981 Nobel Prize was awarded to Canetti more on account of Crowds and Power, but Auto-da-Fé is to say the least a unique work, and we would not be without it. “It’s good such a book exists. It will have a good effect,” the proprietor of a Strasbourg newspaper said, adding, “The people who read it will wake up as from a nightmare and be thankful that reality is different.”
Canetti visited Strasbourg for a music festival in 1933, in the course of a garbage collectors’ strike which brought out the city’s medieval character. Suddenly, without warning, he found himself in the fourteenth century, a period that had always interested him because of its mass movements, the flagellants, the burnings of Jews, the plague. As he walked through the reeking streets he saw everywhere, outside or behind closed doors, the dead, and the despair of those still living.
What in Germany, beyond the Rhine, was felt to be a fresh start struck me here as the consequence of a war that had not yet begun. I did not foresee—how could I foresee?—what lay ten years ahead. No, I looked six hundred years back, and what I saw was the Plague with its masses of dead, which had spread irresistibly and was once again threatening from across the Rhine.
Only when he climbed the cathedral spire and took a deep breath did it seem to him that the plague had been thrust back into its old century.
Canetti’s eyes are like the “thirsty eyes” he attributed to Isaac Babel in the preceding volume of memoirs, The Torch in My Ear. They are hyperactive throughout The Play of the Eyes, though “play” is not always the right word for what they are engaged in. If his idols have a toe or two of clay, his fools and bêtes noires are formed of mud or worse. Franz Werfel had pop eyes and a mouth like a carp’s:
Since he took any number of important ideas from others, he often held forth as if he were a font of infinite wisdom. He overflowed with sentiment, his fat belly gurgled with love and feeling, one expected to find little puddles on the floor around him and was almost disappointed to find it dry.
It is easy to see why Canetti despised him and his “Oh Man!’ rubbish,” yet the author of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh surely deserves better. Emil Ludwig, the once acclaimed biographer, “wrote a whole book in three or four weeks and boasted about it,” while Richard BeerHofmann, the surviving leader of the Viennese fin de siècle, whom Canetti met on the same occasion, “wrote no more than two lines a year.” Grim and grotesque fun is made of those artistic relicts, the widows of Gustav Mahler and Jakob Wassermann. Displaying her daughter by Walter Gropius, Alma Mahler (now married to Werfel) asked Canetti,
Beautiful, isn’t she?… Like father, like daughter. Did you ever see Gropius? A big handsome man. The true Aryan type. The only man who was racially suited to me. All the others who fell in love with me were little Jews. Like Mahler. The fact is, I go for both kinds.
Canetti met James Joyce once, in Zurich in 1935, and rudeness, on Joyce’s part, ensued. The incident, of which he makes rather too much, occurred during a reading of his play, Komödie der Eitelkeit (“Comedy of Vanity”), a reading which fell disastrously flat—except in the eyes of its author. Of an earlier reading of the same play, when Werfel shouted, “This is unbearable,” and walked out, he remarks, “It is defeats of such catastrophic proportions that keep a writer alive.” He is a doughty fighter.
The larger and more intimate set pieces concern the novelists Broch and Musil, the conductor Hermann Scherchen, and—unequivocally affectionate in tenor—the sculptor Fritz Wotruba (on whom he has published a monograph), the composer Alban Berg, and one rather mysterious other. Canetti speaks of the indelible impressions people leave on him, no doubt as a result of his close and merciless scrutiny of them. These portrayals are undeniably brilliant, the creation of a novelist, a dramatist, as well as an unremitting observer. That there is a trace of something like resentment in his hero worship of Broch and Musil, and that elsewhere an incidental tinge of self-praise evinces itself, is understandable given the history of his reputation, its sluggish growth. That for the greater part of this period nothing of his had been published, and he had only manuscripts to show for himself in the small, richly creative world of Vienna, would have made him (as he said of Musil) touchy in his self-esteem.
Just as their conversation had become fascinating, Broch would announce, “I must go to Dr. Schaxl’s now.” That the man who had written The Sleepwalkers should break off to go and confide in a female analyst! “I was filled with consternation. I felt ashamed for him.” Looking back, Canetti admits, he can see the possibility that Broch was running away from his avalanche of words, “that he could not have borne a longer conversation with me and that was why he arranged to meet me just before his analysis.”
Musil, who was “a man of solids and avoided liquids and gases” and who possessed “an unerring instinct for the inadequacy of the simple,” he worshiped as much as he worshiped Broch. Musil was competitive, and “his touchiness was merely a defense against murkiness and adulteration.” He wasn’t pleased in the least to be one of the much trumpeted and (in Canetti’s words) “odd triad,” Musil, Joyce, and Broch. When he heard that someone had spoken highly of The Man Without Qualities he would at once ask, “Whom else does he praise?”
In 1931 Canetti had sent the manuscript of Auto-da-Fé, in three heavy tomes, to Thomas Mann, who returned it with an apologetic note: he didn’t have the strength to read it. Somewhat cryptically, Canetti remarks here that Mann’s letter declining to read the manuscript “was probably not unjust, for he had not read the book.” But after its publication, four years later, he received a letter he had hoped for, making amends. Musil had launched into his own, and eagerly awaited, praise of the book when, excited and befuddled, Canetti interrupted to say that he had had a long letter from Thomas Mann. Musil’s face went gray. “Did you?” he said, and turned on his heel. (A case of “Who else has praised you?”) It was the end of their friendship. “He was a master of dismissal. He had ample practice. Once he had dismissed you, you stayed dismissed.” This is saddening to read; and, aware of Canetti’s own edginess, we can be forgiven for wondering whether it is true, the whole truth.
It is Scherchen, the conductor, a lesser person, who gets the roughest treatment: a man of indestructible will, voluble in self-praise (“hymns of triumph, one might say, if it didn’t sound so dull and colorless”), with never a word of praise for others, stage-managing a circus of cowed protégés. For Canetti, he was “a perfect specimen of something I was determined to understand and portray: a dictator.” Only when Scherchen fell in love with a Chinese girl whom he had seen conducting Mozart in Brussels, and canceled all his engagements to rush off to Peking and marry her, did Canetti soften toward him. For once, instead of issuing orders, he had voluntarily submitted to one.
The book’s most glowing tribute is paid to a man whom Canetti had watched in a café for a year and a half before being introduced to him. Dr. Sonne, who lived in retirement, looked like Kraus but had none of Kraus’s anger, and spoke as Musil wrote but had none of Musil’s purposiveness or urge to conquer. Sonne’s was a spiritual influence, a charisma hardly to be conveyed in cold print; Canetti thought of him as “the angel Gabriel,” and, as he puts it, served a four-year apprenticeship to him. He heard from someone else that in his youth Sonne had written, under the name of Abraham ben Yitzhak, a few consummate poems in Hebrew, perhaps fewer than a dozen. They never discussed the matter, and for a time Canetti was faintly shocked to discover that his “perfect sage,” his peerless model, had done something; but then he admired him the more for turning his back on it and disparaging fame—whereas he himself was busy fighting for a reputation. I see from T. Carmi’s Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse that Avraham ben Yitshak printed only eleven poems during his lifetime (1883–1950), was rediscovered when his collected poems came out in 1952, and is considered by many to be the first truly modern Hebrew poet.
“She despised her sex. Her hero was not some woman, it was Coriolanus.” In his first autobiographical volume, The Tongue Set Free, Canetti had much to say about his mother, the raging contradictions in her character, her intolerance and her magnanimity, possessiveness and scorn, wildness and implacability. At ten years old, he had equated her with Medea, encountered in a book about classical myths. Now, in her eyes, he had sold his soul to Vienna, he had even married, in secret, a Viennese woman, Veza, and she never wanted to see him again. The Play of the Eyes ends with the end of the long, tormented struggle between mother and son, or perhaps more accurately with her death, in Paris, in 1937. The account of her last days is wholly unsentimental, as we would expect, and weirdly affecting. He brought her roses, from her childhood garden in Ruschuk, he told her, the Bulgarian town where he too was born. “Her earliest memory was of lying under a rosebush, and then she was crying because she had been carried into the house and the fragrance was gone.” Coming straight from Vienna, he had actually bought the roses on the spot, in Paris. But she believed him. “She accepted my story, she accepted me too—I was included in the fragrant cloud.”
July 17, 1986
Described as a selection from “my jottings from 1942 to 1972,” and published in English translation by Continuum (1978). ↩
In the collection of essays, The Conscience of Words (Continuum, 1979). ↩
Then entitled Kant Catches Fire, but published as Die Blendung (“blinding” or “bedazzlement”), with the protagonist’s name changed on Broch’s insistence; Kant became Kien (“pine-wood”), thus retaining something of the man’s combustibility, as Canetti has observed in a rare flash of recognizable humor. ↩