Canetti ends the third volume of his autobiography, The Play of the Eyes, with a tender account of his mother's death in Paris and of his brother Georg's grief at her loss. That was in the summer of 1937. By then Canetti was married--his wife, Veza, was a writer whose novels achieved posthumous fame in the 1990s--and had published the work for which he is still best-known, the novel Auto-da-Fé. The book, a bleak study of obsession and the pursuit of power, achieved scant success, appearing as it did in the middle of the 1930s, that low decade. Thomas Mann, pleading lack of time and strength, had sent the manuscript back unread, although when it was published Robert Musil congratulated Canetti on his "great success," a compliment that "almost made me reel."
Canetti and Veza moved to England in 1939 and settled in Hampstead, described by Jeremy Adler as "a former village on the hilly ground in the north of London that had provided a gathering place for artists and intellectuals for more than two centuries." By the early 1940s there were 25,000 "aliens" living in Hampstead, almost half the population of the area. Freud had lived there, and in Canetti's time the residents included the playwright Ernst Toller and the painter Oskar Kokoschka--Canetti relates a grotesquely comic vignette in which Kokoschka claims in all seriousness that he was to blame for the war, since he and Hitler, the would-be painter, had competed for the same scholarship from the Viennese Academy and he had won, thus driving Hitler into politics; such is the solipsism of the artist.
Party in the Blitz opens with a typically condensed and richly allusive meditation on the decline of the English character. The first page records the author's disenchantment after 1945--"no sooner had the War been won, the victory celebrations, the bonfires on the Heath, than the collapse began"--and then flits back in time to the Glorious Revolution and the Thirty Years' War, to Shakespeare and Milton, to Hobbes and Sir Thomas Browne and John Aubrey, the latter one of Canetti's particular heroes, and on whose Brief Lives his own Party in the Blitz is modeled. Then the page turns and immediately a knife is plunged into the bony breast of T.S. Eliot, "this miserable creature" who
kowtows to any order that's sufficiently venerable; tries to stifle any élan; a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante (to which Circle would Dante have banished him?); thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old, unworthy of Blake or of Goethe or of anything volcanic--his own lava cooled before it ever warmed--neither cat nor bird nor beetle, much less mole, godly, dispatched to England...armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife--that was his only excuse--tormented to such a degree that my Auto da Fé would have shrivelled up if he had gone near it.
Now, this is not the tone to which we are accustomed in the memoirs of Nobel laureates in the winter of their years. But Canetti, the "godmonster of Hampstead," as the critic John Bayley called him--not without personal cause--was not your usual literary man. He had a fierce belief in his own worth, a belief he sought to instill in those who were sucked into the vortex of his will. He was a slave to love--during the war years he seems to have had three or four affairs going simultaneously--but made slaves of his lovers. The most famous of these was the novelist Iris Murdoch, to whom he had been introduced by his friend and Murdoch's then lover, the expatriate poet and scholar Franz Steiner. Steiner had died in November 1952, and on Christmas Day Canetti telephoned Murdoch and invited her to come to see him in Hampstead. They went to a pub, then back to his flat and sat up talking into the early hours, when he reluctantly called her a taxi. Within days they had begun a love affair they kept so secret that at the time of Murdoch's death in 1999 many of her close friends were still ignorant of it.
A couple of weeks after that Christmas Day meeting, Murdoch wrote:
It is midnight. [Canetti] was here for five hours. He fills me with wonder and delight and fear. I told him: you are a great city of which I am learning now the main thoroughfares, which roads lead to the river. Later I shall explore each quarter carefully. He said: will you ask for any changes? Do you approve of the cathedral? And what will you do with this city? Live in it.
The affair seems to have had a strong whiff of sadomasochism to it. Murdoch was both fascinated and fearful of this "egoarch," as James Joyce would have called him. She portrayed him as the mysterious tycoon Mischa Fox in her novel The Flight From the Enchanter, the title of which carries an obvious significance--another of his lovers, Friedl Benedikt, wrote a novel called simply The Monster--and in which we glimpse the side of Canetti that is frequently on display in Party in the Blitz.
After three years Murdoch made her own flight from the enchanter, when she met and fell in love with John Bayley, whom she would eventually marry despite Canetti's opposition, and with whom she lived for the rest of her life. In Party in the Blitz Canetti exacts his vengeance on her. "Everything I despise about English life is in her," he declares. His portrait of her, though "caricature" is surely a better word, fairly seethes with venom and bile. He scorns everything from her enthusiasms for Sartre and Heidegger to the diaphanous blouse she wears to a meeting with Canetti and his friend the aristocratic Aymer Maxwell. He describes in detail the circumstances of their love-making--"she had things on that didn't have anything remotely to do with love, it was all woollen and ungainly"--and, even worse, he is dismissive of her gift:
Iris is what I would call an "illegitimate" writer. She never suffered from having to write. There was always something schoolgirl-like about her, even after twenty-four novels, and if not schoolgirl-like, then schoolmarmish, which in a writer is even worse.
It is a pity that Party in the Blitz should stand as Canetti's last word. He was, in his way, a great figure, one of the last of those omnivorous intellects produced by Old Europe in its dying decades before the catastrophe of World War II. If Auto-da-Fé is more impressive than satisfying, Canetti's Crowds and Power, which grew out of the disastrous politics of the 1930s, will surely survive. For all the cruelty of his late judgments on those he loved and those who loved him, it is well to heed the warning of Murdoch's biographer Peter Conradi: "Those wishing to honour Iris's reputation must fight the temptation to blacken Canetti's."