This is the fourth and final volume of Elias Canetti’s memoirs. Its predecessors, The Tongue Set Free (1977), The Torch in My Ear (1980) and The Play of the Eyes (1985), were poised, richly detailed and slightly dull; Party in the Blitz is chaotic, repetitive and horribly fascinating. It was a huge and scandalous success when it was published in the original German in 2003, some nine years after the author’s death. The question has been raised as to whether it should have been published at all. Canetti was a scrupulous craftsman, and Jeremy Adler’s somewhat uneasy observation, in an afterword to the book, that “Canetti would no doubt have wanted to give the work a more polished form” is surely a large understatement.
Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize in 1981, began to assemble Party im Blitz: Die englischen Jahre from his notes and diaries in 1990, when he was 85 and living in Zurich, where he had moved from London ten years earlier. He continued work on the book right up to his death, dictating to his daughter Johanna from a shorthand manuscript. Despite Johanna Canetti’s devoted care for the text and the labors of Florindo Tarreghetta, whom Ms. Canetti commissioned to transcribe three separate manuscripts, the book is plainly the work of an old man in a hurry. Adler, one of Canetti’s circle, noting that in Party in the Blitz the “Olympian calm and the self-censorship of the previous autobiography is set aside for a manner altogether more spirited,” is again indulging in demure restraint; for “spirited,” read “incandescent.” Canetti the avenger is here treating himself to a dish that is steaming hot.
Elias Canetti was born in 1905 in the town of Ruschuk on the lower Danube. It might be said that from the cradle he was a cosmopolitan, despite the fact that for Ruschuk the rest of the world was known as “Europe” and anyone traveling up the Danube to Vienna was said to have “gone to Europe.” In The Tongue Set Free Canetti writes that
if I say that Ruschuk is in Bulgaria, then I am giving an inadequate picture of it. For people of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighborhood, and next to it was the neighborhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews–our neighborhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians…. There were also Russians here and there.
Although German was the main language of the Canetti home–both of Elias’s parents had been educated in Vienna–the Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a version of Spanish that had hardly changed over the centuries since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. With “naïve arrogance,” as Canetti writes, the Sephardim looked down on their co-religionists, especially the Todesco, or Ashkenazi Jews.
In the early chapters of The Tongue Set Free Canetti wonderfully conjures up the strange world in which he grew up. That world was quickly lost–he was 5 when his father moved the family to Manchester, of all places. Two of Elias’s maternal uncles had a business going in England, and when one of them died the surviving brother offered Canetti père a partnership. “For my parents,” Canetti writes, “this was a desirable opportunity to free themselves from Ruschuk, which was too confining and too Oriental for them, and from the far more confining tyranny of the grandfather.” The latter is a lowering presence in Canetti’s account of his earliest years, as he sits at the head of the table reading aloud from the Haggadah, the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, “with his sharp face like a bird of prey,” watching over the family with an all-seeing, Jehovic eye. The move to England infuriated the old man, and on the day of departure he solemnly and publicly cursed his son.