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Monster's Ball | The Nation

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Monster's Ball

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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.

About the Author

John Banville
John Banville is the author, most recently, of The Sea, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Also by the Author

New translations of novels by exiled authors Roberto Bolaño and Ismail Kadare explore the bloody crossroads where literature, politics and self-absorption converge.

Adorno said, as we all know, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This is not to say, as many imagine, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is to be forbidden, or is impossible.

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.

The patriarch's curse was to prove powerful: Within two years of taking up the partnership in Manchester, Canetti's father was dead, at the age of 30. It was a devastating blow to the family, and for the son a loss from which he never recovered: "My father's death was at the center of every world I found myself in." For nearly a quarter of a century Canetti's mother kept the true circumstances of his father's death from him. After the first year in England she had fallen ill, and a cure at an Austrian spa was prescribed. At the spa she met a doctor who fell in love with her and urged her to leave her husband. When she returned to Manchester she told her husband of the doctor's proposal. He refused to believe the liaison had been as pure as she claimed and flew into a jealous fury, swearing he would not speak another word to her. In the morning, at the silent breakfast table, he suffered a heart attack and died.

It would be tendentious at the least to suggest a direct link between this early tragedy and the grown-up Canetti's extremely complicated and secretive love life. Yet in The Tongue Set Free Canetti acknowledges the strong similarities between himself and his mother, who looked upon her contentious relatives with a coolly observant and at times scornful eye--her brothers' greed "had led them to destroy one another in years of litigation"--but who yet took great pride in her family.

Much later, I came to realize that I, translated to the greater dimensions of mankind [!], am exactly as she was. I have spent the best part of my life figuring out the wiles of man as he appears in the historical civilizations. I have examined and analyzed power as ruthlessly as my mother her family's litigations. There is almost nothing bad that I couldn't say about humans and humankind. And yet my pride in them is so great that there is only one thing I really hate: their enemy, death.

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."

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