July 25, 2017
Happy 112, Elias Canetti!
by Melville House
It’s a fine day to be wishing the world a happy 112th birthday of Sephardic-Bulgarian-British German-language memoirist, novelist, theorist, and playwright Elias Canetti!
Born to two venerable families in Ruse, Bulgaria, Canetti spent his childhood moving through Manchester, Lausanne, Vienna, Zurich, and Frankfurt. He grew up speaking Ladino, English, Bulgarian (which he later forgot), German (which he writes beautifully of being forced to learn by his mother), and French (a little). Published between 1977 and 1985, his trilogy of memoirs—The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in my Ear, and The Play of the Eyes—unpacks those years through a broadly inquisitive, humanistic lens.
Here’s Canetti in The Torch in My Ear, writing about chilling over some pea soup and people-watching with his hero, the Russian writer Isaac Babel:
He was very curious: he wanted to see everything in Berlin; but for him, “everything” meant the people, and indeed all kinds of people, not those who hung out in the artists’ restaurants and the fancy pubs. His favorite place was Aschinger’s restaurant. There we stood side by side, very slowly eating a pea soup. With his globular eyes behind his very thick eyeglasses, he looked at the people around us, every single one, all of them, and he could never get his fill of them. He was annoyed when he finished the soup. He wished for an inexhaustible bowl, for all he wanted to do was keep on looking: and since the people changed rapidly, there was a great deal to see. I have never met anyone who looked with such intensity. He remained utterly calm; the expression of his eyes changed incessantly because of the play of muscles around them. He rejected nothing when seeing, for he felt equally serious about everything; the most usual as well as the most unusual things were important to him.
(Babel goes on to say, “That’s the one thing the French lack — they don’t have Gogol,” which is, mathematically speaking, the greatest thing ever.)
In 1935, Canetti published the anti-totalitarian modernist novel Auto-da-Fé, about a book-worshipping Sinologist who progressively loses his mind. Writing in 1981, John Bayley observed that it had “been seriously called the most remarkable [novel] of this century. A meaningless judgment, and yet what could be said is that it is the most remarkable attempt at an intellectual imagination of the true nature of the 20th century, an apotheosis of the immensely weighty and serious Faust tradition of German letters. It could only have been written in German, and yet it could hardly have been written by a German, a man too physically at home in the gemütlichkeit of his native speech. Canetti’s use of the language is enormously mental, magical and dynamic.”
In 1960, he released Crowds and Power, a theoretical study of crowds and, well, power that’s remained influential for decades. In that book, he writes, of the experience being in a crowd:
Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.
In 1981, Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature; his other awards included the Franz Kafka Prize, the Nelly Sachs prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature, and the Prix International. He’s such a boss they named a mountain after him in Ant-dang-arctica. He died in Zurich in 1994, and was buried next to James Joyce.