Canetti, Man of Mystery

As a literary type after World War Two, the German-speaking International Man of Mystery found Britain a more comfortable land of exile than America, where he was always under pressure to explain himself in public, thereby dissipating the mystery. The chief mystery was about his reason for not going back to German-speaking Europe. Before the mysterious W.G. Sebald there was the even more mysterious Elias Canetti. While the Nazis were in power, Canetti had excellent reasons to be in London. But now that the Nazis were gone, why was he still there?

Like Sebald later on, Canetti might have found Britain a suitable context for pulling off the trick of becoming a famous name without very many people knowing precisely who he was. Canetti even got the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, and people still didn’t know who he was. He was a Viennese Swiss Bulgarian refugee with an impressively virile moustache; he was Iris Murdoch’s lover; he was a mystery. Apart from a sociological treatise called Crowds and Power which advanced a thesis no more gripping than its title, his solitary pre-war novel Die Blendung, known in English as Auto da Fé, was the only book by Canetti that anybody had ever heard of. Hardly anybody had read it, but everybody meant to. Those who had read it said it was about a mysterious man in a house full of books, and that the house, in a symbolic enactment of the collapse of a civilization, fell down, or almost did, or creaked a lot, or something.

While living in Britain, Canetti wrote three books of memoirs about his life in pre-war Europe. He wrote them in German. (All three volumes are now available in English, although readers are warned that the translations lose some of the effortless pomposity of the original.) They were full of literary gossip: hard material to make dull, even for a writer with Canetti’s knack for colourless reportage. He proved, however, that he had a long memory for the frailties of his colleagues. He had a good story about Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities. In the circumscribed world of the Vienna cafes, Musil reigned unapproachably as the resident genius. But Musil was eaten up by resentment of the public recognition accorded to Thomas Mann. When, in 1935, Canetti published Die Blendung to some acclaim in the press, he entered the café to find Musil, who had previously barely noticed his existence, rising to meet him with a congratulatory speech. Canetti was able to say that he had a letter in his pocket from Thomas Mann, praising him in exactly the same terms. Musil sank back into his chair and never acknowledged Canetti again.

The story shows how Canetti could recognize self-obsession in others. But there is no account of his ever recognizing the same failing in himself. His memoirs not only take him to be the centre of events — a standard strategy in autobiographical writing, and often an entertaining one — they proceed on the assumption that no events matter except those centred on him. Hitler scarcely gets a mention. The story is all about Canetti, a man with good reason, we are led to assume, for holding himself in high esteem.

Canetti spent the last part of his life in Zurich. In his last year he was at work on his memoir about London. (Now, in Elysium, he is probably working on his memoir about Zurich.) The unfinished book, Party in the Blitz, is the story of his years in and around Hampstead during the war and just after. We are fortunate that there is no more of it, lest we start wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the twentieth century. But a twerp must be at least partly stupid, and Canetti wasn’t even a little bit that. Instead, he was a particularly bright egomaniac, and this book, written when his governing mechanisms were falling to bits, simply shows the limitless reserves of envy and recrimination that had always powered his aloofness. The mystery blows apart, and spatters the reader with scraps and tatters of an artificial superiority. Witnessing, from Hampstead Heath, the Battle of Britain taking place above him — the completeness with which he fails to evoke the scene is breathtaking — Canetti, unlike many another German-speaking refugee, managed to take no part whatever in the war against Hitler. He had his own war to fight, against, among others, T.S. Eliot. Canetti’s loathing of Eliot is practically the book’s leitmotiv: you have to imagine a version of Die Meistersinger in which Beckmesser keeps coming back on stage a few minutes after he goes off. “I was living in England as its intellect decayed,” Canetti recalls. “I was a witness to the fame of T.S. Eliot... a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante... thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old... armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife... tormented to such a degree that my Auto da Fé would have shrivelled up if he had gone near it...”

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