HARVILL £17.99 £16.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
Party in the Blitz by Elias Canetti, trs Michael Hofmann
The monsters that stalked Hampstead
Sunday 14 August 2005
Living in Hampstead, Canetti was well-placed to observe the cultured elite of wartime London. William Empson, Dylan Thomas, and Bertrand Russell float through these pages, plus T S Eliot, Iris Murdoch and fellow émigrés such as Oscar Kokoschka and Franz Steiner. Along the way Canetti, who was all the time working on his flawed socio-political masterpiece Crowds and Power, offers acute vignettes of the English social experience. "There were a lot of people there who didn't exist, but there were a lot of the other sort too, who did," he writes of one party. "Neither the one category nor the other conferred any sort of distinction."
This account was left in manuscript at the time of the author's death, so it is unclear how much he would eventually have expanded or suppressed. Peculiarly, that is one of the book's great strengths. Canetti voices a wish at one point to write a book about England like that of John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian and gossip whose sketches of character were published as Brief Lives, and parts of this work show the same eye for glancing incidental detail: Enoch Powell quoting "great chunks" of Nietzsche at parties; Bernard Russell's laugh like "the cackle of the goat". The episodic form of the book owes much to Aubrey, too, and chapter-headings such as "Misery at Parties" and "The Silence of Contempt" might have raised a dusty snicker from Burton.
Canetti reserved particular venom for people who he thought enjoyed more than their fair share of public adulation. T S Eliot, whom Canetti barely knew, is singled out for especial praise: "a miserable creature... thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old... armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife". Given the Possum's reputation as the high priest of icy disdain, this blast of snarling hatred is refreshing but somehow on the wrong playing-field. And he takes the ludicrously ad hominem style of address to extremes in his passage on Iris Murdoch, whose lover he was for three years or so. Murdoch, he maintains, was ungainly and unfashionable in her dress, dreadful and static in bed, "if not schoolgirl-like, then schoolmarmish" in her writing, mean and petty-bourgeois in her tastes. Whatever one thinks of her work, it is a distasteful hatchet job; and if it were possible to take the other animadversions seriously, many of them would be despicable as well. But the style comes to remind one more and more of the lyrical cankankerous meanderings of Beckett's Krapp.
However, there is much beautiful, funny and sensitive writing here as well. It is an odd piece of luck that Canetti did not have the chance to work over the manuscript and adjust his own portrait in it as he did in the lofty chronicles of his days in Germany. His phrasing is often wonderfully poised, and it is very well caught in Michael Hamburger's vigorous translation. By casting his net into memory so haphazardly Canetti undeniably brought up some monsters, but the catch as a whole is worthy of anyone's attention.
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 2 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 3 Dakota Johnson's 'It's only Isis' Saturday Night Live sketch sparks controversy
- 4 Robert Mugabe eats a zoo for 'obscene' 91st birthday party
- 5 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
EastEnders may bring transgender character to Albert Square to challenge 'traditional' viewers
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how Corporation is funded
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'