Party in the Blitz, by Elias Canetti, trans Michael Hofmann

The enemy within
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Nevertheless, here it is, and let's put it to some use. Canetti's raging egotism, his envy, his taste for betrayal, are all in the Nobel Prize-winning writer's memoir of "the English years". He judges everyone by how they respond to him; he sticks the knife into old friends, especially women (Iris Murdoch, C V Wedgwood, Kathleen Raine), and anyone more famous than himself (T S Eliot). But Canetti's nastiness is well known. I shall play devil's advocate, and speak for his other side.

Canetti was a larger-than-life hater, but he was also a larger-than-life lover, and there are loving portraits here too: of his fellow émigré Franz Steiner, for example, with his hopeless dream of founding a family; of Aymer Maxwell, probably Canetti's closest friend; of Friedl Benedikt, his lover from Viennese days, whom he also admired and encouraged as a writer.

Indeed, though Canetti reserved his worst cruelties for women, the women in his life were all artists in their own right, whose work, at least, he did not destroy: his wife Veza, his mistresses Friedl Benedikt and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, and Iris Murdoch herself. If Canetti had only hated the human race, his books would not hold us; and if he had only hated women, he would not have held them either. He also loved them, equally extremely, equally mythically, as he had mythically loved and hated his mother. It was this combination of extreme, mythical love and hate that made him seem more like a god to them than a man.

This mythical love-hate is the true subject of Party in the Blitz: not love-hate for Iris Murdoch, or for anyone, but for England. In this, Canetti speaks for every Jewish refugee from Hitler to mid-20th century Britain - and probably for every other refugee to Britain as well; exaggeratedly, as he says, but not less truthfully, since in its purity and concentration literature always exaggerates.

It can only be love-hate, because for Canetti and his kind the best things in England are also intolerable. He is hot in everything, especially his opinions, while the English are cool and moderate. He admires their moderation immoderately, and knows it is the reason why Britain alone in Europe is non-Fascist and free. But nothing could be more alien to him. He craves attention and praise, while in England praise is embarrassing, and attention-seeking the ultimate sin. His leitmotif is arrogance, but the English are more arrogant than him. He can enslave some of their women; but Englishmen, and Englishness, mock and defeat him as nothing else will ever do but death itself.

What this is, of course, is unrequited love. Canetti loves the English Parliament, upper-class Englishwomen, the whole population of Britain during the war; above all, he loves English words and English literature. Best of all for this book, he loves cultured English eccentrics. The literary scholar Arthur Waley dismisses Dickens and Tolstoy out of hand, the inventor Geoffrey Pyke proposes artificial icebergs for the Normandy landings, Canetti's landlords are practically barking - all are unquestioned members of the Establishment, which could only happen in England.

These are the great portraits of this book, together with Enoch Powell, the rabid Englishman - revealed here as utterly un-English, erudite, immoderate, polyglot, without an ounce of irony. In these English portraits, Canetti briefly lives up to his model, John Aubrey. Read Party in the Blitz for them; forget Iris Murdoch.

Carole Angier's biography 'Primo Levi: the double bond' is published by Penguin