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Party in the Blitz by Elias Canetti, trs Michael Hofmann

The monsters that stalked Hampstead

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.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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