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Elias Canetti (1905-1994)


Bulgarian-born German novelist, essayist, sociologist, and playwright, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Elias Canetti's best-known works is Crowds and Power (1960), an imaginative study of mass movements, death and disordered society which drew on history, folklore, myth, and literature. The book was inspired by the burning of the Palace on Justice in Vienna in 1927. Canetti started publishing in the 1930s but it was not until the 1960s and especially after the Nobel price that his work started to gain sustained critical attention. Most of his life he was resident in London, but he did not actively associate with English writers or German language colleagues.

"Die charaktervollsten gelehrten sein um Bücher willen schon zu Verbrechern geworden. Wie gross sei die Versuchung erst für einen intelligenten und bildungshungrigen Menschen, die zum erstenmal Bücher mit all ihren Reizen drückten!" (from Die Blendung, 1935)

Elias Canetti was born in Ruse (Ruschuk), a small port in Bulgaria on the river Danube, into a Sephardic Jewish family. The family were well-to-do merchants, who spoke old Spanish. Canetti's father, Jacques, was a businessman. Mathilde Arditti, his mother, was especially proud of her backgound. "Although the literatures of the civilized languages she knew became the true substance of her life," Canetti later recalled, "she never felt any contradiction between this passionate universality and the haughty family pride that she never stopped nourishing."

German was the fourth language Canetti acquired – after Ladino, an archaic Spanish dialect, Bulgarian, and English. He eventually chose to write in German and retained a lasting love of German culture. The role model of his youth was the Austrian satirist and poet Karl Kraus, who once said, that "The German language is the profoundest of all languages, but German speech is the shallowest." When Canetti was six, his family moved to Manchester, England. After the sudden death of his father, his mother took the family to Vienna, where he learned German.

From 1916 to 1921 Canetti studied in Zürich, and produced his first literary work, Junius Brutus, a verse play. During a visit to Berlin in 1928 he met Bertolt Brecht, Isaak Babel, and George Grosz, and started to plan a series of novels on the subject of human madness. The idea resulted in the novel Die Blendung (translations into English in 1947 and 1964), considered to have been ahead of its time. The book was well received after WW II among others by Thomas Mann and the English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Canetti had an affair with Murdoch in the 1950s, but his portrayal of her in Party im Blitz: Die englischen Jahre (2003) is remarkably negative: "You could call Iris Murdoch the bubbling Oxford stewpot. Everything I despise about English life is in her. You could imagine her speaking incessantly, as a tutor, and incessantly listening: in the pub, in bed, in conversation with her male of female lovers."

Canetti graduated in 1929 with a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Vienna. In the early 1930s he translated works by the American writer Upton Sinclair. While in Austria he had an experience that would affect all his future work: angry protesters burned down the Palace of Justice and the author was caught up in the crowd, later describing how he felt himself becoming part of the mob. In 1934 Canetti married Veza Taubner-Calderón, a writer and translator; she died in 1963, completely forgotten as a novelist. However, in the 1980s Canetti started to edit and publish her works. Canetti's second marriage was with Hera Buschor; they had one daughter. Hera Buschor, who worked at the Kunsthaus in Zürich, was Canetti's old friend from the 1950s. The third part of Canetti's autobiography was dedicated to her. She died from cancer in 1988.

In the 1930s Canetti wrote two plays, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), a comedy of manners, and Die Komödie der Eitelkeit, forerunners of the theater of the absurd. Die Befristeten, produced in Vienna in 1967, asked the question what happens if one knows the exact date of ones death.

To escape the systematic persecution of Jews, Canetti fled to Paris in 1938 and next year he immigrated to England, where he mostly lived for the rest of his life. From the 1970s Canetti also maintained a home in Zürich, where he spent his last years with his daughter.

Canetti's breakthrough work, Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé), came out in 1935. It was banned by the Nazis, but beside this dubious acknowledgment Canetti did not gain much attention as a writer before the 1960s when the book was reprinted. The protagonist is Peter Klein, a forty-year-old philologist and sinologist, who lives in an unnamed Middle-European city based on Vienna. He knows much of ancient languages but is unable to decipher contemporary voices. "He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock."

Klein feels safe with his 40 000 characters of the Chinese alphabet and 25 000 books. He fears social and physical contacts, and his inhumane view of the world contradicts his learning. However, he allows himself to get into the clutches of his ignorant and grasping housekeeper Therese Krummholz, nearing 60, whom he marries, and who robs him of everything. In this she is helped by Benedikt Pfaff, the proto-fascist caretaker of the apartment block. Klein descends to the lower, surrealistic depths of society. His brother Georges, who is a psychiatrist, tries in vain to cure him. Doomed Klein dies in apocalyptic self-destruction amidst his books.

Crowds and Power (1960), brought together material from many disciples, but avoided such names as Marx or Freud, who is mentioned once in a note. It started from the assumption that crowd instinct is as fundamental as the passion to survive. "The lowest form of survival is killing." The first half analyses the dynamics of different types of crowds and of 'packs'. The second part focuses on the question how and why crowds obey rulers. Canetti presented Hitler as the paranoiac ruler of crowds, fascinated by the size of the crowds he commands. The persecution of the Jews is onnected with the German experience of inflation – they needed to pass this humiliation on to something else which would be reduced to worthlessness. "Our most pressing need, as Canetti very movingly and convincingly argues at the end, is to control the 'survivor mania' of our rulers, and the key to this is 'the humanisation of command'. But how is command to be humanised? Canetti has not given us a psychology with which to picture the humanisation of command." (Iris Murdoch in The Spectator, September 1962) Canetti himself did not see the Palace of Justice being set on fire but he was in the crowd on 15 July, 1927, he felt the fire, ran with others, and heard the gunfire everywhere. Canetti has said that it was the most crucial day of his life after his father's death.

Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice (1969) examined Kafka's struggle between comfortable middle-class life and individual isolation. As an essayist Canetti became known with The Conscience of Words (1976). With one exception, these essays date from the 1960s and 1970s and deal mostly with literary topics. Canetti sees that writers are responsible of the preservation, revivification, and invention of the life-sustaining myths and their meaning. Tolstoy is rejected as a model for having "struck a kind of pact with death" in his late turn to religion, and Kafka emerges "among all writers as the greatest expert on power". "

Canetti has a very acute ear for colloquialisms and the banalities of everyday speech, creating what he term as "acoustic mask" for each figure, a core vocabulary of a few hundred words that marks out a character's habits of thoughts and behavior. Canetti's penetration of his various social representative's linguistic habits is quite remarkably sustained, creating a world of complete self-absorption, vanity, and personal and public insanity." (Anna.Marie Taylor in Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

Before the Nobel Prize made Canetti world- famous, he lived modestly in Hampstead. For most of his career, he remained hidden from the public eye. The German literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki met him for the first time in the mid-1960s and already noted his charisma and his greats skills as a conversationalist (see Mein Leben, 1999). Canetti admitted that he did not have patience to listen to others. He had written most of his diary in cipher so that intrusive critics would not understand it. When Reich-Ranicki asked him to write a short essay on Heinrich Böll, who had portrayed the moral emptiness of modern German society, Canetti refused. Reich-Ranicki's impression was that Canetti did not place much value much on Böll's books.

Among Canetti's several awards were Foreign Book Prize (1949, France), Vienna Prize (1966), Critics Prize (1967, Germany), Great Austrian State Prize (1967), Bavarien Academy of Fine Arts Prize (1969), Bühner Prize (1972), Nelly Sachs Prize (1975), Order of Merit (1979, Germany), Europa Prato Prize (1980, Italy), Hebbel Prize (1980), Kafka Prize (1981), Great Service Cross (1983, Germany). He had also honorary degrees from two universities. Canetti died on August 13, 1994 in Zürich. His autobiographical works include Die gerettete Zunge (1980), in which the author returned to the traumatic experience of his father's death, Die Fackel im Ohr (1982), and Das Augenspiel (1985). Die Stimmen von Marrakesch (1967), a travel book, dealt also with death.

For further reading: A Companion to the Works of Elias Canetti by Dagmar C.G. Lorenz (2009); The Worlds of Elias Canetti: Centenary Essays, ed. by William Collins Donahue & Julian Preece (2007); Elias Canetti by D. Barnouw (1996); Elias Canetti: The Failing of the Novel by R. Elbaz (1995); Elias Canetti by Thomas H. Falk (1993); Understanding Elias Canetti by Richard H. Lawson (1991); Das autobiographische Werke von Elias Canetti by F. Eigler (1988); Essays in Honor of Elias Canetti, ed. by F. Eigler (1987); Erinnerung und Vision by B. Meili (1985); Elias Canetti by Edgar Piel (1984); Elias Cantti by Dagmar Barnouw (1979); Kopf und Welt by D. Roberts (1975); Canetti Lesen, ed. by Herbert G. Göpfert (1975); Essays on German Literature, ed. by F. Norman (1965) - Note: Irish Murdoch dedicated her novel The Flight From the Enchanter (1956) to Elias Canetti

Selected works:

  • Leidweg der Liebe / Upton Sinclair, 1930 (translator)
  • Das Geld schreibt / Upton Sinclair, 1930  (translator)
  • Alkohol / Upton Sinclair, 1932 (translator)
  • Die Hochzeit, 1932 (play)
    - The Wedding (tr. 1986)
  • Die Blendung, 1935
    - Auto da Fé (UK title; translated by C.W. Wedgwood, 1946) / The Tower of Babel (US title; translated C. V. Wedgwood, 1947)
    - Sokeat (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1982)
  • Die Komödie der Eitelkeit, 1950 (play)
    - Comedy of Vanity (tr. 1983)
  • Fritz Wotruba, 1953
    - Fritz Wotruba (tr. 1955)
  • Masse und Macht, 1960
    - Crowds and Power (translated by Carol Stewart, 1962)
    - Joukko ja valta (suom. Markus Lång, 1998)
  • Welt im Kopf, 1962 (ed. by Erich Fried)
  • Dramen, 1964
  • Die Befristeten, 1964
    - Life-Terms (play, prod. in England in 1956)
  • Aufzeichnungen 1942-1985, 1965
  • Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, 1968
    - The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit (translated by J.A. Underwood, 1978)
    - Marrakešin ääniä (suomentanut Esa Adrian, 1981)
  • Der andere Prozess: Kafkas Briefe an Felice, 1969
    - Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice (translated by Christopher Middleton, 1974)
  • Alle vergeudete Verehrung, 1970
  • Die gespaltene Zukunft, 1972
  • Macht Und Überleben. Drei Essays, 1972
  • Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942–1972, 1973
    - The Human Province (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1978)
    - Ihmisen alue: muistiinmerkintöjä (suom. Liisa Laukkarinen, 1982, ruotsinnoksesta Människans provins)
  • Der Ohrenzeuge: Fünfzig Charaktere, 1974
    - Earwitness: Fifty Characters (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1979)
    - Avainkorva: viisikymmentä luonnetta (suomentanut Jari Tammi, 1994)
  • Das Gewissen der Worte: Essays, 1975
    - The Conscience of Words (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1979)
  • Der Beruf des Dichters, 1976
  • Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend, 1977
    - The Tongue Set Free (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1979)
    - Pelastunut kieli: erään nuoruuden tarina (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1984)
  • Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte 1921–1931, 1980
    - The Torch in My Ear (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1982)
    - Soihtu korvassa (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1985)
  • Das Augenspiel: Lebensgeschichte 1931–1937, 1985
    - The Play of the Eyes (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1986)
    - Silmäpeli: elämäntarina vuosilta 1931-1937 (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1986)
  • Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeichnungen 1973–1985, 1987
    - The Secret Heart of the Clock: Notes, Aphorisms, Fragments 1973-1985 (translated by Joel Agee, 1989)
    - Kellon salainen sydän: muistiinpanoja 1973-1985 (suomentanut Kyllikki Villa, 1990)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1992-2005 (10 vols.)
  • Die Fliegenpein: Aufzeichnungen, 1992
    - The Agony of Flies: Notes and Notations (translated by H.F. Broch de Rothermann, 1994)
  • Aufzeichnungen, 1942-1985, 1993
  • Nachträge aus Hampstead: Aufzeichnungen 1954-1971, 1994
    - Notes from Hampstead: The Writer’s Notes, 1954-1971 (translated by John Hargraves, 1998)
  • Wortmasken: Texte zu Leben und Werk von Elias Canetti, 1995
  • Werke - Dreizehn Bände und ein Begleitband "Wortmasken" in Kassette, 1995 (13 vols.)
  • Aufzeichnungen 1992–1993, 1996
  • Aufzeichnungen 1973–1984, 1999
  • Party im Blitz: Die englischen Jahre, 2003
    - Party in the Blitz: the English Years (translated by Michael Hofmann, 2005)
  • Aufzeichnungen für Marie-Louise, 2005
  • Aufsätze, Reden, Gespräche, 2005
  • Briefe an Georges / Veza & Elias Canetti, 2006 (edited by Karen Lauer and Kristian Wachinger)
    - "Dearest Georg": Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times: The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933-1948 (edited by Karen Lauer and Kristian Wachinger; translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, 2009)
  • Liebhaber ohne Adresse: Briefwechsel 1942-1992, 2011

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